“New Amsterdam” Writer on Authentic Storytelling & Working with First Nations Actress Tantoo Cardinal

(Warning: This post contains spoilers for “New Amsterdam.”)

Earlier this month, hit tv show “New Amsterdam” aired an episode featuring First Nations actress Tantoo Cardinal (Dene, Cree, Metis and Nakota), who is arguably the most widely known and recognized Native actress with numerous plays, television shows, and films under her belt. In short, many of our readers (including myself) have grown up watching Tantoo on the big screen, which is probably why she’s so relatable (and also why I was pumped when I saw her starring in an episode of “New Amsterdam”). 

“New Amsterdam” is a medical drama centered around Dr. Max Goodwin (played by Ryan Eggold), a new medical director who breaks the rules to heal the system at America’s oldest public hospital–New Amsterdam, which is located in New York City. “New Amsterdam” is on a three-season run on the network NBC. 

In the episode “Radical” (which aired May 4), Lenape history professor Jane Munsee (played by Tantoo) came into New Amsterdam hospital with a dangerous blood clot that required medical attention. Jane, who hails from the Lenape nation who are the original inhabitants of present-day Manhattan, is also an activist and advocator for social justice. Jane’s refusal of medical attention at New Amsterdam due to its dark history forces Dr. Goodwin to directly address the past of the hospital as well as its future. 

To learn more about the authenticity, respectful storytelling and inclusion of Native actors for this episode, I sat down with “New Amsterdam” staff writer and leader of the episode Shanthi Sekaran to talk about the idea and the conceptualization of the storyline and why she selected Tantoo to be a part of it.  

The conceptualization of Jane’s scenes were a team effort, where Shanthi brought the ideas to the writer’s room. “I brought the Jane Munsee storyline to the writer’s room and I basically conceptualized that storyline, as well as all the storylines for this episode,” says Shanthi. “It was team-written as well.” In the end, Shanthi had the final hand in the writing of the episode, where she edited everything to hang together. 

The COVID-19 crisis in Indian Country–primarily on the Navajo Nation–was what sparked the idea for the episode. “Showrunner David Schulner sent out an article about how the Diné people were approaching COVID and how a lot of the younger Diné people were stepping up and fulfilling roles for their elders in order to protect their elders from exposure,” Shanthi says. “We started by thinking how Native Americans were dealing with COVID.” Shanthi and the crew were so moved by this story to do a show similar to this, but realized it wouldn’t work as “New Amsterdam” takes place in New York City and not in the Southwest. “It didn’t make sense, it didn’t seem like a responsible story to be telling,” Shanthi adds. This caused Shanthi to move her focus towards the original inhabitants of New York City. This brainstorming also caused Shanthi to focus on the fictional hospital’s name, New Amsterdam, which she says commemorates the invasion of the Dutch traders between 500 to 600 years ago. “I started thinking about that and that led me to learn a lot more about the Lenape people, and that’s how I conceptualized the character of Jane Munsee who’s a Lenape history professor.” 

The writers did an amazing job casting Tantoo for the role; not only did a lot of our generation grow up watching Tantoo on the big screen but her and her story on “New Amsterdam” was relatable. “It was originally the idea to get Tantoo,” Shanthi explains. “I was just so taken with her presence and performance and the way she occupies a scene and the screen when you’re watching her; it was a real honor to have her speaking my lines and to have her be in this episode.” 

Jane made it clear that she’d rather pass away than have surgery that would save her life, motivating Max to listen to her and actually try to solve a problem. “He could’ve taken a number of responses, he could’ve been dismissive, he could’ve been cynical,” says Shanthi. “I think Max Goodwin’s character has been on a trajectory for three seasons where we have seen him invest more and more, and following through with these promises he makes or these wishes that he has.” Shanthi admits that Jane’s Native students played a fundamental role in making it feel okay to save Jane against her wishes. “It wasn’t Max imposing himself, it was her Native American students who stepped up and said, ‘look, you need to save her’, so in a sense he was doing it for them.” Shanthi says the team had to make Jane kind of pissed when she woke up after the surgery. “She had to stick by her principles and be angry that Max had saved her and Max had to in some way atone for that fact, we couldn’t just let it slide under the rug we couldn’t just brush it away as like a happy ending, we had to acknowledge the complexity of that scene.”

This then led to the medical pathway program for Native students that Max came up with in connection with the New Amsterdam hospital. “The medical school pathway program was something I learned while writing the episode,” says Shanthi. “It kind of grew from Max’s search for medical personnel at the hospital.” This led to Shanthi’s own realization of the lack of Native American doctors and nurses. “With a little research it became really clear to me that this is an issue in this country,” she explains. We don’t have a lot of Native American medical personnel and it’s a matter of access and it’s a matter of people knowing how to negotiate medical school, how to even get started. So that was something that felt very much like something that he would want to take on.” This felt like a very real issue for Shanthi as her parents are doctors who came over from India through a similar pathway program. “There was a pathway for them, and it only felt right that I should start to think about better pathways for the Native people of this country.”

Another cool aspect of the episode was the fresh take on protesting, where Native protesters surrounded the hospital’s lobby holding iPads. The whole scene was engineered and choreographed with COVID in mind and the desire to make the greatest visual impact. “That scene took some thinking about because we had to be mindful of COVID regulations both for the actors and for keeping in reality with what was allowed in a hospital,” Shanthi says. The writers adopted the tactic of the iPads from anonymous protests they saw as an approach for enhancing the visuals of the scene as well as taking a break from the standard protesting of marching and shouting. “We had very limited space and numbers to work with so we wanted to create a visually impactful image and not require a lot of movement or shouting from the people there, so using those iPads was a way to sort of bring in greater visual impact.” Shanthi admits that if it wasn’t for COVID, she would’ve had a hundred people a part of the protest scene. 

Lastly and most notably, Shanthi worked in partnership with Native organizations and the Lenape for this episode. “I started off by working briefly with Illuminatives, and I had a lot of learning to do so I read everything I could about the Lenape and so I built my foundation from there,” she says. “I was the writer so the foundation had to be in me.” Shanthi eventually connected with the Lenape Center in New York City and wanted at the very least to let them know about the episode, in which they were glad to hear about the story of a contemporary woman who was Lenape on “New Amsterdam”. “That’s a pretty major thing I’ve been learning through my reading and writing over the last couple years,” Shanthi adds. “That this country has really erased Native people and relegated them to history. Through Jane and through this story I wanted to bring a Native American character into the present day of our hospital and I wanted her to make demands that were difficult for the hospital. I wanted her presence to be felt.”

“New Amsterdam” airs Tuesdays, 10/9c, on NBC. You can watch this episode here

Featured image credit: NEW AMSTERDAM — “Radical” Episode 310 — Pictured: (l-r) Shayna Jackson as Avery, Tantoo Cardinal as Jane Munsee, Ryan Eggold as Dr. Max Goodwin — (Photo by: Scott Gries/NBC)

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Kelly Holmes

Kelly Holmes

Kelly Holmes is the founder and editor-in-chief of Native Max.

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