At first glance, Reservation Dogs appears to be a coming of age story about four teenagers who are up to no good. And while that’s part of the charm, the story runs a little deeper than that. The first four episodes of the series introduces the world to Indigenous life that is all too real for many of us who grew up in Oklahoma.
There is so much about this show that I really like. And coming from an Indigenous perspective, there’s so much about this show that I can relate to. Created by Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo, everything about this show is familiar to me. From the setting, to the characters, the depiction of Native Life in Oklahoma is spot on.
Harjo brought in his friends, Sydney Freeland, Blackhorse Lowe, and Tazbah Chavez to direct individual episodes. Harjo directed a few himself. Reservation Dogs stars D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs, Paulina Alexis, Lane Factor, Zahn McClarnon, Elva Guerra and who’s who in Indigenous film. Reservation Dogs is executive produced by Harjo, Waititi and Garrett Basch and produced by FX Productions.
The Reservation Dogs are Bear (Woon-A-Tai), Elora Danan (Jacobs), Willie Jack (Alexis), and Cheese (Factor). They represent the kids who have bigger dreams off the reservation, but like most, are too poor to make the move. After their friend Daniel passes away, they make a pact to leave for California. To make the move, they need money. The teens resort to stealing to make money.
Harjo grew up in a similar neighborhood. I should know because my grandmother lived on the same street. She was the mean old lady in the cul-de-sac that would take your kickball if it landed in her yard. And she would pop the ball with a pair of scissors. LOL. It’s people like my grandmother that give these Native communities a lot of depth and character.
In an interview with Harjo, he stated Reservation Dogs is like nothing TV viewers have ever seen before. “No one’s ever seen it because it’s literally just us living our lives dealing with our own communities, dealing with their own issues. It’s not about people coming in and trying to take stuff from us … trying to take our lands. It’s about us. We’re going to just drop the audience right in the middle of the story.”
What makes Indigenous people different? Well, lots of things, but these things aren’t the focal point of the story. Are there stereotypical imagery, yes; but Harjo makes fun of the imagery instead of reinforcing it. Are there Indigenous elements never before used in television? Yes. Harjo incorporates the Muscogee Creek language in the dialogue. There’s no explanation about the language nor is it over emphasized. It’s just a part of the characters’ everyday vernacular. Is Indigenous spirituality played out onscreen? Sort of. Let’s just say that these things may be exaggerated, but are definitely honest.
The chemistry between these four lead actors is electric. It’s easy to believe they are close friends and are on the same page when it comes to their dreams. Of course, that dream isn’t exactly the same for everyone, but it’s their primary goal. To get out of the small town. They all have different personalities and are given the opportunity to show their hearts. These characters also show the viewers how important community is to Native people.
Of course, there are a couple of obstacles. One of those obstacles is a rival gang, the Indian (maybe NDN) mafia, who are seen in the trailer shooting the Reservation Dogs with paint. They consist of a couple of Native boys, one white kid they call White Steve (Jack Maricle), and their leader, Jackie (Guerra). I mean … there isn’t a lot to do in these small town communities. Another obstacle is Lighthorseman Big (McClarnon). He tries to keep a close eye on the Natives, but things get past him from time to time.
From an Oklahoma-born Native perspective, I appreciate the real life situations that us Native kids found ourselves in. From the snarky Indian Health Services (IHS) clerk to the local elder who always has advice for the kids, it was like stepping back in my grandmother’s hood. I appreciate Harjo’s efforts to bring these stories to the small screen. It’s long overdue and will give Natives a feeling of nostalgia.
The cast also includes Lil Mike and Funny Bone play the neighborhood eyes and ears Mekko and Mose. Sarah Podemski plays Bear’s mother Rita. Guest stars include Casey Camp Horinek, Richard Whitman, Gary Farmer, Wes Studi, Jana Schmieding, Harjo’s 1491 collaborators, Dallas Goldtooth and Bobby Wilson. Most of the extras in the series come from all over Oklahoma. It’s kind of weird seeing your college friends on Hulu.
I’ve been excited about this series for a long time. It makes me proud to know Harjo and most of his cast and crew. They are representing Natives well, showcasing that Natives are funny and have interesting stories. This story is honest and doesn’t sugar-coat anything. There will be some parts that non-Natives won’t get. And that’s okay. The overall story is transferable to all races and cultures. But if you really need a reason to watch, it’s the first television show written, directed and starring Native people.
You can watch the first two episodes of Reservation Dogs on Monday, August 9, on FX on Hulu.
This article was originally posted on 7/28/21.
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