What do Wes Studi, goofy buddy-cop procedural antics, vengeful monsters, and the band Redbone have in common? To be totally transparent, all of these are things I love, and they also just so happen to be in this week’s episode of Reservation Dogs. What a treat!
This week we follow along while Big takes Cheese out in his cruiser for a ride-along. So … is this where Cheese was while the rest of the crew was out visiting Uncle Brownie? Anyway, shortly into their jaunt, the two find themselves on the trail of several mysterious happenings in town. First, Big takes Cheese out to a field where, in an after-credit sequence of a previous episode, he discovered a pile of abandoned fish heads (“Bigfoot activity,” Big explains). Later, the two try to suss out who has been stealing metal from the scrapyard and leaving mysterious copper statues around town. Eventually, while tracking down a stolen vehicle, Big and Cheese find out that the culprit behind the thefts and the statues is none other than well-meaning townie Bucky, played by Cherokee actor Wes Studi, the treasured, award-winning Indigenous performer recently honored with a Lifetime Achievement award at the Oscars (and, most importantly, my mom’s favorite actor). Although Big catches Bucky in a stolen car, he lets him go so long as Bucky promises to return the car and stop scaring people with his statues. Cheese is baffled by this, but Big tells Cheese that they’re on a mission to only fight the ‘real’ bad guys, and as the episode unfolds, we get a better idea of what Big means by this.
As the ride-along proceeds, we discover that Big’s job is pretty thankless. As a tribal cop, he’s trying to do his best to do right for the community in the face of underfunding (his cruiser, “Redbone One,” has a broken radio, and his replacement cruiser is on backorder), managing his own moral compass, and he has to take shit from the town police. For those unfamiliar with the ways that tribal policing operates, this depiction isn’t too far from reality. In the United States, tribal police have jurisdiction over Native peoples on Native lands, but in many places, they don’t have the jurisdictional authority to, for example, charge a non-Native person who is assaulting or robbing someone on Native lands. All of this goes back to the General Crimes Act which was introduced into law aaaaallll the way back in **1817**. In short, the rules informing who has jurisdiction over who on reservation lands are jacked up. Knowing this, there’s a bit of a darker connotation when the Okern cops tell Big that if he needs any backup, “…we’ll be sure not to show up.” IRL, tribal police must often defer to federal police for assistance in prosecuting non-Indigenous criminals and, oftentimes, the federal cops really don’t show up.
Despite all this, Big does his best to fight evil “in that good way.” Over the course of the episode, we also find out – through a series of flashbacks – what inspired Big to take this path. So: remember waaay back in episode one when Willie Jack had that seemingly throwaway line about her uncle dating the “Deer Lady?” Well, guess what, WE GET A WHOLE-ASS DEER LADY EPISODE. Can you tell I’m excited? (I’m excited.)
For folks unfamiliar, Deer Woman is a figure who appears in stories told by a few different tribal nations. Generally, the story goes that a group of men camping at night are approached, in darkness, by a mysterious woman from across the fire pit. The woman will take the men out into the woods with the man convinced he’s going to do some snagging. Only, when they’ve reached a private, isolated spot, the man looks down at the woman’s legs (which were previously obscured by the light of the fire) to find that she has deer’s legs. Then she usually tramples the guy to death.
Usually, the Deer Woman story functions as a kind of warning for men to stay on the straight and narrow, but here writer Sterlin Harjo has re-imagined Deer Woman (portrayed in the episode by Kahnawá:ke Mohawk actress Kaniehtiio Horn) into a badass vigilante who only goes after “bad men” who, as we find out, all tend to drive really nice cars. In flashback, young Big spots Deer Lady picking up her first victim (played by Hualapai actor Kiowa Gordon, who folks should also check out as the quasi-villain in Jeff Barnaby’s Indigenous zombie movie Blood Quantum) right here in Okern. Later, young Big is saved from danger (both fecal and physical) when Deer Lady shows up to stomp some dudes who are trying to rob the local corner store. Little Big’s stuck on the toilet while the holdup happens, and Deer Lady is even kind enough to spare him some TP. Go Deer Lady, go!
Big’s final childhood encounter with Deer Lady occurs during his grandmother’s funeral. Deer Lady tells child Big that he needs to always remember that his grandmother is watching over him and to “be good, fight evil.” If he does all that and walks the line, he won’t ever end up on the receiving end of Deer Lady’s wrath. It’s a lesson in line with what was set up in the previous episode during that exchange between Rita and Elora – behind every good Native man is an even good-er and tougher (and scarier) Native lady. FACTS.
The drama that’s been simmering between Elora and Bear is once again on hold this week, and so my last week’s wish for some additional cute world-building has come true! Based on the pattern of the episodes so far, it seems like each of the members of the Dogs are going to have their own standalone episode that gives us some more insight into their character and to the lore of the community (which means that a solo Willie Jack episode is coming soon! Yes! Yes!). This structure works for me – with each of the episodes being only 30 minutes in length, there isn’t much room for B plot to develop. Additionally, given that the idea of the Deer Lady was introduced subtly into the series earlier on, it’s clear that the writers are laying out breadcrumbs for vigilant audience members. With all this in mind, it seems like we’ll have to wait out a bit more to find out the future of the Reservation Dogs and their California plans. But with episodes like this, I’m grateful for the pause. And I’m sure Deer Lady would tell you that patience is a virtue.
Willie Jack’s Deadly Meat Pies
• I obviously cannot conceal my unbridled excitement for the Deer Lady, as scary Native stories are my jam. If you want some similar takes on the Deer Woman figure, check out the graphic novel Deer Woman: An Anthology edited by Elizabeth LaPensée (Métis/Anishinaabe) and Weshoyot Alvitre (Tongva) for more stories in this vein. There’s also a Deer Lady inspired character in Stephen Graham Jones’ recent novel The Only Good Indians.
• Winner for this episode’s most heartwarming exchange is:
Cheese: “My name’s Cheese, and my pronouns are he, him, and his.
Bucky: “Huh, same as mine.”
• A cute easter-egg in the episode that some might want to pause to check out: After Big and Cheese first encounter Bucky sleeping on a bench in front of the movie theater, there’s a cut to a wide shot where we can read the list of films that are currently screening in town, and they are all works by folks involved in the production of Reservation Dogs. The first film listed is writer/director/producer Sterlin Harjo’s 2009 feature Barking Water, followed by multi-episode director Sydney Freeland’s Drunktown’s Finest (2015), and finally writer/producer Tazbah Rose Chavez’s 2020 short film Your Name Isn’t English. Go watch them all! Now! Don’t be a shitass!