A Grassroots Effort to Bring Perma Red to the Television Screen

A Grassroots Effort to Bring Perma Red to the Television Screen

by Chris La Tray

“Native women need to tell their own stories. Now is the time for those stories to rise. Perma Red is only the beginning.”

—Debra Magpie Earling

Debra Magpie Earling, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, is a writer and professor at the University of Montana. She published her novel Perma Red in 2002. It is the story of Louise White Elk, a Salish woman growing up on the Flathead Reservation in the 1940s. Louise is free-spirited, with a personality that draws the attention of three different men, all who want to possess her. The book captures reservation life of the time—the landscape, and all its beauties and horrors—masterfully. The story is based loosely on events from Earling’s own family, particularly her aunt Louise, who was murdered at the age of 23.

Despite being out of print since 2009, Perma Red was voted—from a field of over one hundred books—the winner of Montana’s Best-Loved Book in 2018. This was a program through the Great Montana Read project, which identified Montana authors and their books that the public could then vote for. Earling was the only Indigenous woman writer on the list, which was dominated by the usual crop of white guys.

The attention paid Earling’s book is timely. There is a movement afoot to bring attention to the plight of the countless Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman (MMIW) in North America (in Canada, the final report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls called it a “Canadian genocide”). Perma Red addresses the issue in its lyrical story, and it has become very popular particularly among Indigenous women, because it tells the story of the lives they are actually living. 

In 2018, through crowdfunding and donations, money was raised to begin filming a television adaptation for television of Perma Red. When the book won the Montana Best-Loved Book award, momentum only built, and work continues on getting the project—dubbed a “TV Series by Indigenous People”—off the ground.

Maya Rose Dittloff is an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes and is a Piikani (Blackfeet) and Chippewa descendent. She won the job to direct the television series. Dittloff, who was trained at UCLA in the School of Theater, Film and Television where she specialized in Directing and Screenwriting, has interest in the project not just as a storyteller, but as an act of spreading awareness about Natives in the film industry, as well as the MMIW project.

Beyond filmmaking pursuits, Dittloff has long been involved with the Native American community while serving as an Ambassador to the American Indian College Fund and as a scholar for the American Indian Business Leaders. In January 2019, she was formally recognized as the Emerging Leader with the Sovereign Bodies Institute, an organization dedicated to MMIW. She has spoken across the country to bring awareness to the state of Native American representation in the entertainment industry.

Dittloff answered a few questions I sent her via email about her work and the Perma Red project.

Chris La Tray: How did you encounter Perma Red?

Maya Rose Dittloff: I first encountered the novel of Perma Red through the bookshelves of relatives on and off the rez. It wasn’t until the winter of 2017 that I became involved with the screen adaptation. I originally auditioned for a role onscreen, but having quit acting eight years prior, I was rusty. I left the audition explaining I am usually a behind the camera person, with a film education from UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Three months later I received a call from one of the producers—they wanted pitches from directors. I submitted my name, and a new direction guided by my motto “Celebrate Native Women”. I pored over a lookbook, drawing from Salish documents, my own photographs of the Mission Mountains, and the rest is history. 

CL:  What about the story made you want to take on the challenge of turning it into a television series?

MRD:  When I think of Natives in film and television, I get sick to my stomach. I think of Indian in the Cupboard, which I can remember turning off before my mom caught me, the television still glowing. I think of gross representations of racism, stereotypes, but also extreme violence. There is abuse of all kinds on Native communities and on all reservations (mine included) but life as a Native person means so much more. When I think of my family I think of their smiling faces, their dark jokes, and infectious laughter. I think of ghost stories, long hikes, and binging reality TV. In order to represent Native people in the full complexity at which they exist today, we first have to battle the dominant narrative that Hollywood has perpetuated for over a hundred years. 

Perma Red is the perfect project to lay the groundwork for Native stories because it takes place at a crossroads in American history. Montana in the 1940s is in the midst of an identity crisis; with whiteness pervading the land, Native people are forced into boarding schools and belittled by the federal government. The novel of Perma Red has the time and space to explore the crisis on the land, and within the characters. There is nuance that has never been adequately translated to film and television for Native characters. It was paramount to the creative team behind Perma Red that we build the world of the Flathead Reservation, and had the time to fully sculpt the characters as real human beings. Television is a wonderful medium because it allows more character growth, and longer, richer stories. In order to truly understand a culture, you must fully immerse yourself. You need to live and breathe through the characters, and be truly taken by the story. Television is the best tool that currently exists to build new worlds as well as immerse and captivate an audience.

CL:  Where are you now with the project?

MRD:  In August members of the Perma Red team traveled to Los Angeles and met with different production companies. We currently have a pilot script, and are currently in talks with some strong contenders to come on to the team and lift us to the next level. The reality is Native people don’t have a voice at the table, so we are forging allies and building a framework so that there is a future for other Native peoples to tell their stories. 

The hope is that alongside a production company we can soon attach some star power to the project, which will help us get noticed by the heavy hitters of the entertainment industry. 

CL:  How has growing up on the rez influenced the approach you took to filming?

MRD:  I was born in Browning, Montana and grew up moving across both Montana and Wyoming. I am a product of the long highways, sprawling prairies and the rocky mountains. The peaks of Glacier National Park will always be my first home. The beauty of Montana is unmatched in the continental US, and from the age of five I have always had a camera around my neck. My grandfather, Gordon Belcourt, was the President of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council, but was also obsessed with cameras. He was also quietly powerful- a silent leader. I learned that observation is your best tool as a filmmaker. You must look at the details, but the full frame. Although I have a very specific vision for each of my projects, I give each of my actors the space to make decisions, to play. I am a guide to my stories, not a dictator.  

CL:  What made you decide to be a filmmaker in the first place?

MRD:  My perspective of a filmmaker is a conglomeration of the movies I watched on a VCR television in the back of a Jeep Cherokee—but also British novels, plays, experimental poetry, Blackfeet ghost stories, Greek mythology, and so much more. I have absorbed every story, and was obsessed by age four. The real world around me was chaos, but I could find safety in the pages of books and the hour and a half of solace a movie provided me. I grew up acting in local theater, but soon grew restless and antsy. Over the course of decades I learned my vision was too loud, and I was pushed towards stage managing and eventually directing. I found myself home here, capable of creating new worlds and swaying emotion through the transformative power of storytelling. Stories healed me, and now I only want to return the favor, and bring hope as to a brighter future.

Photographs provided courtesy of Maya Rose Dittloff.

Chris La Tray is a writer who lives near Missoula, MT. His first book, One-Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays From the World At Large (2018, Riverfeet Press) won the 2018 Montana Book Award and a 2019 High Plains Book Award. He is currently at work on a new book that will be published by Milkweed Editions in late 2020. Chris is Chippewa-Cree Métis, and is an enrolled member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians.