‘Yellowstone’ breaks the mold with strong Native American characters

(Photo: Paramount Network) Pete Sands (left), Mo Brings Plenty, Gil Birmingham, Cole Hauser, Kevin Costner and Wes Bentley in “Yellowstone.”

Now entering its third season, the mostly made-in-Utah “Yellowstone” has something rarely seen on television — strong Native American characters.

Sure, the narrative centers on John Dutton (Kevin Costner) and his remarkably dysfunctional family. John is the sixth-generation owner of the largest ranch in America — but the Native Americans who were there before the Duttons want the Montana land back. And Chief Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham) of the (fictional) Broken Rock Indian Reservation is determined to make that happen.

“It was such a beautiful opportunity to actually play a contemporary representation of a Native American, because you rarely ever see that,” Birmingham told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Especially one that has some kind of leverage and is a powerful player in the game.”

Rainwater has a Harvard education, and his resume includes a successful stint on Wall Street before he became the tribe’s chairman. Rainwater hasn’t been able to wrest the land from the Duttons — yet — but he has made life very uncomfortable for them at times. He’s outmaneuvered a couple of big-time land developers who wanted the land for themselves, and he’s a force to be reckoned with.

He’s also outmaneuvered other members of the tribe who were determined to bring him down.

“I love the character so much. I love all his scenes,” Birmingham said. “Especially those scenes that we get to address some of the issues that we’re concerned about in the Native world.”

Mostly righting wrongs perpetrated against them for the past few centuries.

And, Birmingham said, the show is exceptional “in the positive nature of its representation” and its “empowered representation of the Native world. That’s what I love about ‘Yellowstone’ and where Taylor [Sheridan] has taken this character.”

Birmingham said he signed on to “Yellowstone” after appearing in two of co-creator/writer/executive producer and frequent director Sheridan’s films — “Wind River” and “Hell or High Water.”

”I’m a huge fan of Taylor Sheridan and his writing,” he said. “He’s just one of the foremost brilliant writers, I think, in Hollywood right now. And he has a sensitivity to the Native aspect … which he speaks to through this character.”

(Photo courtesy of Paramount Network) Gil Birmingham as Chief Thomas Rainwater in "Yellowstone."

There are definite parallels between Birmingham and the character he plays. In an early episode of “Yellowstone,” Rainwater reveals that he wasn’t raised on the reservation — that his adoptive parents led him to believe he was of Mexican descent, and he didn’t discover that he was Native American until he was a teenager.

That was also true for the man who plays him. “But it’s not necessarily an unusual story for Native people,” Birmingham said. Rainwater said his parents were trying to protect him from the discrimination suffered by Native Americans; Birmingham said his parents were doing the same.

And, like Rainwater, Birmingham, 66, has had multiple careers — he was a petrochemical engineer before turning to acting in his 30s.

“I remember reading that and thinking, ‘Yeah, this guy’s been following me around my whole life,’” he said.

In “Yellowstone,” the characters don’t wear white hats and black hats — they all wear hats in shades of gray. Even John Dutton’s favored son, war hero Kayce (Luke Grimes) — whose wife, Monica (Kelsey Asbille) is Native American — is not without his faults. Kayce killed the man who killed his brother in a shootout between ranchers and Native Americans — and that man was Kayce’s brother-in-law.

Rainwater generally doesn’t do anything illegal. Except for that time his men stole some of the Duttons’ cattle, and he gave the cows back after he was briefly jailed. And he’s working to benefit his people. But he can be rather ruthless, which makes him a formidable foe for John Dutton.

“There’s a great ambiguity, just like real life,” Birmingham said. “I mean, everybody has got a couple of sides to themselves. And I think that’s what makes it so relatable. They’re not necessarily anti-heroes, but you come to understand as you learn their history and their story about how they’ve managed to get to this place and what it means to them.”

(Photo courtesy of Dano Nell/Paramount Network) Josh Holloway as Roarke Morris and Kevin Costner as John Dutton in Season 3 of "Yellowstone."

And there are strange bedfellows in “Yellowstone.” As Season 3 begins, there’s a new enemy on the horizon — a new nemesis in town (played by new cast member Josh Holloway of “Lost”) whose massive corporation is out to steamroll both the Duttons and the tribe. And there are hints that John Dutton and Thomas Rainwater just might end up working together.

“That really kind of reflects the nature of the dynamics that work in this country,” Birmingham said. “You’ve got corporations that are seemingly devouring everything, and then the smaller people have to find alliances to strengthen their position. And it’s always fascinating to watch how you all align yourself with different groups that might have been your enemies.”

Even if that means aligning yourself with John Dutton, a man whose enemies often seem to end up dead.

As far as Birmingham is concerned, his character is the good guy in “Yellowstone.”

“Oh, yeah,” he said with a laugh. “Listen, Thomas Rainwater hasn’t killed anybody. He’s operating by the laws and within the structure which he’s forced to work. He’s just trying to strategize and find allies. And his purpose is to fight for the land of his ancestors. So I don’t see him as a bad guy at all.

“He’s a hero.”

GIVING UTAH SOME LOVE • As was the case in Seasons 1 and 2, the majority of Season 3 of “Yellowstone” — 70-75% — was filmed in Utah.

“We absolutely love Utah,” Birmingham said. “One of our main characters in the show is our landscape. And Utah so beautifully represents that. ... We can’t wait to get back there.”

That, however, may not happen. As reported by The Salt Lake Tribune, the entire production may be shifted to Montana (where the series is set) if producers are unable to secure the same tax incentives for Season 4 that they received for Seasons 1-3.

“YELLOWSTONE” UNINTERRUPTED • Season 3 of the series moves to Sundays this summer — the first of 10 episodes airs Sunday, June 21, at 7 p.m. on the Paramount Network. (The episode repeats at 8 and 9 p.m.)

If you want to binge Season 2 of “Yellowstone,” all 10 episodes air Sunday from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.

And the Paramount Network has confirmed that production has been completed on all Season 3 episodes, which are scheduled to air weekly through Aug. 23.