Photos by Tira Howard
Opening Spread: Hat by Thunder Voice Hat Co.; Jewelry by Kenneth Johnson Jewelry.
Jessica Matten is on a career tear, having co-starred in five international/Native People’s television series in just eight years. This includes Blackstone, Frontier opposite Jason Momoa, Burden of Truth, and Tribal where she wore two hats, that of series star and associate producer. A graduate from the University of Alberta with a degree in Human Ecology, the beautiful and multi-ethnic Matten is Metis/Saulteaux-Cree on her mother’s side with Chinese/British lineage from her father, and a direct descendant of Cuthbert Grant, the first rebel Metis leader famously known for the Battle of the Seven Oaks in Canada.
Matten’s mother, whose Native name is Wild Horse was brought up to not be proud of her culture, so she wanted her children to be raised with the traditional values of the Metis and Cree Culture. “I was immersed in our Native ways, which included story-telling, drumming, and such arts and crafts as making Dream Catchers,” says Matten. “We moved around a lot as my mom was a professional dancer, as well as a cultural arts program director.”
Currently Matten is starring opposite Longmire’s Zahn McClarnon who plays Lt. Joe Leaphorn in the critically acclaimed (100% fresh from Rotten Tomatoes) series Dark Winds airing on AMC+. The series is produced by George R.R. Martin and Robert Redford, and is based on the Leaphorn & Chee novels by best-selling Western writer Tony Hillerman. She plays Sergeant Bernadette Manuelito, the only female police officer on the Navajo reservation in the psychological drama, whose appreciation for tradition ends up being an asset. Kiowa Gordon co-stars as her burgeoning love-interest, Deputy Jim Chee.
Dark Winds will be enjoying a second season and is set in the 1970s-era Navajo Nations, and follows tribal police Leaphorn, Chee, as well as Manuelito, all investigating a double homicide and the strange events surrounding it. Show creator Graham Roland and executive producers Redford and Martin infuse the drama with a soulful tension and a real sense of place, and Matten has been receiving rave reviews.
After a project called Dark Horse fell through as the network decided not to move forward with the series, Matten moved to Paris for six-months to immerse herself in French culture. It was there that she heard from her agents who had tried unsuccessfully to call her for several days, that she had landed the female lead in Dark Winds. Filming has just finished in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Matten has this to say about the experience of filming on Native Land. “We had a lot of blessings from the Navajo Nation. It was the first time that they allowed any film production to come in and shoot there.”
At the start of Dark Winds, Martin, also the creator, writer and producer of the mega-hit Game of Thrones, asked Matten if she had read any of the Hillerman books. She responded with an honest “nope, haven’t read a single one” and walked on to her next scene. “This project has made it possible for me to work with such beautiful minds, including Bob Redford and Martin, as well as discovering Santa Fe for the first time.”
Although the myriad television projects that Matten has been involved in span both centuries and countries, her characters all have a common thread; to tell the stories of Indigenous Peoples with truth and dignity. In 2014, she joined the cast of Blackstone as Gina Blackstone, an authentic, contemporary drama that explored the raw and real dynamics of family, power, and politics on and off a First Nation reserve.
“Blackstone was my first serious acting role,” says Matten, “and I’ll always be grateful to the series creator for casting me and giving me the space to be part of the cool kids!”
The following year she was cast in the Netflix/Discovery Canada series Frontier, filmed in New Foundland, opposite Jason Momoa who starred as Declan Harp, in the critically acclaimed series, which follows the chaotic and violent struggle to control wealth and power in the North American fur trade. Also exploring the relationship between native tribes and Europeans in the late 18th century, Matten starred as Sokanon, a hunter/tracker. “My sister on the series was married to Declan, and was brutally murdered, along with their child by the British,” she explains. “All we have now is each other. This was also the show where I met Zahn and Kiowa as Jason hired them to guest on Frontier, and seven years later I got cast in Dark Winds.”
Jessica Matten as Sgt. Bernadette Manuelito in Dark Winds.
During this time, Matten was named as one of Canada’s emerging talents by The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Next, came Tribal, where Matten served as associate producer as well as a lead actress. “I learned so much on the series, not only about acting but what it takes to produce a show, including just how much work it takes to get a weekly television series made, working with casting offices, and hiring show runners who have overall creative control.”
Matten went on to explain that the shooting schedule was “unprecedented” with the cast and crew shooting hour-long episodes in just five-days, with a very tight budget. The goal was to produce ten shows in less than four months. “We had just come out of covid-restriction, and no one was prepared for how hard this production was going to be. I give a lot of credit to my veteran co-star Brian Markinson who went on to co-star in A Million Little Things. He taught me the importance of connecting with the writers and the value of show-runners.”
Just like in Frontier, the cast members came from around the world, including Britain, Scotland, Ireland, and the Indigenous Peoples across Canada. “Both shows are relevant today as we are now fighting for our water rights, where in the 18th century we were fighting for fur rights,” Matten explains.
Circling back to Dark Winds, the character of Sargeant Bernadette Manuelito is truly working in a man’s world, and perhaps does the job better than any man could do with her Native intuition and police skills. Matten explains, that, “Bernadette is tough like a rez girl and a strong figure. That is intentional, and I think about her connection with the other people that she comes in contact with even though she has been let down a lot in her life. She may be tough as nails and fearless in a lot of ways, but also has a very soft side that a lot of people don’t see.”
Although Matten spent limited time on screen with her two on-set horses, the first season just loving and kissing them, The New York Times had this to say. ‘Perhaps Bernadette likes spending more time with horses than with people.’ “However, on this second season we all interact much more with horses on the set, and I’ve been taking a lot of riding lessons and exploring the bond and energy between horses and humans. I do have a slight fear of horses, so the irony is that Bernadette is now a ‘bad-ass’ riding veteran and I am learning hard and quick how to handle a horse!’
Jessica in Water Lily Design by Patricia Michaels; Adrian Standing Elk Pinnecoose Ring.
Matten also does most of her own stunts and combat fighting, as before finding success as an actor, she was competitively sparring in Jiujitsu, and being five-foot, nine-inches tall, was paired with the boys, and frequently winning the matches. “I prefer to do my own stunts as I think it looks better on the screen, except if I’m supposed to jump off a cliff,” she says. “This is what stunt-people do and I’m not trying to be a hero.”
As Matten is still a novice and was not raised around horses, she is grateful to have a stunt person do some of the more dangerous riding. “I greatly respect the horses I am around and try to be mindful when riding, as my dad had a bad riding accident before I was born.”
On one of the first date’s her soon-to-be parents went on, her father tried to impress her mother by jumping a horse over a fence, fell off, and was in a coma for six months.
“My mother, whose Native name is Wild Horse, said a prayer to our Creator promising to marry my father and bear his children if he would get well. Coming out of the coma, he had to learn to walk and talk again, but they got married and had my brother and me.”
Blue Bird Upcycled Button Shirt by Carrie Wood; Rhiannon Griego Earrings; Crow Wing Jean by Ginew; Hat by Thunder Voice Hat Co.
For almost two decades, the multifaceted Matten has been working with Indigenous youth all-across Canada, reaching out to the isolated Native reserves, and visiting remote inner city young people’s organizations, to really get an understanding what they are going through. This includes promoting positive awareness and creating new opportunities in the First Nations communities. “I was also working with my mother on Lemon Cree, an Indigenous fitness and wellness company, building up their self-worth,” she explains.
Continuing to branch out, Matten founded 7 Forward Entertainment, an Indigenous owned production company based out of the West Coast of Canada, and is even developing a TV series about an Afro-Indigenous rapper. She has gone on to cofound the Counting Coup Indigenous Film Academy at Old Sun Community College at Siksika Nation, where she spent some of her childhood. According to Wikipedia, ‘counting coup is the warrior tradition of winning prestige against an enemy in battle.’ Taking inspiration from its name, the Academy is a progressive, state-of-the-art, holistic educational environment for intense creative work, where emerging and aspiring First Nations, Metis, and Inuit artists can effectively and successfully gain expertise and experience to establish the foundations of a professional film career.
“My goal with the Film Institute is to truly help elevate my people,” Matten says with pride. “The academy had 15 students graduating in June and I have already secured jobs for many of them in the entertainment industry. They were also paid $2,500 per month to attend the 3 month intensive program.”
When asked about ‘down-time,’ the ‘never-a-dull-moment’ actress, who took time to shoot this photo feature for COWGIRL with photographer Tira Howard at Blame Her Ranch, outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, said she recently secured funding to tell the story, loosely based on her life, about running a modeling agency out of a woman’s shelter in a high-risk environment. Future-plans and dreams for Matten also include being the first Native American superhero, and leading a Marvel or DC film, playing an Indigenous woman who is grounded and gritty. And she’s already got the training down, with her skill in combat fighting and stunt work.
“My entire life’s purpose is to empower Indigenous Youth.”
Jewelry by Kenneth Johnson Jewelry; Rhiannon Griego Earrings
Photography by Tira Howard on location at Blame Her Ranch, Ribera, New Mexico, outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, blameherranch.com.
Additional photography by Tira Howard at Kenneth Johnson’s Jewelry Studio on Water Street in downtown Santa Fe.
Makeup Artist: April Chavez
Stylist: Amber-Dawn Bear Robe