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Tongva actor Tonantzin Carmelo says change in roles for Indigenous talent 'a slow drip'

After establishing herself as a leading actor with her breakout performance as Thunder Heart Woman in the Emmy-winning Steven Spielberg miniseries Into the West, Tonantzin Carmelo didn't waste any time. With roles on TV shows like Undone, Z Nation, and The Son, Carmelo is a rising star in Hollywood.
Tonantzin Carmelo says Hollywood roles for Indigenous people have evolved from stereotypes to characters with depth but that change is a 'slow drip.' (Alisha Peats)

Originally published on February 7, 2020.

When Tonantzin Carmelo looks up at the Hollywood sign, she doesn't think about the movies.

"I don't see it like everyone else sees it," explained the Los Angeles-based actress who is Tongva and Kumeyaay from Southern California.

"As a Tongva person," she said, "when I see the beautiful Hollywood hill, I actually see the hill and feel like it is a part of me."

Her people have called the Los Angeles area home long before the Hollywood sign marked the hillside. The Tongva are what Carmelo called a "first contact tribe," meaning they were one of the first to come in contact with Europeans because they lived on the coast, and had a port that made them accessible.

"Whatever happened to all the other tribes in the Americas happened to us in a more magnified and condensed and very rapid fashion because our land was so desirable."

She said the Tongva people had to go underground, inter-marry with other tribes or were simply dispossessed of their ancestral territory, resulting in "buried histories." 

But Carmelo said this is slowly changing as more and more Indigenous people work toward raising the visibility of the Indigenous lands that Los Angeles is built upon. 

"People are kind of starting to wake up, slowly."

Slow drip of change

Carmelo began her career as a traditional dancer and musician. She honed her acting craft on the theatre stage and is a member of the Los Angeles-based professional company Native Voices at the Autry.

After establishing herself as a leading actress with her breakout performance as Thunder Heart Woman in the Emmy-winning Steven Spielberg miniseries Into the West, Carmelo didn't waste any time. With roles on TV shows like Undone, Z Nation, and The Son, Carmelo is a rising star in Hollywood.

She said her role in Into the West was a great opportunity.

"I actually had something to do as a character," she said. "[Thunder Heart Woman] had an evolution through her character that was very prominent in the storyline."

Roles for Indigenous actors, said Carmelo, are slowly changing in Hollywood, from stereotypes and supporting roles to characters with more depth. 

"It's been evolving, slowly, and is on its way to being a little bit more creative and a little less stereotypical."

Carmelo said despite the "slow drip of change" for Indigenous roles in Hollywood, the land will always be her home. 

"California actually has always been the home of Indigenous people," she said.

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