Ever since the motion-picture camera was invented, it’s been used to capture images of Native American peoples. Some of Thomas Edison’s earliest short-reel films included recordings of Native dancers, and Robert Flaherty’s now-classic film Nanook of the North would not only spawn the entire genre of documentary filmmaking but would circulate images of Inuk peoples worldwide, spawning a decades-long national obsession with Indigenous peoples in the United States. Television westerns would continue to build upon this mythology, casting Indigenous peoples as wise, stoic, and fearsome yet doomed to disappear. Now, finally, after decades of seeing ourselves represented in tired westerns and mystical medicine-man stories, Indigenous peoples can sit down once a week and watch the first series showcasing work produced by an all-Native core cast, writing room, and director corps. Oh yeah, and it’s funny.
Better late than never, right?
The new series Reservation Dogs was created and produced by Taika Waititi (Te-Whānau-ā-Apanui) and Sterlin Harjo (Seminole and Muscogee). Waititi’s name should be familiar to many with his breakout independent movie Boy launching him into several high-profile projects with Marvel Studios, where he managed to breathe new life into the Thor series. Harjo is also a seasoned independent filmmaker, having directed three features and one documentary while also founding the Native American sketch-comedy group the 1491s. The two met during Sundance in 2004 and during subsequent conversations bonded over the similar experiences they shared growing up in their respective Indigenous communities. The pair resolved to make a show that would break down the stereotypes that have been built up around Indigenous peoples and push back against the culture of Indigenous ‘trauma porn.’ Reservation Dogs is the culmination of their collective efforts.
The series premiere, penned and directed by Harjo and Waititi, introduces us to our main cast of characters. There’s the quiet Cheese (Lane Factor, Caddo and Seminole Creek) and foulmouthed Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis, Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation) who spend the first episode hawking stolen hot chips and hassling the local reservation kids. There’s also Elora Danan, played by Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs (Kanien’kehá:ka Mohawk), who some viewers may recognize from her breakout role in Jeff Barnaby’s 2013 film Rhymes for Young Ghouls and the more recent Blood Quantum. And finally, there’s Bear Smallhill (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Ojibwe), the group’s faltering leader who’s beginning to think that this newfound life of crime ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be.
Ever since the sudden and as-of-yet unexplained death of their friend Daniel one year prior, the group of friends has banded together to commit a series of petty thefts so that they can get money, escape the rez, and run off to California. Their latest scheme involves stealing a delivery truck and selling it to the local junkyard. Their plan goes surprisingly well; however, after the crew cash in, Bear’s guilty conscience begins to hit him hard. He’s eventually visited by the spirit of a not-so-helpful “unknown warrior,” William Knifeman, played by Dallas Goldtooth (also a member of the sketch group 1491s). While spouting hilarious laugh-out-loud nonsense (“The spirit world’s cold … My nipples are always hard”), Goldtooth’s character eventually rambles his way onto a genuine nugget of wisdom, asking Bear that he think about what it is he’s really fighting for. Later, Bear’s bandit heart begins to soften further when he overhears that the delivery man who was driving the truck they stole has lost his job. With his guilt mounting, Bear pulls an about-face and resolves to try to set things right.
While Bear is dreaming and soul-searching, a conflict between him and Elora begins to bubble to the surface: Bear still sees some glimmer of hope in their small reservation community, something valuable and worth protecting, whereas Elora is resolved to get the money they need as fast as possible so that she can get out and leave it all behind. This seems to be a setup for an ongoing conflict between the two throughout the series: What will happen when the Rez Dogs finally manage to raise the money they need? Will the hapless tribal cop played by Zahn McClarnon (Hunkpapa Lakota) finally get smart to the gang’s criminal activities? What really happened to Daniel, and why does Elora hold such a grudge against the town?
Another burgeoning story line that’s introduced in the pilot episode’s conclusion is the Reservation Dogs’ rivalry with another teen gang. The conflict between the two crews erupts into a paintball shootout that interrupts Bear, Elora, Cheese, and Willie Jack’s ceremony commemorating their friend Daniel’s passing. Bear tries to get the Dogs to turn vigilante, but not everyone seems sold on the idea.
The premiere is strong. It introduces the vibrant world of the fictional town of Okern, Oklahoma, while laying the groundwork for some interesting through-lines that can keep the series feeling coherent. Additionally, while the characters are silly and goofy (it’s a comedy, after all), they also feel real and authentic. Folks who grew up on the reservation have probably been Elora and Bear at different times in their lives. It’s a story specific to reservation life that’s long overdue, but anyone who felt too big in their suburb or small town can probably identify with the teen angst of the Rez Dogs.
Let’s be clear — life on the reservation isn’t always idyllic. Many people living on reserves struggle to make ends meet, and Reservation Dogs doesn’t shy away from showing how precarious life can be in those places that many U.S. viewers may not even realize still exist. But what makes the show so important and refreshing is that it doesn’t reduce Indigenous life down to a simple trauma narrative. Although the catastrophes wrought by colonialism are clearly visible in the run-down and abandoned buildings that serve as the series’ backdrop, that’s not all that Indigenous peoples are and can be. We struggle and we do what we need to survive, but we also laugh and joke and share stories. Here’s hoping the rest of the season gives us even more to celebrate. Hoka hey!
Willie Jack’s Deadly Meat Pies
• The series name Reservation Dogs is both an allusion to the Quentin Tarantino film Reservoir Dogs and the real-life phenomenon of the Rez Dog (stray dogs that wander in packs around the rez and are usually not to be toyed with).
• During a back and forth with Big about the strange goings-on in town recently, Willie Jack mentions that her uncle dated “Deer Lady.” For those not in the know, this is an allusion to Deer Woman, a supernatural figure that appears in scary stories told by several tribes. Usually in these stories a mysterious woman approaches a man camping in the wilderness or a group dancing around a fire pit. When Deer Woman successfully seduces a male victim, she takes him off away from the firelight and into the woods. Once the two are alone, the man will look down to discover that his new date has the legs of a deer, and it’s then that he’s usually stomped to death under her hooves. Whoever Willie Jack’s uncle’s ex is, she must have been a doozy.
• While all the performances by our four main teens are lovely, I want to shout out Paulina Alexis in particular. Apparently, the Willie Jack character was originally written as a boy, but Alexis brings such a natural and infectious charm to the surly character.
• Zahn McClarnon saying “penises and boobies and whatnot” was deeply snicker-inducing.
• A refreshing and necessary result of the series being set in Oklahoma is that it shows the strong historic connection between Black and Indigenous communities, especially in the Southeast. Native peoples and families look lots of different ways, and I’m here for this diversity of representation!
• The episode is sprinkled with great pieces of Native American music. There’s, of course, the inclusion of the characters Mose and Mekko (played by real-life Pawnee/Choctaw rappers Lil’ Mike and Funnybone), and the episode closes with the epic track “R.E.D.,” by the Halluci Nation (whose members 2oolman and Bear Witness are Mohawk and Cayuga), but I was especially taken by the track “Joey,” by Samantha Crain (Choctaw).