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Spokane woman who earned international following as ‘Nana’ on ‘Z Nation’ asks for pen pals while battling cancer

UPDATED: Mon., Feb. 22, 2021

Darlene McCarty, 76, a Spokane and Makah tribal member, gained an international following for her nonspeaking role as a wise Indigenous grandmother in the SyFy series “Z Nation” shot in Spokane. She’s now asking for letters to keep her mind occupied and comfort her during a difficult cancer diagnosis.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Darlene McCarty, 76, a Spokane and Makah tribal member, gained an international following for her nonspeaking role as a wise Indigenous grandmother in the SyFy series “Z Nation” shot in Spokane. She’s now asking for letters to keep her mind occupied and comfort her during a difficult cancer diagnosis. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Though the final episode of the Spokane-shot television series “Z Nation” aired more than two years ago, Darlene McCarty’s worldwide fan base just won’t die.

“I don’t want to have them forget me. I want all the fans to know that I appreciate that they loved ‘Z Nation,’ ” said McCarty, a member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians and the Makah Tribe known to fans of the SyFy series as “Nana Anuk.” “I can’t believe it got so popular.”

The 76-year-old Spokane resident has been receiving notes, letters and video messages over the past several months after undergoing brain surgery in September that also revealed cancer in her lungs and pelvis. McCarty is now staying with her daughter, Barbara Gongyin, who last week put out another request for notes to Nana on McCarty’s social media handles, where she still receives messages from fans as far -flung as the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia.

“My mom, she has always been a pen-paller,” said Gongyin, who has been caring for her mother in her home for several weeks after a fall led to a broken arm and hip that have complicated McCarty’s cancer treatments.

Gongyin has been posting to McCarty’s social media accounts to keep fans updated , and in September asked for her followers on Twitter (numbering about 1,500) to send letters to a P.O. box so she could read them while she recovers. Others, including the cast of “Z Nation,” sent video messages over the internet.

“Every time I think of ‘Z Nation,’ I think of you, and I miss you, and I love you so much,” said Ramona Young, who played McCarty’s character’s granddaughter, Kaya, in the series, in one of those videos.

The darkly humorous show filmed five seasons in Spokane, and it was during preparations for the third that McCarty’s friends and family lobbied for her casting. A call was put out for a Native woman to play Nana. McCarty studied drama at the Institute for American Indian Arts, a land-grant institution in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the 1960s, but then launched a career working in the hotel industry.

“When I realized ‘Z Nation’ was a zombie show, I thought I don’t know what I’m getting myself into,” McCarty said. “After the first day, I said, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?’ ”

Nana doesn’t speak on the show, requiring McCarty to play her part with just her facial expression and a single prop: an ever-present pipe that keen viewers will note isn’t puffed after Nana’s initial appearances.

“I don’t smoke,” McCarty said. “I actually smoked on the first season, but after that I just held my pipe.”

When the show ended and its crew sold off items in Spokane, McCarty made sure to visit and pick up some requested items from her online followers. She also appeared in two local productions at the Stage Left Theater in Spokane, prior to the pandemic.

Gongyin is once again putting out the call for letters, and hoping fans of the now-canceled show can help financially support the family through a GoFundMe page. Gongyin is taking sick leave time at work to care for her mother, who can’t get around very well due to the injuries and cancer eating away at the bones in her hip. The family is mulling surgery, which would delay McCarty’s cancer treatment.

“The call I put out for cards and stuff, is just to cheer her up,” Gongyin said.

Those interested in writing to McCarty may do so by addressing their correspondence to P.O. Box 818, Spokane, WA 99210.

McCarty promised to respond when her arm heals and she can write again.

“After I heal up, I can probably start catching up on my writing and correspondence,” she said. “I have a big packet of letters I’m supposed to answer.”

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