Farmington High School graduate revels in role on AMC series 'Dark Winds'

Deanna Allison cites women in her own family as inspiration for her character

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • Allison is a 1999 graduate of Farmington High School.
  • She is featured in the AMC series "Dark Winds," which is based on characters created by novelist Tony Hillerman.
  • The program is set on the Navajo Nation in the 1970s.

FARMINGTON − After achieving only limited success despite having spent years working as an actor, 1999 Farmington High School graduate Deanna Allison says she is grateful to be a part of the AMC drama series "Dark Winds," which is an adaptation of a popular series of novels by New Mexico author Tony Hillerman.

She said she enjoys being able to support her family and the increased opportunities that are likely to come her way from being a part of a successful TV program. But the most rewarding part of the experience, she said, is getting to portray an intelligent, determined, self-confident woman who is part of a larger collective of characters that conveys the best of her Diné culture.

"It does wonders for bringing out that strength and that love and that (sense of) community," she said. "That's the essence of Diné beauty. It's not about what you look like. It's how you give your positive energy back into the community. That's how we honor that."

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Allison, who portrays Emma Leaphorn, the wife of Navajo police officer Joe Leaphorn in "Dark Winds," didn't have to look far when it came time to find inspiration for her role. She said she has based her portrayal on the women in her family she grew up around, including her mother, her grandmothers, her aunties and her sisters.

Her Emma character borrows aspects of her personality from each of those women, Allison said, depending on the situation she is facing. But she identified a series of basic traits Emma regularly displays that all those women have in common.

Farmington High School graduate Deanna Allison is photographed on the set of "Dark Winds," the AMC drama series in which she portrays the wife of a Navajo police officer.

"She's very passionate about her family, she's culturally grounded and she gives everything she can to her community," Allison said.

Though "Dark Winds" only now is wrapping up its debut season, the program already has built a big enough following to get green-lighted for a second season. Allison said she feels gratified by that move, noting that it helps affirm the direction in which the showrunners have taken the program.

"It's an adaption (of Hillerman's novels), not a retelling, so they have the chance to explore the characters more in depth," she said. "And they can tackle issues like women's empowerment and some of the ills that plague reservation life. Unfortunately, some of that hasn't changed (since the 1970s, when the series takes place)."

Even though Hillerman's work has drawn criticism in recent years over charges of cultural appropriation, Allison said that she has tremendous respect for the late novelist and the positive way in which he portrayed Navajo people and culture in his work. She believes "Dark Winds" is well positioned to build on that foundation and take it a step further.

That hasn't stopped some members of the Navajo community from complaining about what they perceive is a lack of authenticity in some of the show's elements, specifically its language. Allison acknowledged some of the program's actors are not Navajo and have worked with dialect coaches to improve their vocal delivery, but she said her native language is a complex one that includes many local variations.

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Deanna Allison describes her character Emma on "Dark Winds" as a woman who is culturally grounded and who gives everything she can to her community.

Allison noted that her mother grew up in Arizona, while her father was raised in New Mexico. She recalled them playfully arguing with each other about the correct pronunciation of the Navajo word for coffee and said differences like that illustrate the futility of trying to determine a "correct" way to say something.

She also pointed out that many younger Navajo people speak in a way that differs sharply from that of their elders − something that is common across many cultures.

"My mom always told me, 'Speak Navajo from your voicebox − that of a modern Navajo woman,'" Allison said. "I always loved that. Both my parents are fluent Navajo speakers, and they've always understood there's always been that criticism out there. … There are so many different ways you can pronounce and say things."

Allison said she wishes those who have criticized that element of the show would simply focus on the joy of hearing Navajo spoken on a program that reaches a wider audience. She also maintained those criticisms are being heard and taken seriously.

"We're all about course correction," she said, explaining that she believes the show's creators are eager to address such concerns and strive for greater authenticity in the future. "It's all about finding solutions."

Deanna Allison says she hopes the success of Native-themed TV shows such as "Dark Winds" and "Reservation Dogs" leads to more opportunities in TV and film production for indigenous people.

But it is a fact of life in the film and TV business that Native actors who are not Navajo will sometimes be cast as members of that nation, she said, just as Navajo actors periodically will be called upon to play members of other tribes. To insist on tribal and linguistic purity in casting would greatly limit the opportunities available to all Native actors, she said.

"I understand there's a level of integrity that needs to come from the language," she said. "But I want people to keep focusing on the bigger picture."

And the bigger picture is that, with the success of Native-themed programs like "Dark Winds" and "Reservation Dogs," there is an increasing number of opportunities for indigenous people in TV and film production. That's a trend Allison said is worth celebrating, noting that before "Dark Winds" came along, she was splitting her time between doing short indie films, writing and acting in stage productions, and working as an animation artist and a stage manager.

Allison said she valued each of those experiences and appreciates the lessons she learned from them.

"I'm totally grateful for those (opportunities) because I learned the process of making art," she said.

But her focus was always on being an actor, and with "Dark Winds," Allison believes she's found the character and the series she's been waiting for. She hopes more artistic types with a Native background are able to do what she has done in the future.

"It's nice to see opportunities for actors and crew, for people who want to get into set design, into props, even showrunners − that should be the next movement (for Native people)," she said. "They open the doors for that new (generation). I hope this will inspire those artists who want to be a part of (TV and film production) to be a part of it."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e.