We’re officially halfway through this season of Reservation Dogs and the show really feels like it’s hitting its stride. After a deeply compelling first season, collective expectations were high, but it seems like at every chance, the Rez Dogs are going above and beyond.
Now that we’ve grown familiar with the series’ cast of characters, the show is working to make the world they inhabit feel alive and full. Stylistically, the show is stretching its wings with more unique setups and elaborate set pieces. The first five episodes have also laid the thematic groundwork for this season — everyone in the village is feeling lost, caught up in the storm of change happening all around them. Up until this point, we’ve seen some brief glimpses into how all of the adults around are handling things, such as Teenie’s breakdown last episode during Mabel’s wake or seeing Daniel’s dad cope with the loss of his son. (Daniel is the Rez Dog who took his own life last season, setting into serious motion the gang’s plan to head to Cali.) This episode brings further attention to the burdens Indigenous women are often forced to bear, invisibly and thanklessly, in service to their communities.
Rita is headed off to a conference with Bev and Natalie, two of her IHS (Indian Health Services) co-workers, as well as her cousin Teenie, who only recently returned to the reservation. Initially, Rita is hesitant to leave Bear alone given all the recent goings-on, such as his new roofing job, that whole “being ditched by his best friend” thing, and because he’s still weathering the losses of several important community members. Bev (the auntie taking care of Jackie, who is played by Jana Schmieding, star of the equally brilliant Native-led show Rutherford Falls) eventually talks her into it, but not without first making some questionable comments about Rita and Bear. Because Rita became pregnant with Bear while she was still pretty young, she chose to sacrifice some of her own dreams in the process of becoming a mother (“I told everyone I was gonna go to New York and smoke cigarettes on a fire escape,” Rita later admits to her potential snag at the conference). Bev assures Rita, half-jokingly, that Bear “will make a great teen dad,” but it’s clear from Rita’s response that she wants something different for her child, hence her tendency to keep an extra-watchful eye on the boy.
The four women head off to the conference and are immediately ensnared by a young up-and-coming doctor Sam (played by Tatanka Means, a Navajo/Lakota/Dakota/Omaha actor and comedian who will soon be appearing on the big screen in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon). Rita makes the first move on him, and, after a short flirtation by the pool, it seems like the two are starting to hit it off. The young doctor seems to be all about “honoring the matriarchs” and working in the community, and this excites Rita even more.
The four aunties decide that maybe a good steaming down there with some medicinal herbs will give them the power they need to find the sweethearts they’re looking for. However, it doesn’t seem like the coochie medicine is strong enough, especially when it’s combined with alcohol and edibles. Before Rita can make her final play on Sam, she sees what she thinks is a younger “niece” swoop in, although it’s left ambiguous as to whether Sam is actually interested in someone else.
Luckily, Bev, Teenie, and Natalie are there to hold Rita up, just as they have always done. In the episode’s cold-open flashback, we see some teeny-tiny versions of the aunties, plus Cookie (Elora’s mother who passed away in a car accident over a decade ago), dancing together to Brandy’s “Sitting Up in My Room.” The episode’s big set piece is when the grown-up aunties perform the dance together at the conference mixer. The punch line? All of the impressive choreography is in the women’s heads. In reality, they’ve been moonwalking with their shoes off on the now nearly empty dance floor. (The devil is really in the details in this bit. It’s fantastic.)
Messed up and hurt over her lost dream of finding herself a “Doctor Daddy,” Rita speaks out a little too unfiltered at Teenie, singling her out as the only non-mother in the group. In a backhanded compliment, Rita posits that Teenie has more freedom than the rest of them because she isn’t a mother, to which Teenie fires back with, “You think that’s easier? … You don’t know what I have to deal with.” That’s when Rita goes straight for the jugular, accusing Teenie of “bailing” on them after Cookie’s death. There are profound parallels between Rita/Teenie’s dynamic and the one developing between Bear and Elora, and each of these characters speaks to broader dynamics of off-rez/rez experiences within Native communities. There are many reasons why people choose to leave while others choose to stay, and the pressures to be your very best are further compounded by the fact that much of mainstream American culture has stereotyped reservation life as hopeless.
Luckily, Teenie and Rita cross paths in the bathroom and manage to reconcile their differences. Rita’s quiet confession that she wishes she could “feel sexy again,” is heartbreaking. Both women opine the fact that Indigenous women are put on pedestals by the community … at the cost of folks recognizing us as human beings. But, of course, that’s why Native women celebrate and uphold each other — because sometimes nobody else does. The two are later shown posted up in their hotel bed together snacking and watching forensic-science TV, and, while this isn’t the romance that Rita set out to find, this kind of love that Native women offer each other is just as important.
The voices of Indigenous women have long been actively suppressed in much of mainstream American culture, and so the themes of this episode are especially timely. For example, only last week did the Academy finally issue an apology to Sacheen Littlefeather, whom many may know as the Apache and Yaqui activist who refused an Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando at the 1973 Academy Awards. In an interview, Littlefeather alleges that John Wayne attempted to “physically assault and take [her] off the stage.” Littlefeather was a young Indigenous activist suddenly forced into the spotlight during a period of heavy Indigenous visibility — the Brando event happened a mere four years after Indigenous college students and community members from the Bay Area occupied Alcatraz Island for 19 months, and the 1973 Academy Awards aired in the midst of the Wounded Knee Occupation, both events that were heavily televised in the news media. As a result of her effort to bring awareness to Indigenous issues, Littlefeather was largely shunned from the film industry. And the Academy’s failure to collectively address this incident sent the message that Indigenous women must remain quiet and unchallenging if they want to take up space in popular media.
In 1975, two years after Littlefeather’s appearance at the Oscars, scholar Rayna Green would publish an article entitled “The Pocahontas Perplex: The Image of Indian Women in American Culture,” which exposed America’s obsession with depictions of young, silent Indigenous women. There, Green would argue that Indigenous women are “burdened with an image that can only be understood as dysfunctional … to be ‘good’ she [the Indigenous woman] must deny her own people, exile herself from them, become white, and perhaps suffer death.” Indigenous women have long been sexualized and exoticized in mainstream media, with characters like Pocahontas being strategically deployed to represent the land “giving itself up” in the service of manifest destiny. In most westerns, Native women characters only live long enough to sacrifice themselves for their white male lover (M. Elise Marubbio’s Killing the Indian Maiden details many examples of this stereotype), or if they do grow old, they are only destined to become the butt of the joke (see The Searchers). Hell, it was only two years ago that Land O’Lakes butter removed the image of a Native woman from its packaging, its logo depicting a young Native woman with her hands outreached in eternal generosity. (Ugh, of course.)
And, most troublingly, similar pressures come from inside Indigenous communities as well. Indigenous women are often uplifted as matriarchs and mother figures, but this can also lead to their being pigeonholed into performing a narrow set of “acceptable” roles. To this day, some powwows (intertribal Indigenous cultural dance gatherings) still require their young women royalty to affirm that they have never dated anyone, denying young mothers access to these esteemed positions. Native women who are caught between all these intersecting expectations must push back against colonialism and patriarchy simultaneously, yet if they do so, they risk of being called “untraditional” or even “traitors” for speaking out against harmful community protocols. In Reservation Dogs, Rita and Teenie end up taking different paths, each requiring their own sacrifices. Both should be equally celebrated and uplifted. That Reservation Dogs manages to cover all this ground in just over 20 minutes is simply astonishing, and all credit to this episode’s writer-director Tazbah Rose Chavez for her efforts!
Willie Jack’s Deadly Meat Pies
• The two side plots of this episode are Natalie eventually hooking back up with both of her two exes (yeehaw for representing diverse relationship configurations, y’all) as well as Bobby Lee’s Dr. Kang character (who first appeared waaaaaay back in season one in the IHS meat-pie-stand episode, which is where this segment of the recap gets its namesake) playing the role of the non-Native outsider bumbling his way to his first snag. Lee performs well as the butt of the joke, with the button on the episode being his nearly nude, hickey-coated run through the entire hotel.