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The Impactful Native Storyline That Justin Johnson Cortez Pitched For Walker Independence - Exclusive

Since the very first episode of "Walker Independence," the show has set itself apart from other Westerns by not shying away from the darker components of the Wild West. Too often, the genre either pretends diversity didn't exist at this time or carries out racist, villainous tropes with Native characters. It's not enough that settlers stole Native American land and enacted genocide — Hollywood has long since made them look like the heroes for it. 

Yet with the help of Native actors like Justin Johnson Cortez, "Walker Independence" sidesteps this rewritten history and gives a voice to generations of Native families impacted by this travesty. In the Calian-centric episode "The Owl and the Arrow," Calian calls out the racism within Independence and how quickly they're willing to accept his help when they need it but condemn him in the next breath. Even more impactful is his story about his missing sister — an account all too real that extends far beyond the show's time period.

Looper spoke to Justin Johnson Cortez during an exclusive interview about the hard-hitting episode and how he pitched the episode's most intense moments.

Generational trauma

On whether he has worked with the writers on Calian's plot points or tweaked any Native storylines, Justin Johnson Cortez said, "It's about ... telling the most truthful story you can. I'll talk to the showrunner about it, and they've been amazing. If I come [up] with some thoughts or ideas or alterations to what they put on, they're very receptive."

"Walker Independence" encourages a collaborative effort with the show's cast. Cortez continued, "Sometimes, it's a back-and-forth of, 'This is where my head was at when I wrote this' [and] 'Well, this is how I'm interpreting it.' It's been a great collaboration and process."

There's one storyline that Cortez pitched in its entirety. "In terms of Nascha, that storyline didn't exist, and the 8-year-old girl that Calian encounters in Episode 3 was actually going to be a one-off, a funny little instance where Calian is being elusive and no one could see him except some little girl who spots him," he explained. "I actually pitched to the showrunner, 'Hey, what if she's more than that? What if this is a vision that Calian is having for one reason or another, whether it be someone from his past or his family?' He thought on it for a few days, and then he let me know about two days before we were shooting, 'We're going to run with that storyline.'"

A powerful statement

That one storyline spoke volumes for Calian's character and Native trauma. "I was grateful because the storyline opened up a lot and revealed a lot about Calian — why he is the way he is when we meet him in the pilot, the man he's become and why he does what he does, why he tracks, and ultimately, why he found Abby," Justin Johnson Cortez noted. "It wrapped that up so beautifully and heartbreaking[ly]."

Yet Nascha isn't the only moment that Cortez inspired within the episode. The actor was adamant that they put the noose around Calian's neck when he's sentenced to hanging to show how brutal the time could be. He said, "It's not something that [we've seen before], and it really adds to it. I feel like we would've missed an opportunity if we didn't do that, so I was happy that we ended up doing it." 

The powerful and gut-wrenching scene did its job, as even the cast was affected. Cortez said, "On the day, Kat [McNamara's] tears and Katie [Findlay's] tears I think were real, because they're seeing their real friend up there. It's a very intense visual."

"Walker Independence" airs Thursdays on The CW, with new episodes streaming for free on the app and website the next day.