In a scene from Season 3 of the hit neo-Western series “Yellowstone,” Mo, the steady right hand and loyal fixer of the Native American power broker Thomas Rainwater, lights some sage and lets the smoke waft through Rainwater’s office. They’re about to meet with Angela Blue Thunder (Q’orianka Kilcher), a hard-charging Native lawyer with a take-no-prisoners attitude toward going after the Montana ranch land owned by John Dutton (Kevin Costner).
Angela contemptuously douses the sage with water, but Mo — played by the actor Mo Brings Plenty — with a “who is this person?” look on his face, relights it after she leaves, allowing his boss to breathe in some of its healing powers. The moment contains both seriousness and subtle humor.
“In our culture, we use these items to cleanse the space and protect the mind,” Brings Plenty said in a recent video interview from Fort Worth, Texas, where “Yellowstone,” on Paramount Network, had its Season 5 premiere screening this month. “But burning sage and sweet grass has become a fad and has been culturally misappropriated,” he added, and those substances “are sacred to us.” For Brings Plenty, getting these details right is crucial.
“On and off the set, Mo really tries to be a bridge connecting Indigenous people with our industry in film,” said Kilcher, who is of Indigenous South American heritage. “It’s amazing to see all the good work that he’s doing.”
In a series that takes great care with its Native American characters and story lines, Brings Plenty keeps it as real as anyone. Onscreen he exudes a quiet strength, even when his character is executing some of the show’s frequently unsavory business. Offscreen he’s an adviser and a trusted confidante of the “Yellowstone” creator Taylor Sheridan and his creative team. He even wrangles horses.
Playing a character who started off as Rainwater’s nameless driver, Brings Plenty has gradually become a regular presence, especially in episodes that involve Native rituals. At the end of Season 4, he conducts a hanbleceya, a sort of vision quest, for Kayce Dutton (Luke Grimes), a white character married to a Native American woman, Monica (Kelsey Asbille). In a moving scene from the most recent episode, which aired on Sunday, he oversees a burial ritual for the son that died at birth after Monica was in a car accident.
That last sequence hit home for Brings Plenty, whose mother lost three infant sons when he was a child. “It was a powerful moment, and very real for me,” he said.
Brings Plenty, 53, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation, in South Dakota — though his mother is from the Cheyenne River Reservation and he has relatives on the Rosebud Reservation, also both in South Dakota.
“I spent time on all three reservations, so I always say I grew up in the Lakota Nation,” he said.
His interest in acting dates back to the days when he would ask children on the reservation why they didn’t have more pride in their identity. The most common answer? They never saw themselves on TV.
“So I thought, ‘How do I change that?’” he said. “Because I wasn’t on TV either.”
He added: “The misrepresentation of us has been occurring for so long.” He saw an opportunity to be the change he wanted to see.
He started in theater, worked his way into stunt riding (“I knew I could fall off a horse and take it”), then began landing supporting roles in film and television (“Hell on Wheels,” “The Revenant”).
But just a few years ago, he was ready to pack it in and return to his ranch in Kansas. Appreciative of his opportunities, he wasn’t entirely satisfied with the Native representation he saw onscreen. He felt discouraged. He and his family agreed that he would wait until the end of the year to make a decision. That’s when “Yellowstone” came calling.
Gil Birmingham, who plays Thomas Rainwater and has been friends with Brings Plenty for several years, likes to tell the story of how the character Mo got his name on the show. Sheridan had not given the character a name — he was just Rainwater’s driver — and during one of the many scenes between Birmingham and Brings Plenty, Birmingham called his old friend by his real name: “Mo”(short for Moses).
“So Taylor decided that he was going to use that name for the character as well,” Birmingham said in a phone interview. “When Mo is out and about, it’s pretty funny because people tend to call you by your character name, and it happens to be his real name. There’s no distinction there for fans.”
When fans do recognize Brings Plenty in public, it’s often because of his braids, which hang below his waist. As with most matters in Mo’s world, the braids carry cultural significance.
“We wear two braids as men to honor the gifts of the women,” he said.
“One strand” of each braid “represents the higher power,” he continued. “The second strand represents the Earth, which is also a physical being. The third strand represents our spirit. It’s a reminder that if we can live with that balance of all things, and we bring them all together, it makes a braid that is strong.”
For Sheridan, Brings Plenty’s overriding quality is truthfulness.
“There is a real honesty to Mo’s acting — a comfortable vulnerability,” Sheridan said in an email. “One of the great things about long-form storytelling is that it allows me to react to actors who really shine. Mo began as a co-star on the show, and now he is a series regular. That is how much his portrayal leapt from the screen.”
The dynamics among the Native American characters on the broadly drawn “Yellowstone” are probably the show’s most nuanced. Thomas Rainwater, the most prominent Native character, did not grow up on the reservation; he is a suit-and-tie-wearing graduate of Harvard Business School who applies his knowledge to his duties as chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Broken Rock. Mo did grow up on the reservation; one could argue that he operates closer to the culture than his boss. Angela Blue Thunder is also from the reservation, and she has scores to settle with the Dutton family.
They all have one thing in common: They want the land that they see as rightfully theirs — and that the Duttons fiercely protect as their own.
“Mo brings a great cultural anchoring, and a perspective that tries to balance out the kind of world that Thomas Rainwater is operating in — that is, a system of laws and paradigms that aren’t familiar for, or operated by, the Native people,” Birmingham said of Brings Plenty’s character. “Mo brings a great stability and a great loyalty, and you just have a sense that you’re being protected and you’re safe with Mo around.”
These are heady times for Native American representation on television, with a great quantity and range of characters and stories. “Dark Winds,” on AMC +, follows two Navajo policemen investigating a mysterious double murder. ABC’s “Alaska Daily,” about the doings of a scrappy Anchorage newspaper, shines a light on the crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women, a subject also featured on “Yellowstone” and in Sheridan’s 2017 film “Wind River” (its cast includes Birmingham and Asbille of “Yellowstone”). Hulu’s “Reservation Dogs,” a droll comedy about four teenagers growing up on an Oklahoma reservation, won a prestigious Peabody Award.
“‘Yellowstone’ was the catalyst to make room, to give space and inspiration for others to get involved with Native stories and give Native people opportunities,” Brings Plenty said. “We’ve often been left behind, but the way I see it and understand it, Taylor Sheridan said: ‘Come on, let’s go. That’s enough of you guys being back there. Let’s bring you up to the forefront.’”
Sheridan says it’s a matter of accuracy.
“One cannot accurately tell the story of the West without telling the story of the original inhabitants of the region,” he said. “Sure, ‘Yellowstone’ is highly dramatized, but the story lines are all rooted in truth. To ignore the impact of our settlement on Native people is to tell half the story. And the Native American half has been habitually ignored by the entertainment industry. We don’t ignore it. We look right at it.”
For Brings Plenty, it’s all about honoring his culture and his ancestors — not just other Lakota, but all Native Americans.
“My grandparents, they always said: ‘Speak Indian. Dance Indian. Sing Indian,’” he said. “They never said, ‘Speak Lakota’ — everything was Indian. So we try to remember those teachings and pass them on.”