Reservation Dogs Recap: Hoka, Bae!

Reservation Dogs

Season 3 Episode 7
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

Reservation Dogs

Season 3 Episode 7
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: FX

Can we talk briefly about how tough it is out here for Native women? Because it is rough.

Okay, this might not be news if you’ve ever spent more than five minutes around any Native woman or consumed any media helmed by Native women. This week’s episode of Reservation Dogs, directed by Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs and powered by the performance of Sarah Podemski, participates in an age-old conversation that Indigenous women have been having for a long, long time.

All the way back in 1986, noted Indigenous feminist Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna Pueblo) wrote about the struggle Indigenous women encounter in reconciling their tribally specific notions of womanhood with the multiple and competing notions of womanhood which circulate within and beyond American culture, stating:

Most Indian women I know are in the same bicultural bind: we vacillate between being dependent and strong, self-reliant and powerless, strongly motivated and hopelessly insecure […] We act in these destructive ways because we suffer from the societal conflicts caused by having to identify with two hopelessly opposed cultural definitions of women.

Such are the conditions many Indigenous women continue to face today. How does one balance the contemporary demands of the world while also staying true to their traditions? Every day feels like a struggle to balance family, community, and your own aspirations, and it seems like no matter what you do, there’s always more planning, more nurturing, more studying, more, well … everything. And things only get more complicated when you have kids and you gotta be a mom and shit!

Reservation Dogs’ Rita is no stranger to these problems. As we’ve seen in the series so far, she’s already trying to keep multiple plates spinning: She’s been raising her son, Bear, more or less solo while balancing her job at the Indian Health Services Clinic. And she, along with everyone else in town, is still reeling from the personal losses that they’ve all incurred: Cookie, Daniel, and perhaps countless others. Now, out of the blue, Rita is being presented with a rather serious decision that will shake up her life as she knows it. How will she balance her desires with her responsibilities for her family and community?

Hint: She’s going to have a big meltdown first and will require some spiritual guidance, too.

In the episode’s opening scene, Rita’s boss, Clifford, tells her that she is being scouted for a promotion by not one but two larger IHS programs: one in Oklahoma City and one waaaay out in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This means new opportunities, new places, and more $$$$$ for the single mom. Well, at first, Clifford makes it sound like she’s getting fired, which doesn’t seem to keep Rita from spiraling into a full-on crisis over the bombshell news.

Rita is understandably stumped about what she should do, so she turns to her childhood buddy and co-worker, Bev, for some advice. Bev says Rita should jump at the opportunity to do something for herself and to get out of little Okern. However, Rita feels obligated to stay in town to be close to Bear. Bev advises Rita not to worry about her “basically grown” son, and Bear seems to dispel some concerns for Rita later that night when he offers to make the two dinner and then updates his mom on that roofing job he’s managed to hold down for two seasons now.

Rita remains unsure about what to do when, suddenly, à la A Muppet Christmas Carol (my favorite work by Charles Dickens), Rita’s childhood friend Cookie appears in Rita’s bed, offering her advice to the disoriented mom. See, the ability to see spirits seems to run in the family (at least on Rita’s side … I can only imagine that if spirits are also visiting Punkin, they aren’t the helpful kind), and now it’s Rita’s turn to be visited. I use the word visit because haunting sounds way too scary a word to describe the antics of beings like Cookie and William Knifeman.

But Rita isn’t having any spirit antics — before Cookie can say much, Rita books it for Bear’s room and insists that she sleep there tonight. Rita doesn’t make any mentions of spirits to her son, though, saying that she’s just feeling a bit anxious and depressed. It’s interesting that Rita doesn’t open up to Bear in light of his story about Deer Lady. When Rita awakens the next morning and sees Cookie again, she drives straight to the IHS clinic and desperately begs Bev to book her in with the town’s psychologist/therapist, Larry, but not before being slipped a bag of Flaming Flamers by Old Man Fixico (Fixico calls the spicy chips weird day meds, and as a person who frequently eats hot Cheetos after a bad day, I feel affirmed).

While Bear seemed to shrug off his mother’s strange behavior, the same can’t be said for the rest of the townies. Larry muses that Cookie is just a manifestation of “those people we really want to return again.” He shares that he swore he saw Lou Diamond Philips (a Filipino actor who has played many Native American roles) all over town, but it was really just some Hopi welder and the whole ordeal was just a projection of his troubled psyche. “We don’t see dead friends,” Larry tells Rita. Given that it seems like half of Okern is seeing spirits, I’m surprised Larry hasn’t run across this issue before in any of his sessions with clients. Later, Cleo and Rob get concerned when they see Rita talking to herself over two orders of fried catfish (but they do tell Rita that Bear does this kind of thing, too).

So far, Cookie has been pretty reticent about why she’s suddenly appeared to Rita, but it all becomes clear as soon as the pair drive over to Mabel’s house to visit Elora. Cookie says that she wants to “check something out.” And that something is her daughter. Rita plays along, serving as an awkward medium between the two. Eventually, Elora and Rita stumble onto the subject of Rita’s new promotion and potential move, prompting Elora to share with her auntie that she’s officially applying for college. All the while, Cookie is listening in from the other side and gently nudging Rita to speak kindly to Elora.

Rita’s being gently reminded of her broader responsibilities when Cookie admonishes Rita for not visiting with Elora more often; Rita pushes back with, “I’m trying — you know how hard it is to be a mom?” Cookie snaps back with “No!” and the ensuing silence speaks volumes. Cookie is trapped in that eternal liminal period of her early 20s, and despite her best efforts, she can’t get through to Elora in the same way she can communicate with Rita. While Cookie has manifested as a warm feeling for Elora, the two remain separated by the veil that separates life and death: “I’m not really here or really there,” Cookie tells Rita. While Cookie is talking about her condition as a ghost, her words also speak to the societal conflicts that ensnare all Native women: it’s hard to be fully in one “world,” as it were, when you’re constantly being pulled in one hundred different directions.

Cookie’s breakdown sets Rita into action. Rita doesn’t fully open up to Bear that she’s been seeing ghosts, but she does ask her son what kind of ceremony the kids did to help their friend Daniel cross over. Rita, Bev, and Natalie say their good-byes to Cookie and send their friend off with offerings of music and good words. The episode ends with Rita resolving to take that new job.

This whole episode is a beautiful love letter to Indigenous women, which serves as the mournful foil to last season’s auntie-focused episode “Wide Net.” Shoutout to writer Migizi Pensoneau for rendering these struggles so earnestly.

Whenever I find myself mired by the struggles faced by Indigenous women, I return to the work of Paula Gunna Alan, as I have in this recap. I want to end with a quote I dug up from The Sacred Hoop, which seemed to parallel so thoroughly what I saw happening on this week’s episode:

Through all the centuries of war and death and cultural and psychic destruction have endured women who raise the children and tend the fires, who pass along the tales and the traditions, who weep and bury the dead, who are the dead, and who never forget. There are aways women, who make pots and weave baskets, who fashion clothes and cheer their children on at powwow, who make fry bread and piki bread, and corn soup and chili stew, who dance and sing and remember and hold within their hearts the dream of their ancient peoples – that one day the woman who thinks will speak for us and everywhere there will be peace. Meanwhile we tell the stories and write the books and trade tales of anger and woe and stories of fun and scandal and laugh over all manner of things that happen every day. We watch and we wait.

Throughout its three seasons, Reservation Dogs has shown a sustained commitment to portraying the complex lives of its Indigenous women characters, shining a light on issues faced by Indigenous women. It’s exciting, but it’s also depressing because such nuance has rarely been visible on television screens before now. When it comes to seeing this kind of representation, I’m so glad that I finally get to do more watching than I do waiting.

Willie Jack’s Deadly Meat Pies

• I wanted to give a quick shoutout to Cliff Taylor (Ponca), who recently shared an awesome, beautiful poem about last week’s episode of Reservation Dogs here. If you’re looking for more Native media, check out his work!

• Man, I smiled so big when I saw Evan Adams onscreen as Larry, the therapist. Heck, I yelled and pointed even. For folks unfamiliar, he’s NDN famous for playing the role of Thomas Builds-the-Fire in the 1998 movie Smoke Signals. For many folks, Thomas was the first well-rounded, gentle, and positive male Indigenous representation that we ever encountered. Since then, Adams has appeared in a few other films, such as Indian Horse in 2017, and he has had roles on several television and stage shows. Adams is also an IRL doctor, currently serving as a deputy chief medical officer at Canada’s First Nation’s Health Authority (he was the inaugural chief medical officer there from 2014 to 2020). All this makes me think that the world needs a reality-TV show that follows Adams’s practice. Like Dr. 90210 but more … y’know … wholesome.

• I did have to Google the phrase neon tan, and I like it, and I’m using it from now on.

Reservation Dogs Recap: Hoka, Bae!