#5QuestionsWith: Native writer, director, and producer Maya Rose Dittloff

Dittloff is also one of the Native staff writers for the latest AMC/AMC+ crime-thriller Dark Winds alongside fellow writers Billy Luther, Erica Tremblay, Razelle Benally and Anthony Florez

Maya Rose Dittloff (ǔkkayǔ”kwīyinnimǎakii/Many Pipes Woman) is a Mandan, Hidatsa, and Amskapi Piikani (Blackfeet) writer, director, and producer from the Starr School region of the Blackfeet Nation. 

Impressively, Ditloff is one of the several Native staff writers working on the latest AMC/AMC+ crime-thriller drama Dark Winds starring Zahn McClarnon, Kiowa Gordon and Jessica Matten.

See related story: A conversation with Lakota actor Zahn McClarnon about his role in ‘Dark Winds’

An impressive bio

Maya Rose Ditloff — as a member of the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) — has an impressive resume’ of working across film and television over the years. She was trained at UCLA in the School of Theater, Film and Television, and in 2019 served as a Fellow with the LA Skins Fest Feature Writing Lab. In the spring of 2022, Maya was chosen for The Indigenous List, a collaboration between The Black List, The Sundance Institute, and Illuminative, and was also selected as a fellow for the Native American Media Alliance Showrunner Training Program.

Beyond filmmaking pursuits, Ditloff has long been involved both locally and nationally in Indigenous rights activism. She has served as ambassador to the American Indian College Fund and American Indian Business Leaders, and in January of 2019, Maya was formally recognized as the Emerging Leader with the Sovereign Bodies Institute, an organization dedicated to MMIW advocacy. 

Maya is a founding board member for Young Entertainment Activists, a member of the Panavision + Made In Her Image inaugural Catalyst Cohort, and a LIFT Fellow with the Native Arts and Culture Foundation.

In a Native Viewpoint inaugural story in the #5QuestionsWith series, Ditloff responds to her latest gig working as a staff writer for the AMC/AMC+ production Dark Winds.

#5QuestionsWith: Maya Rose Ditloff

How does it feel to be a staff writer on Dark Winds, an extremely well-received show with the epic Zahn McClarnon?

Zahn is an incredibly kind, mindful, and altruistic human being. In addition, he is an absolute master of his craft. This all makes him the dream actor to work with. In my initial interview, Zahn and I were able to bond over the fact he spent a few years in his youth on the Blackfeet rez. I am Blackfeet and Mandan/Hidatsa, so I was so happy to have met someone that knows home. 

In terms of the show, it is important to note that in the writing room, the staff (including myself) was all Native. Together we wanted to create a show, and sculpt characters that felt real, like our aunties and cousins, the folks you could find on the rez.

We worked ceaselessly to do our best, to represent our communities well, but also in a way that’s never been seen before. The staff writers all worked to center respect — for each other, our characters, and the show. 

Beyond that, we had no idea how it would be received. Thankfully, Zahn is such a masterful storyteller, and our cast and crew were able to take our words and transform them. I am so grateful for all of their hard work and so happy that we will be able to bring more jobs and more time with Leaphorn, Chee and Bernadette to audiences in season two. 

What is it like to work with other Native writers and filmmakers such as Billy Luther and the others?

The staff writers on our team are all amazing and will all go on to do great things. Track these names: Billy Luther, Erica Tremblay, Razelle Benally, Anthony Florez. They are all extremely dedicated, wildly talented, and deserve all the accolades. Before starting the writer’s room, we each did not know who else would be in the room.

When we logged onto Zoom for the first time, it was so amazing to see that screen populate with Native folks, and I can remember Billy recalling that moment vividly. 

The staff writers on our team are all amazing and will all go on to do great things.

Maya Rose Ditloff

With the exception of one of our writers (Anthony Florez,) none of us had ever staffed on a TV show before. So when we logged on that first day, we were all nervous. And doubly so, because storytelling is a huge responsibility and not one that any of us take lightly.

We have each had to carry the burden of being the only Native in the room, and we understand what it feels like to have to educate groups of people. And here, we didn’t have to do that. We each know what it means to be Native, and what it means to have obligations to your community and to want to serve them well. It was a relief, a pleasure, and a joy getting to work with such a great team of writers. 

How did the creative processes develop in Dark Winds?

We wrote season one over the spring and summer of 2021. We worked daily in a Zoom room, of which I am very grateful for. Having a Zoom room meant that we could have Erica Tremblay and Razelle Benally (who both live in New York) as a part of our staff writing team.

Together we used the book as a springboard and were given a path forward by a wonderful pilot script written by the show’s creator, Graham Roland. 

We knew we were investigating a double homicide on Diné lands. We had our ensemble of characters, and we had a slate of books written by Tony Hillerman, who is white. We worked very hard to update the representation of Native peoples from the books, as well as the women therein. Season one is mostly an adaptation of The Listening Woman, which was written in 1978. 

A lot has changed since then. Our room wanted to create a more truthful, authentic depiction. But of course, representation is always a battle, and we are always working to move that needle forward. Dark Winds joins an amazing slate of shows about Native folks, and still has work to do and stories to tell. 

What is your advice for young people wanting to get into the industry?

The secret to the film industry is to always be writing. I did not grow up with money, or access to cameras, so I read nonstop and acted in local theater. This later turned into writing, stage managing, and directing. Whatever you can do is enough — and you deserve to have your story told and heard. 

On the semantics of how to get in, always be curious, always be applying to whatever opportunity you qualify for, and always be kind. Many of my jobs I have gotten simply by sending thank you notes, or being nice and applying again and again, each time with better materials so that one day I have to be accepted.

Your first jobs will most likely come from your friends, your community, and by simply lending a hand. People remember kindness, and success occurs at the intersection of preparation and luck, so always be prepared. 

Maya Rose Dittloff, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara (MHA Nation)/ Amskapi Pijkuni, (mayarosedittloff.com)
Maya Rose Dittloff, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara (MHA Nation)/ Amskapi Pijkuni, (mayarosedittloff.com.)

What are you working on these days?

Having wrapped on Dark Winds in late July of 2021, I have been ceaselessly working. I immediately spent my hard-earned television money on producing my most recent short film, Dogwood. I wrote, directed, produced, and also served as costume designer, colorist, and production designer. I had a vision of creating a matriarch-led revenge story, with a dash of surrealism, and I wanted it to be shot entirely on Blackfeet lands.

I am so happy to say we succeeded in this goal, and I was able to try new theories on how to “Indigenize” filmmaking. We opened with a prayer, led by a Blackfeet elder, and we ate a berry soup of which my mother and I had picked the berries. 

We lived in a ranch home outside of Browning, and my grandmother even cooked all of our meals. We created a family on set, and I am so proud of our final product. I would love to direct more, and have my site set on directing the companion feature to Dogwood., a psychological thriller/horror named Sweetness of the Blood. Sweetness of the Blood was recently named in the 2022 Indigenous List. 

See related story: IllumiNative, The Black List, Sundance Institute Announce 2nd Indigenous Screenwriting List

On the writing side, I have not staffed since Dark Winds, because I have been busy developing across film and television. While they are all projects that I cannot necessarily talk about in specific terms, I am happy to talk about what that process looks like. 

Writers are called in for their expertise, or they choose to adapt IP, (adapt intellectual property) or even run with an original idea. They work to form the pitch, which is essentially a 15-25 minute recap of the vision, tone, characters and plot of the project.

Because I also direct, I love getting to put together the vision for a show, and I love getting to work on the adaptation. I grew up wanting to be a book editor, so working in adaptation is the best use of my skills. After you’ve worked to put the puzzle together, you pitch the project to production companies, studios, and networks/streamers.

Joe Paul Comanche as Navajo Medicine Man, Kiowa Gordon as Jim Chee, and Director Chris Eyre - Dark Winds _ Season 1, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Michael Moriatis/AMC
Joe Paul Comanche as Navajo Medicine Man, Kiowa Gordon as Jim Chee, and Director Chris Eyre – Dark Winds _ Season 1, Episode 1 – Photo Credit: Michael Moriatis/AMC

What I can say is this: I have multiple projects across these different stages, and I am so excited for them to hopefully see the light of day. 

I am also very excited to be a fellow with the Native American Media Alliance Showrunner program and working to learn the skills and operations of showrunning in the eight-month-long program. 

Writing is only a blueprint to a final product — I am so grateful to our cast, crew, and amazing team of producers, and for the heart and soul, everyone has poured into the show.

I am, and will always be, dedicated to learning, and striving to tell new stories that reclaim our heritage. But a huge thank you to our audience. Native stories are not niche stories, we are not a monolith, and our stories are powerful. The work is only beginning. Ikaakimat!

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