Episode eight has arrived, which means that it’s finally time for the Rez Dogs to hit the road and leave Okern behind in the dust, right? Well … no. In the words of Spirit/William Knifeman, it’s all far from being “done, done,” and our core cast of characters has much unfinished business.
Bear, Elora, Cheese, and Willie Jack meet up at their hideout to finalize their plans for California when Willie drops a bombshell on the rest of the crew: She’s not coming with them. Although Okern is quiet and maybe even a little boring, she’s got more to learn and wants to stick it out. The news was also gasp-inducing for me because, frankly, it was an unprecedented turn for a character in a Native narrative. Often, we get the Elora/Bear arc, with characters wanting to leave or escape the rez (this was basically the only story told in popular Native American lit for a while), and I’m very glad we’re outgrowing being pigeonholed in that way. Willie Jack’s discovered that everything she needs is already there on her reservation. It was honestly a surprise, and I’m glad the writers of the series are putting that message out to the youth.
Knowing that Bear, Elora, and Cheese are set to hit the road, the Rez Dogs finally decide to have it out with Jackie and her crew when everything is interrupted by an approaching tornado. After being pummeled by golf ball-sized hail, the Dogs and several townies huddle into the local church basement for protection. The storm works well as a plot device, as it forces the Rez Dogs to be crammed together with their nemeses and their parents, with each coming to represent various forces that have been pulling them in different directions all season. With nowhere to run away to, the crew is forced to make the hard decisions they’ve been putting off.
Meanwhile, Uncle Brownie is fixing to throw an axe at the tornado.
Back in the basement, Willie Jack wishes her parents a happy anniversary. In front of her friends and community members, Willie Jack shares the pain she’s been feeling in the wake of Daniel’s suicide and the toll his death has taken on her relationship with her parents. Cheese also backs out of the California plan in response to Willie Jack’s heartfelt monologue (and perhaps also out of a sense of responsibility toward his newly adopted Grandmother).
This leaves Bear and Elora stuck together, and the two have already been on shaky ground all season. Elora has harbored resentment towards Bear ever since he spent his share of the gang’s savings on swag for himself and his dad. Later, when Bear spots Jackie and Elora talking together, it leads to a major argument between the two remaining Rez Dogs. Elora tells Bear that she’s tired of picking up after his mistakes, and she says Bear’s dad “would be proud” of the way he’s mooched off her. This hits a sore point for Bear, who, in response, accuses Elora of only caring about Daniel after he died. It’s clearly an accusation meant just to hurt, and in response, Elora ends up leaving for Cali with Jackie instead of Bear. As the two roll out of town, Jackie tells Elora that the city is better since people “stick to themselves,” and although Elora says that she’s ready for the change, her face tells us that she’s scared and uncertain.
So, where does this leave us for next season? The episode’s final shots show Bear on his own, implying that he may be set to take his own journey separate from Willie Jack and Cheese — but will it be in California? This remains unclear.
I can also see the Jackie/Elora storyline going a couple of different ways. I predict that season two will either open with the two already in California, or I can also see the writers going the road movie direction, with us following along with the two as they make their way cross-country (al-a Powwow Highway). What we do know is that Uncle Brownie will be hanging around more, especially now that Knifeman’s spirit has attached to him with the hopes of putting Brownie back on that good red road.
While that wraps up my thoughts on this episode, in closing out the recaps for this season I also want to dedicate some space to an important conversation about the series which been taking place online. Since the debut of episode four (“What About Your Dad?”), there have been concerns raised about the absence of Black Native characters in the series, as well as the ways non-Black Native characters in the series draw from Black cultural expressions like hip-hop culture and AAVE.
And so, I want to echo the suggestions made by many Black Native peoples and their allies: prior to the second season, I hope that the Reservation Dogs showrunners both hire on Black Native writers, directors, and actors (especially folks from Indigenous communities within what is now Oklahoma) and continue to reflect on the ways that Blackness has functioned within the series so far.
To start, let’s be clear — I’ve enjoyed the show immensely, and it has been a wonderful experience to get to finally see Indigenous experiences represented authentically. It was deeply refreshing to use this space of the recaps to talk about things in the show that made me laugh and cry and cheer versus simply unpacking how gross and stereotypical the depictions of Native life were. Reservation Dogs is the result of generations of folks pushing to build space for Native creators. We can’t forget that navigating industries that have been historically exclusionary toward Native people is difficult and, at times, downright traumatic. However, as we accumulate access and visibility, Native creators must also keep an open heart and open ear so that we may be accountable to our communities.
And to contextualize this feedback for folks not familiar with these aspects of the Native community, these concerns regarding the representation of Black Native peoples are tied to both the broader problem of institutionalized anti-Blackness within the U.S. and the specific ongoing struggles of Afro-Indigenous peoples to gain recognition and membership rights within their tribal communities. Sometimes called Freedmen, these communities are, broadly defined, either the descendants of Black people who were enslaved by tribal citizens or those descended from freed Black people who intermarried into Native communities (I want to flag that this is a very basic definition and invite readers to self-educate on the histories Afro-Indigenous peoples, especially communities whose traditional homelands you may be living on). Both the Muscogee Creek and the Cherokee peoples (tribes whose languages have been used by multiple Reservation Dogs characters) have Freedmen populations within their communities. While in 2017, the Cherokee finally — after years of activism on the part of Freedmen — affirmed Freedmen as full citizens and provided them equal access to benefits like healthcare and voting rights, the Creek tribe disenfranchised Freedmen in 1979, and ever since, these community members have been fighting against their second-class status.
For there to be no visible Black Native presence in a show set in Oklahoma (a place which, IRL, has a documented and diverse Afro-Indigenous population) is an error analogous to that made by Linn Manuel-Miranda in In the Heights, wherein he failed to include any significant Afro-Latinx characters in a story set in a historically Afro-Latinx neighborhood. This absence of Black Native representation is especially harmful when characters like Punkin’ Lusty, Mose, and Mekko (all of whom are non-Black Natives), appear to be celebrated for appropriating Black hip-hop culture, whereas in reality, Black Natives are often told they need to “pick sides” or have their identity questioned when they don’t act or look “Native enough.”
Folks aren’t saying to include Black Native characters without any rhyme or reason; rather, they are saying that by failing to include this documented part of the Creek and Cherokee communities, the show is failing to authentically portray the full story of Native life in these territories. A major problem of Black Native erasure is that it leads to the continued marginalization of community members who are our Indigenous kin. And so, instead of telling Black Native people to “wait in line” for their chance to see themselves represented, why aren’t we jumping at the opportunity to include everyone we can in the massive celebration of Indigenous survivance that is Reservation Dogs?
Watching and chatting with other Indigenous folks about Reservation Dogs has been an amazing and affirming experience. But how much more amazing it might be if Native folks exerted our visual sovereignty, stayed accountable to our communities, and continued to fight so that our worlds were represented in their full complexity? While Indigenous peoples have been and continue to be poorly treated within media institutions, we also have an ethical responsibility to ensure that our storytelling practices are at odds with all of colonialism’s multifarious modes of oppression. This work is hard, but … when was being a Native easy? It’s kind of part of our “thing.”
I love this show, and I loved watching this show, and I will love watching season two. I love seeing Willie Jack crack jokes, and my heart aches with love and loss when I see Bear and Elora cry. Native people have long been owed a show like this, and as we continue to achieve more visibility, let us not forget who we are as Indigenous peoples and what exactly it is we’ve been fighting for all this time. Pilamayaye. That’s all I’ve got to say.