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From Reservation Dogs to Dark Winds: The Best Zahn McClarnon Roles


As Dark Winds concludes its second season, it’s worth looking back at just a few of the notable roles from its leading man.

Zahn McClarnon as Joe Leaphorn - Dark Winds _ Season 2, Episode 1
Photo: Michael Moriatis | AMC

Zahn McClarnon has justifiably garnered attention in recent years for his lead performance as Joe Leaphorn in AMC’s limited series Dark Winds. Leaphorn, a lieutenant in the Tribal Police in the Navajo Nation of Arizona, is suddenly besieged by a series of seemingly unrelated crimes within his community. As he gets closer to the truth of these cases, his own beliefs are challenged, bonds between colleagues are tested, and Joe has to dig up some painful memories from his own past.  

Yet before McClarnon donned Joe’s badge and cowboy hat, he wore many other hats over his nearly 45 year career. The actor has a fairly prolific filmography as a voice over artist, he has played men on both sides of the law, and as you can imagine, as an actor of Lakota descent, has played his share of First Nations characters. Yet, when his more recent roles are carefully considered, a pattern of dignified, stoic, and strong characters emerge. Allow Den of Geek to recap some of the more noteworthy roles McClarnon has played.

Reservation Dogs (2021-2023)

One thing this list will address is McClarnon is no stranger to playing a man of the law. However, what separates his character, Big Hill, from the other instances he wore a silver star is that McClarnon gets to show off his amazing comedic timing. Co-created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, Reservation Dogs is a real treat. Comedian Marc Maron (Glow, Joker) recently called it “the most important television show of the last 30 years”, mainly because of the series beautiful sense of culture and its conveyance of the endurance of First Nations people across the continent due to their strength and humor. 

Big is a bit of a departure for McClarnon because of that sense of humor. He isn’t as well put together as most of McClarnon’s other roles, especially those other lawmen. As a Lighthorseman, even within the community, he’s mocked, and other police throughout the state don’t take him as seriously as they should. Big has a great sense of whimsy as well, as he will often share his theories on Bigfoot, or warn you of the dark spirit known as the Deer Lady (Kaniehtiio Horn), and while Big is a bit more of a free spirit than McClarnon is used to playing, as often is the case with the roles he has chosen, McClarnon imbues him with brilliant undertones of pride and a strong sense of culture. Big is a role model within the community, and has a great sense of justice, even if that means occasionally guiding the petty criminals within the show in the right direction rather than throwing the book at them.

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