When Sierra Teller Ornelas ’05 first came to campus, being a trailblazer was part of her lineage. She hailed from a long line of world-class Navajo weavers, after all, so talent had percolated through her family for generations. And the keen sense of humor? That was inherited from both Navajo and Mexican relatives.
Then she discovered the University of Arizona’s long-running Comedy Corner troupe, which staged hilarious sketches in the Student Union’s Cellar. “First I was an audience member,” she says. “Then I ended up writing for them, and producing, and doing props and stuff.”
It was an old longing, finally fulfilled. “I always loved ‘Saturday Night Live’ growing up,” she says, “and always knew I wanted to do something comedy based.”
Today, Teller Ornelas — a graduate of the School of Theatre, Film & Television — boasts a thriving career in TV comedy. She also has emerged as a role model for Native American students who dream of working in entertainment. Because of Teller Ornelas and others like her, that dream is finally within reach.
“It has been a long time coming,” she says. “We were the first storytellers. But the system dictated that we weren’t able to tell these stories from our own perspective.”
Her own story is one of hard work and more than a bit of moxie. After graduation, Teller Ornelas spent several years programming films for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. But during a writing class at
Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts, a teacher suggested she make the leap to Los Angeles.
So she quit the Smithsonian job, made the move, secured a fellowship at Disney and eventually landed a script-writing job on the series “Happy Endings.” Production work on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Superstore” followed. Most recently, she signed a multiyear contract with Universal Television and became showrunner, writer and executive producer of Peacock’s new “Rutherford Falls.”
The plot of “Rutherford” centers on a bickering small town near an American Indian reservation. It’s no coincidence that the show has assembled one of the largest groups of Native American actors and writers in television history. From Navajo and Lakota Sioux to Mohawk, they are creating Indigenous characters that reach beyond ethnic stereotypes.
“It’s a breakthrough moment for Native American representation, both in front of the camera and in the writers' room,” Teller Ornelas says. “There’s never really been a show at this level of comedy where Native folks are allowed to just be people and have stories that are centered around them. I'm very proud to be part of that.”
It’s a trailblazer’s pride, well earned.