Before we start the recap in earnest, a quick note that we’ll be touching on the episode’s depictions of residential/boarding-school abduction and abuse. By now, we know that Reservation Dogs has never shied away from tackling tough topics within NDN country, and this week’s episode is no exception. We are again brutally reminded that Daniel’s ghost isn’t the only Native spirit haunting the Oklahoma countryside.
Bear is still trying to get back home to Okern when he makes a pit stop at a backcountry diner. There, he runs into Deer Lady, the vigilante spirit with deer legs who hunts down and punishes bad people while serving up lessons on how to be a better human being (the character of Deer Lady is inspired by real-life stories from several tribes that tell about a woman with deer legs who seduces bad men and stomps them to death). Earlier in the series, we learned that Deer Lady profoundly shaped the life of Big, the local tribal cop, and so seeing her crossing paths with Bear means he’s in for a serious lesson. Deer Lady’s also stopped into the diner for some pie (two pies, to be precise; we stan a pie queen) when she spots the helpless Bear sitting alone and invites him over to join her. Quickly, Bear discovers just whom he’s eating with and is understandably terrified. Upon clocking her hoofed feet, Bear asks the Deer Lady if she’s going to kill him. But Bear isn’t going to be the target of Deer Lady’s wrath this time around. He’s not a bad man, just your average confused teenage boy.
Over the course of the episode, we are shown, through flashback, the origins of the Deer Lady. See, Deer Lady wasn’t always born a supernatural force for good; she was made into one (every superhero has an origin story). At first, she was just a scared little girl who had been snatched up from her home and sent far away to a church-run school. Places like this were real, by the way, and their legacy has had a profound effect on the present conditions of Indigenous Peoples across the United States (where it is referred to as the boarding school system) and Canada (where it is called the residential school system), and similar systems were also implemented in New Zealand, Australia, and among the Indigenous Sami in Norway, Sweden, and Finland. For over 150 years, Indigenous children in the U.S. were systematically separated from their families and forced into dangerous conditions in government, military, and church-operated “schools.” The intention behind these policies was to assimilate Indigenous children into American culture and pressure them to abandon their traditional beliefs as a means of dismantling the sovereignty of Native nations. Once placed within these institutions, Indigenous children were subjected to horrific physical punishments, sexual abuse, starvation, and firsthand experience of the kinds of horrors that we see depicted in this episode of Reservation Dogs.
Shortly after entering the school for the first time, Deer Lady is forced to watch other students have their hair cut by the nuns. One boy, whom Deer Lady later befriends, ominously prophesizes to the rest: “We won’t get out of here.” The surreal terror of this scenario is heightened by the choice to have the nuns speak in a garbled nonsense language that recalls the backwardspeak evil Black Lodge spirits use in David Lynch’s series Twin Peaks. Throughout the episode, this technique is used to place the viewer in the position of the students who could not understand their captors. When young Deer Lady is beaten by one of the nuns, her new friend is the one who must inform her that it’s because she’s made eye contact with one of the sisters.
Deer Lady and the other children are forced to complete manual labor (another common practice in real-life residential schools), supervised by some of the nuns and the mysterious man named Mr. Minor, whom we saw earlier in the episode driving Deer Lady and several other children to the school. For a moment, we can understand English again, and we overhear the nuns complimenting Minor on his knowledge of “savages.” From this context, it seems like Minor was an Indian agent (quasi-cops that were entitled by Congress and/or the Bureau of Indian Affairs to “supervise” Indigenous Peoples) or perhaps some kind of employee of the school. This line, in conjunction with his name (Minor, meaning an underage person), also implies something far more sinister about this character. These sinister undertones are confirmed when Deer Lady’s new friend warns her to stay away from Minor because he is “the most evil” and a “wolf,” and we then cut to a pair of older boys digging graves next to the small garden that Deer Lady and the other children are tending to.
One night, Young Deer Lady is awoken by the screams of her new friend: He’s being dragged out of the dormitory by a group of nuns. Young Deer Lady follows behind and sees her friend taken to a room where several nuns and Mr. Minor are present. We hear shouting, but the exact purpose of this place is never made clear, although it is heavily implied that some form of serious abuse, possibly even sexual abuse, is taking place behind that door. When she’s spotted by one of the sisters, Young Deer Lady takes off into the woods, pursued by a nun and several men. Then, out of the darkness, a fawn with glowing eyes emerges and tells the Young Deer Lady that she can help her to escape. Here, the Deer Lady is fully transformed into the being we now know her as. Shortly after, we see the dead body of the sister, her windpipe crushed by a pair of strong hooves.
Back in the present, Deer Lady is out to complete some unfinished business, and Bear is now along for the ride. We see the pair pull up to an old, isolated farmhouse, and Deer Lady instructs Bear to stay in the truck. He gladly obliges and uses the opportunity to finally charge his phone and get ahold of his family back in Okern.
Meanwhile, Deer Lady is on the hunt. An old man opens the door and invites her inside the house. It’s Mr. Minor. He sits down at a table covered in photographs and tells Deer Lady that he’s been “nostalgic” about the past. The ensuing scene shows that Minor has been unable to recognize the devastation he’s caused, as he tells Deer Lady that the pictures he’s looking at are the only real legacy he’s left behind (although he does add, “Thank God we don’t have pictures of everything”). Minor continues to ramble to Deer Lady, telling her that he was an alcoholic and an absent father. But Deer Lady is not interested in his confessional — she quickly and gruesomely dispatches Minor by stabbing him repeatedly with a small antler.
A blood-soaked Deer Lady gets back in the truck and drives Bear back to Okern. Bear thanks her for the ride, but before he heads inside, he asks Deer Lady if she killed someone at the farmhouse, to which Deer Lady responds, “I killed a human wolf.” She also assures Bear that he’s a good kid and that he’s on the right path.
Deer Lady’s final parting message to Bear is to “keep smiling. They can’t stop you from smiling,” something that her friend back in boarding school also shared with her. It’s also one of the core philosophies of Reservation Dogs — despite all of the devastation, trauma, loss, and heartbreak that Indigenous Peoples reckon with each day, we still manage to smile. When we gather together, speak our languages, and laugh our biggest laughs, we are engaged in acts of resistance to the people and structures that seek to disappear us. And it’s one way for us to heal.
Willie Jack’s Deadly Meat Pies
• It’s important and significant that Reservation Dogs is representing the experiences of boarding-school survivors. The shameful history of U.S. boarding schools is largely omitted from history books and public education. Many college students in the classes I teach have never heard of boarding schools. However, the tide is beginning to turn, thanks to intergenerational efforts by Indigenous activists and their allies, and the damning history of these schools can no longer be ignored. In 2022, the United States identified 53 burial sites for children on the grounds of former Federal Indian Boarding Schools. Meanwhile, in Canada, thousands of unmarked graves have been discovered. Researchers are now working to confirm and document these sites using ground-penetrating radar.
• The language spoken during the Deer Lady’s flashbacks is Kiowa. Kiowa, like many other Indigenous languages, is struggling to maintain a base of fluent speakers. Part of these contemporary struggles are a direct result of residential/boarding schools, where students were punished for speaking their languages, causing many to stop speaking their Indigenous language altogether and others to choose not to teach their language to their children or grandchildren. And countless language keepers died in the schools. Currently, there are only around 20 Native speakers of Kiowa living today.
• In addition to the spoken Kiowa language, it looks like we also get a demonstration of some traditional sign language, which is called “hand talk.”
• Deer Lady is a reader — and she’s got unique taste! During her initial meeting with Bear, she can be seen reading I Remember by queer writer-artist Joe Brainard, a book-length poem about his childhood growing up in Oklahoma (where much of Reservation Dogs takes place).
• For two more supernatural stories about residential schools, check out the films Rhymes for Young Ghouls (starring Devery Jacobs) and Older Than America, both of which are written and directed by Indigenous folks.