Since 2018, Gil Birmingham has portrayed Thomas Rainwater, the chairman of the Broken Rock Reservation, on the hit Western series Yellowstone. Determined to protect and reclaim the tribal lands the Dutton family settled on in 1883, Rainwater is one of the most compelling characters on a series filled with complex figures. Though Birmingham was no stranger to Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan — he worked with the actor and writer in both Wind River and the Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water — he says it was the way Sheridan had written Rainwater that initially drew him to the part.
"Taylor [Sheridan] has written [Rainwater] to have a contemporary portrayal that's been rarely seen in television and movies for over 100 years," Birmingham tells Wide Open Country. "The characterization of native communities has always been a marginalized one and one that's not flattering or authentic or true. And the fact that we're still here. It's surprising how many people don't think that Native Americans even exist...With Taylor's writing, especially here, [Rainwater] is a native character with agency and power and education, which is much more authentic in present day and contemporary times. The native community has made so many contributions to the character of this nation, either with the war heroes or clean water protectors, the land protectors. We get to address some issues that have always been challenging for us: the dissolution of treaties, [treaties] not being honored — really trying to be the best people we can be and move forward in terms of the way we see the world."
When reflecting on the onscreen portrayal of native communities, Birmingham cites Dances With Wolves, directed by his Yellowstone co-star Kevin Costner. In the years since the film was released, Birmingham says he's seen an increase in native writers and actors telling their own stories in television and film.
"The last time we had a wave of a respectable portrayal of Native Americans was Dances With Wolves...Presently, now we've got a lot of content coming out that's native-written, produced, acted, filmed," Birmingham says. "We've got whole crews on a number of storylines and projects that are the native community telling their own stories with the experience that comes with that. I think it's fantastic."
Birmingham says his onscreen partnership with Mo (portrayed by Mo Brings Plenty) has played a significant role in shaping Rainwater's outlook.
"[Mo is] grounded in the cultural anchoring that Rainwater's not familiar with...because [Rainwater] wasn't raised on the reservation," he says. "He brings a great weight in terms of the culture and authenticity and groundedness and that's what balances Rainwater, especially in light of someone who's more militant like Angela Blue Thunder. There's always this conflicting approach to how we achieve the objectives that we're trying to pursue.
Yellowstone's mid-season finale airs Jan. 1 at 8 p.m. ET/ 7 p.m. CT on Paramount.
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