After two consecutive whoopings by their rivals, the Reservation Dogs desperately seek a mentor who can teach them how to defend themselves — a kind of Native American Obi-Wan Kenobi. Unfortunately, the gang ends up turning instead to Elora’s Uncle Brownie, played by Cayuga actor Gary Farmer (Farmer is a notable figure in Indigenous film history for his iconic performance as Nobody in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man). The crew arrives on Brownie’s property intending to ask him for fighting lessons, and Willie Jack also wants to figure out if he knows how to put a curse on their enemies using a bag of their stolen hair. Uncle Brownie doesn’t end up casting any magical curses, but he does manage to curse a lot and teach the Dogs a thing or two about being a warrior … in his own unique way.
So, in exchange for fighting lessons, the kids must cart Uncle Brownie around town so he can sell his weed. When Elora, Willie Jack, and Bear arrive, Uncle Brownie lives outside of town on a property littered with traps, deer skulls, and highly cursed statues, and he is busy digging up half the yard in search of a 15-year-old jar of crusty weed. Weed and weed jokes are at the forefront of the episode, from Uncle Brownie’s recovery of a giant jar of ditch weed serving as the episode’s inciting event to the cameo from fellow 1491s member Bobby Wilson (Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota) as a fastidious dispensary employee. However, the jokey premise does have a deeper significance: Uncle Brownie, like his old, dry, outdated ditch weed, seems to be stuck in a rut. He’s a relic of the past, behind on the times and isolated from the rest of the community. It seems that after his mythic fight at the town bar (which, depending on who you ask, ended with Brownie knocking out 10, 21, or 32 people, including some cops), Brownie has drifted into a reclusive life, ashamed of his past exploits and heartbroken from personal losses. Luckily, by hanging out with the Reservation Dogs, he gets to teach a couple of lessons (albeit morally questionable ones) and make his amends.
I also must mention that cold open with the old white couple getting into a fight over a piece of graffiti that reads “LAND BACK” and that concludes with them ramming into a deer while the woman screams at her “shit-ass” husband. The scene is obviously a callout of all those ridiculous myths that get told about Native people. For example, the old white dude tells his wife with confidence that all Natives get a thousand dollars from the government every month “just for being an Indian.” Sadly, that’s not true, although one time my mom did get a BIA check for $3.59 for leasing out the grazing right on our family’s allotment on the rez, which equals out to about 2 ½ McDonald’s Double Cheeseburgers. However, that thing about wanting all the land back … that part is actually true … and we do mean we want the whole darn thing back. It deconstructs urban legends about Indigenous peoples in a playful fashion that hopefully gets folks to reflect on the absurdity of some of these stereotypes.
Writer Sterlin Harjo again builds in a break for some character development in this episode (like we saw in the “NDN Clinic”), this time revealing that Elora’s mother died when she was only 3 years old. In a moment of atypical vulnerability for Uncle Brownie, he reminisces with Elora about her mother (whom he calls “Sister”) while looking at an old picture (“You could see her smile from the highway”), and we also learn that Elora has few memories of her mother since Elora was so young when her mother passed away. It’s a gentle insight into one of the more strange and special parts of being an Indigenous person. Ktunaxa poet Smokii Sumac has a line in his poetry book You Are Enough that reads, “What you don’t understand is when you survive genocide … everyone left is family.” It is this feeling that we get from the relationship between Elora and Uncle Brownie — even though they aren’t related by blood, they still call each other Niece and Uncle, and their shared love of Elora’s mother Cookie ties them together just the same as blood would.
These moments of kinship, relations that extend beyond blood ties, provide a brief yet important look into an element of Native life that’s difficult to explain to those on the outside. It’s the same kind of bond that seems to tie Bear, Cheese, Elora, and Willie Jack together, and in the tender moments between Brownie and Elora, I also see the kind of kinship bonds that have driven Native peoples across the U.S. and Canada to come together in celebration of the series Reservation Dogs as well. Over the past week, since the first two episodes debuted on Hulu, there’s been an outpouring of enthusiastic support from people all across Indian Country. Even though this is a story set on Muscogee Creek territories and told from a Muscogee Creek and Seminole perspective, there’s so much about the characters in Reservation Dogs that resonates with folks from places all over. I’ve seen multiple folks online say they have a cousin who curses like Willie Jack, or that their goofy dad, when trying to act all “sacrit,” reminds them of William Knifeman (the spirit played by Dallas Goldtooth that keeps visiting Bear). It’s this experience of having to find and make community out of sometimes the most tragic of losses that has foundationally shaped the worlds of so many Indigenous peoples, and it’s so heartwarming and refreshing to see how Reservation Dogs has made the hilarious vibrancy of Native life visible to rest of the world. My hope is that non-Native viewers can also identify with these themes of finding and making family. Ultimately, “Uncle Brownie” is a joyful testament to the ways NDNs can spin straw (or ditch weed) into comedic gold.
Willie Jack’s Deadly Meat Pies
• The wig they put on Gary Farmer in the fight flashbacks is a thing of comic beauty, especially since you can see most of his real hair peeking out from underneath it. And James Dalton would be proud of those roundhouse kicks.
• This episode was directed by Blackhorse Lowe, a Navajo filmmaker who has produced a series of stunning short films (Shimásáni is a personal favorite). His 2016 feature Chasing the Light, which is about a struggling screenwriter, is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.
• Where did Cheese go?! Are his eyes still dilated? Is he still at the clinic spending time with his new grandmother? Did he know better than to hang out with ol’ Uncle Brownie? Honestly, I really missed him!
• Okay, so can one of y’all Muscogee Creek folks tell me what was going on with the blurred eyes on that owl statue? Is it like how we’re not supposed to whistle at night or say the name of those cannibalistic Anishinaabe/Cree/Metis you-know-whats in the middle of winter? Harjo has me stumped with this one!