In episode 1 of AMC+’s Dark Winds, DezBaa’ ’10E holds back tears as she delivers a line that would cut to the heart of any detective series: “Did you catch who did it?”
“It,” in this case, is a double homicide, and the detectives are Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon) and Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon), tribal police officers who search for clues across the Navajo Nation in the early 1970s.
DezBaa’ (aka Sharon Anne Henderson) embodies deep grief and quiet resolve as Helen Atcitty, mother of one of the murder victims. And she’s not the only Amherst alum involved in the show: Scott G.G. Haller ’85 is supervising sound editor, and Joe Manuel Gallegos Jr. ’05 plays Jerry, a pathologist who makes an intriguing revelation about the apparent cause of death.
The two actors and I met up over Zoom in July. Though they didn’t work together on set, “my trailer was right next to Sharon’s,” said Gallegos, and they both call New Mexico home. Gallegos, a history major, was active in Five College theater and dance as an undergrad. He went on to perform in Las Vegas and on cruise ships and to build up a résumé of “small bit parts,” mostly in commercials. He worked with director Chris Eyre on a prominent regional anti-DUI ad campaign before being cast in Dark Winds, which Eyre also directs. Gallegos’ upcoming projects include a role in Alex Garland’s action film Civil War.
Originally in the class of 2004, DezBaa’ said she struggled to graduate from Amherst with a degree in geology, feeling “aimless” and “like such a failure for taking so long.” She then worked for years in the minerals department of the Navajo Nation’s Division of Natural Resources. She began auditioning for acting jobs in 2016, encouraged by her sister. DezBaa’ has since landed screen roles in Longmire, Hostiles, Woman Walks Ahead and Unpregnant. She’s also studied filmmaking at Northern New Mexico College and earned M.F.A. degrees from the Institute of American Indian Arts in screenwriting and creative nonfiction.
Based on popular novels by the late Tony Hillerman—a journalist of German and English descent who grew up among Potawatomi neighbors in Oklahoma—the Dark Winds TV adaptation has been lauded for its predominantly Native American cast and writers’ room, but also criticized for inaccuracies in its depiction of Navajo (Diné) language and culture specifically. The actors, writers and directors come from a range of Indigenous backgrounds and tribal affiliations. (Quoted in the Navajo Times, Eyre has been receptive to the criticism, saying, “As we go forward, we want to make sure we’re reflecting as much as we can of Navajo culture in the best way.”)
The six-episode season is a classic police procedural that tells a distinctly Native story. The plot involves deadly explosions, money laundering and a tentative romance between two of the cops—but also a tween girl’s kinaaldá (coming-of-age ceremony), mining on Navajo land, and mistrust between the tribal community and the federal government. Several Diné characters talk about having been separated from their families to attend residential schools run by white missionaries.
Lore in DezBaa’’s family suggests that Hillerman may have based the Leaphorn character on interviews with one or more of her uncles, who were Diné tribal policemen, so “I really feel that I was aligned to be on this particular show,” she said. To the question of whether the white author appropriated her relatives’ story, her answer is, “It came back home. And now it’s my story again.”
“I’m a product of 400 years of colonization of this region, essentially,” said Gallegos about his own ancestry, citing Spanish settlers of northern New Mexico, his grandfather from the Ohkay Owingeh pueblo and his stepfather’s position as lieutenant governor of Santa Clara Pueblo. Of Dark Winds—as well as two other series, Reservation Dogs (2021, FX on Hulu) and Rutherford Falls (2021, Peacock)—he added, “I love the fact that Native characters are seen as complex and well-developed in these shows. The stereotypical representations of Natives don’t necessarily fit the people who I see in my life.”
“This idea we have that everyone is supposed to look ‘feathers and beads and buckskin’ is just so outdated,” DezBaa’ agreed. “My parents were disconnected from their identity and their culture growing up because they were trying to survive. And we cannot forget about those stories.”
In Dark Winds’ second season, DezBaa’ will be even more directly involved in the stories it tells—she’s been hired onto the show’s writing staff. Reflecting on her own journey from geology into show business, and from New Mexico through Amherst and back, she teared up on Zoom. “I never thought I would be where I’m at right now,” she said. “Never in my wildest dreams.”
DezBaa’ wasn’t at liberty to tell me what Leaphorn and Chee might face next. For now, it will have to remain a mystery.
Duke is Amherst magazine’s assistant editor.