Santa Fe actress gets break in TV show ‘Dark Winds’ | Local News

Upon hearing the news of his daughter’s death in the premiere episode of AMC’s Dark Winds, Guy Atcitty lunges at Detective Joe Leaphorn and falls to the ground in anguish.

Helen Atcitty remains quiet with a harsh stare. “How?” she asks Leaphorn. She’s dressed in blue, a hue that stands out against New Mexico’s desert landscape. “Did you catch who did it?”

Those are some of the first words spoken in the new series by Navajo actor DezBaa’ of Santa Fe, who plays Helen. The show — filmed primarily at Tesuque Pueblo, created by a Native American and cast with several prominent Native actors — is one of her first major speaking roles in a TV and film career that has taken off since 2016.

Dark Winds, which premiered in June, is based on the Leaphorn & Chee book series by the late Santa Fe author Tony Hillerman and continued by his daughter, Anne Hillerman. It follows two tribal police officers on the Navajo Nation in the 1970s as they tackle a mysterious double-murder case involving Helen’s daughter, Anna.

The teen is played by 17-year-old Shawnee Pourier, an Indigenous actor who lives in Albuquerque, according to some news sources, and also is cast in the series Stranger Things.

Dark Winds was created by Graham Roland, who is Chickasaw, and produced by several people with local ties, including Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, actor Robert Redford and Anne Hillerman. It stars Zahn McClarnon, who is Hunkpapa Lakota, as Leaphorn and Kiowa Gordon, who is Hualapai, as Chee and features Navajo actor Ryan Begay, who was born in Gallup, and Farmington High School alumn Deanna Allison, a member of the Colorado River Indian Tribes.

The Helen brought to life by DezBaa’ is a grieving Navajo mother whose daughter is found dead, along with an elderly man, under mysterious circumstances in a hotel room in Gallup.

Helen, whom DezBaa’ describes as an educated matriarch, is not part of the Leaphorn & Chee book series but instead the product of an all-Indigenous writers room leading Dark Winds through its first season.

“She’s not any different from who I am,” DezBaa’ said of the character. “I am still an educated person. I have returned home to my people. And as I go along, I educate.”

The story is a personal one for DezBaa’, also known as Sharon Anne Henderson, who is both a mother and a member of the Navajo Nation’s Tó’aheedlíinii, or “Water Flows Together” clan. The name DezBaa’ was given to her by the late Navajo and Ute nuclear physicist Fred Begay when she was a toddler, she said, and means “She’s Going on a Raid.”

DezBaa’s great-uncle studied criminal science and was considered a medicine man who shares a name with one of Tony Hillerman’s characters: Captain Largo of the Navajo Tribal Police.

DezBaa’ said it’s a family rumor that Hillerman may have been connected with her uncle Johnny Largo, perhaps as an interview subject.

She thought “long and hard” about participating in Dark Winds, DezBaa’ said, largely because she was aware Hillerman faced criticism for writing about and profiting from a culture that was not his own.

“I don’t know what happened,” she said. “But I do know the story has returned to my hands. … I’m completing the cycle of this story being in Native American hands once again.”

Her sister and father both appeared on the Dark Winds set as background actors, she added.

DezBaa’ grew up in Española and attended Northern New Mexico College and the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her father is Navajo and a military veteran who spent much of his career working at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Her mother immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico as a child. The couple have been together more than 50 years, and DezBaa’ is the youngest of their three children.

DezBaa’ contends she took what some might consider the long way into film — a complicated route through many college courses, last-minute auditions and the challenges of single parenthood.

“I feel like I got started late,” she said. “I always wanted to be an actor since I was little kid. But I didn’t quite understand the process.”

DezBaa’ spent much of her young adult life fantasizing about getting scouted like actress Charlize Theron did at a bank in Los Angeles or like 13-year-old Edward Furlong did at the Boys & Girls Club for a lead role in Terminator 2. “Magic was going to happen, and I was going to be an actor,” she said.

After graduating from high school as a co-salutatorian at McCurdy Charter School, DezBaa’ set out for Amherst College in Massachusetts, itching to leave her hometown. But the hyper-competitive academic environment proved crushing, and it took her eight years to complete a geology degree.

“I didn’t have quite the right tools to feel comfortable at Amherst College, competing against other students who had quite a bit more access to success than I did,” she said. “I ended up just completely shutting down.”

Through a series of breaks from college, DezBaa’ spent time in New Mexico and earned a massage therapy degree at at Northern New Mexico College. She also took classes at other East Coast schools.

DezBaa’ now works as a massage therapist and cares for her 9-year-old daughter, Aster, a Carlos Gilbert Elementary School student, while building her film career.

She didn’t use her geology background until landing a job with the Navajo Nation’s Division of Natural Resources in Gallup, where she moved with her daughter from Massachusetts while navigating a rocky relationship with her spouse in 2015.

The gig initially made her pause — as DezBaa’ was disconnected in some ways from her Navajo culture as a child. She didn’t speak the language, and her father was raised by a white family.

But acting was always in the back of her mind, and after landing a lead role as a Navajo boxer in a film production, DezBaa’ left the job in Gallup.

Three months later, the director replaced her with someone who spoke fluent Navajo.

“It had been such a huge cultural problem for me,” DezBaa’ said. “I was like, ‘Well, where does that put me?’ ”

The change was a major blow for her and a catalyst for the dissolution of her marriage, she said.

DezBaa’ doubled down on her acting ambitions, and soon she landed a background acting role in Longmire, also filmed locally. She also took film classes at Northern, where she now sometimes gives guest lectures.

“It’s not common for anybody to achieve the level of success she has achieved,” said David Lindblom, an associate professor in film and digital media arts at Northern. “She’s very inspirational to other students.”

DezBaa’ is full of thank-you’s: to female casting directors who gave her guidance; to friends and family — including her sister, who encouraged her to audition for roles — and to cinematographer Shiloh Heyman, whom she met on the set of Scalped.

She went on to earn two master’s degrees in fine arts from the Institute of American Indian Arts in both screenwriting and creative nonfiction, the latter of which she wrapped up in 2021.

Her career in cinema is far from over. DezBaa’ is working on screenplays and helping with film projects in the state. She said she’s been scouted for roles in larger cities, but for now, she’s staying in New Mexico and enjoying a shorter commute that means more time with her daughter.

Above all, DezBaa’ has ambitions of becoming a top film creative á la George R.R. Martin so she can shine a light on the path for others like her who struggle to find role models in the industry.

“I want to have the connections. To know where to go, how to do it,” she said. “So I can help other, primarily Indigenous, creatives figure out how to do it.”

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