Tonya McKinny is a Cherokee filmmaker who grew up in Stilwell, OK. When asked how she became involved in the film industry, she says “almost accidentally.” In 2020 when COVID-19 hit the arts industry hard, the theatre actress/model and her opera singer husband found themselves “with a lot of free time and no income.” They started making short films, funny scenes from different operas, for their friends and family to raise money for artists affected by the shutdown. The shorts were a success, and Tonya and her husband were inspired to create their company Keep the Music Going Productions. They reached out to opera industry contacts and soon landed their first commission: a 20-minute short with German songs. “It was the first time I’d held a camera— not an iPhone, but an actual professional camera.  Suddenly, I was creating budgets, schedules, and negotiating contracts. From there several opera companies around the US contacted us asking for ideas of things we could make for them to give to their audiences while in person shows weren’t possible. In theater the saying is “the show must go on” and we were a part of that for 9 films and 7 different companies.”

Currently Tonya serves as the VP of Partnerships at Helio Arts, a company that, like Keep the Music Going Productions, was born from the need to innovatively get performance art to audiences during the pandemic. Through this collaborative company, Tonya has been able to direct different films, including “Interstate,” an opera about the intricacies of friendship, choices, and the roads life leads us down, filmed for movie lovers.

Why is Native representation important to you?

When I was a kid the only American Indians I ever saw on film and especially in cartoons were the “bad guys.” It wasn’t until Smoke Signals came out that I got to see young Native people in a major film where they were just people who happened to be Native.  That normalizing of who Native people are and can be crucial to breaking stereotypes going forward. All that to say, that if there’s no representation by us about us, then the rest of the world will continue to keep us as “the bad guy” in all the stories they tell.

What are you proudest of in your career?

That’s a tough one.  I’m very proud of Interstate. I’m very proud of our company Helio Arts, for putting artists’ work online for more people to see it. The film work I’ve been doing was a brave leap of faith.

What is your dream project?

I’d love to do my story about the young girl in Stilwell.  I’d really love to bring the financial support of the film industry into Oklahoma and my small town and shoot something beautiful that would help to change the narrative about Native people and who we are in this century.  So many of the stories out there want us as Natives, to be the “uneducated and uncultured savages” of the old stories, so they can be the hero.  It’s time that binary definition shifted.

Your company, Helio Arts, builds a film around various types of performing arts. What gave you the idea to do this, and why is it so important to differentiate that from recording a live performance?

Film is a fantastic way to share art and emotions. We are a digital world and only going in that direction more. When we were creating our company, we wanted to give artists a way to work for new ideas that larger companies aren’t able to take a chance on. When/if you watch a recording of a live performance you are always the voyeur. The art wasn’t created for you. You’re just watching something that was made for a stage on your device and it always feels a little fake, a little less vibrant.  The arts are so full of energy and life. When something is created for a film, Tik Tok, or your laptop, it’s made for you to watch on your own time, but it was made for you. There’s a completely different energy in watching La La Land than if you watch a PBS showing of a staged production on Great Performances. (Not to knock PBS, I love them and would happily have one of my shows on PBS someday.)

So a recording of a live performance is an archival film, but it’s not the story, it’s not the same experience of a film just for the viewer. Helio Arts is seizing this opportunity to create high quality on demand, streaming artistic performances that were made for the at home screen.

Lastly, a fun question: Who will you thank first in your Oscar’s acceptance speech?

Ryan McKinny my husband, our lives are an amazing adventure and he’ll probably be up there with me.

We’re excited to keep up with Tonya and see where her career takes her! You can check out Tonya’s work on the Helio Arts website.

Are you or someone you know interested in getting into the Native Talent Directory? Check out our website, or email for more information!