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Photo: ‘Reservation Dogs’
On August 9th, FX on Hulu released a new half-hour comedy about four teenagers on a poverty-stricken reservation, and what they will do to get out. Created by Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo, ‘Reservation Dogs’ centers on four Indigenous teenagers living on their reservation in rural Oklahoma. Their quartet was originally a quintet, but a year earlier their fifth member, Daniel, died. The group struggles to process their grief; they blame their small town for their loss. They dedicate themselves to fulfilling Daniel’s dream of going to California. In order to accomplish this though, they have to hustle for cash, survive a turf-war against a rival gang, and avoid conspiracy-obsessed “Big” played by Zahn McClarnon. Over the course of the show, they go from committing crimes as means of getting to California to fighting them.
Creators Harjo and Waititi met back in 2004 at Sundance Film Festival. When they were together they often found themselves telling stories about growing up and realized how similar their childhood was, despite Harjo being from Oklahoma and Waititi being from New Zealand. They discussed how cool it would be to hear stories about Indigenous communities that didn’t focus only on the hardships. In an interview with Deadline Harjo said, “As longtime friends, it was only natural that Taika and I found a project together, and what better than a show that celebrates the complementary storytelling styles of our indigenous communities – –mine in Oklahoma and Taika’s in Aotearoa?”
‘Reservation Dogs’ – What is it about?
The four main characters are Bear, Elora, Willie Jack, and Cheese. Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) is the self-appointed leader, although no one else in the group necessarily recognizes that. Perhaps this is because he’s not a very good fighter, or maybe it’s because Elora naturally falls into this role as well. Except for Elora, played by Devery Jacobs, is so focused on getting to California that she doesn’t seem to realize her own magnetism. Cheese (Lane Factor) is a loyal, go-with-the-flow guy, down for whatever the group decides. Willie Jack is rough around the edges but the heart of the group. Bear is instructed by a spirit guide which adds a layer of magical realism as well as a satirical take on how white creators have portrayed native life.
He tells Bear, “Being a warrior- it’s not always easy. You and your thuggy-ass friends, what are you doing for people?” This isn’t necessarily the calm, wise spirit guide that has been depicted before. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Waititi said, “There’s a heightened version of what people think it’s like in these communities. It’s like whatever you expect it to be, it’s going to go to be that but we’re going to really twist and f— up what your expectations are.”
The world that is explored within ‘Reservation Dogs’ combines magical elements in a satirical way. According to Waititi, it’s a subversion of the ideas that people have around native communities. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Waititi recalled getting a bad review on his movie ‘Boy’ because critics didn’t think that it was “culturally-specific enough”. Waititi joked about not enough ghosts or talking trees in the story, but beneath the joking, it just goes to show the one-dimensional characters that native people are given. ‘Reservation Dogs’ pokes fun at that flatness while still exploring mythologies and beliefs within the culture.
Similar to his film ‘Jojo Rabbit’, in which Waititi plays an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler, satire is used to convey themes. Waititi said, “What people expect from our stories and our communities and what they want… It’s basically like what white culture wants from us is what crippled a lot of our storytelling in the past.” An amazing example of this is when an ancestor comes to visit and instead of giving the kids sage advice, he is completely useless. “As far as showing what Native people are like, we’re funny, we’re sad, we’re depressing, we’re interesting, we’re quirky, we’re everything. That shouldn’t be a radical thing that they’re showing us as human beings but it’s very radical and it’s about time in 2021,” said Harjo.
Harjo went on to explain that although the adversity that native communities have endured has shaped their experiences, it is not their identity. As a response to historic and personal trauma, humor plays an important part in Indian communities. Native humor is complex and distinct, but can be appreciated by all. “We fought in wars and were badasses and had hardships, but our survival counted on our humor, and that hadn’t been reflected. And that’s really what made us want to do the show. But also like a celebration of our communities, the quirkiness, the weirdness,” said Harjo.
The name ‘Reservation Dogs’ has multiple meanings behind it. Rez dogs is a nod to native culture, which references the tough stray dogs that roam around reservations in packs, as well as a slang term for adolescents in a low-income area. However, it is also a pop culture reference to the film ‘Reservoir Dogs’ by Quentin Tarantino. “Pop culture is important, because in these rural places, especially now with the internet and everything, that’s what you have. They know Wu-Tang Clan, they know Tupac, they know all the movie references, they know Quentin Tarantino. They’re fans of pop culture and they kind of recreate it where they’re at,” said Harjo.
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If the appeal of Waititi’s trademark quirkiness is not enough to make you want to watch the show, consider that there is complete representation through every aspect of the show; the writers, directors, and majority of the cast are Indigenous. This is a huge feat considering how limited Indigenous representation in television has been in the past. According to the University of California Los Angeles’ 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report, 0.3 percent of top film roles were given to Native Americans in 2018, and 0.5 in 2019. Of these roles, there were no Native women or Native directors of any of the top films of 2018 or 2019. According to the 2020 Writers Guild of America West’s Inclusion Report, Native American television writers make up only 1.1% of working stuff, and only 0.8 percent of employed screenwriters. Representation must take place at a deeper level, such as production and conception, in order to avoid plasticity as described by Kristen Warner in ‘In The Time Of Plastic Representation’.
She writes, “For this industry, actual progress would involve crafting a more weighted diversity, one generated by adding dimension and specificity to roles, and achieved in tandem with diverse bodies shaping those roles at the level of producing and writing.” The show’s authenticity and commitment to Indigenous culture is exciting for both the community itself but also to people who aren’t in an Indigenous community and breaking set stereotypes for them. In the 20th century, most of this representation came in Western films. Often they were shown as hostile antagonists of the cowboy. While characters have become a bit more nuanced than just obstacles to be conquered, diversity is still not nearly where it needs to be. “We’ve been a part of cinema from the very beginning, and we’ve never been portrayed in a realistic way. And it’s happening now and it’s . . . beautiful,” said Harjo.
Casting Director Angelique Midthunder knew the native community in the United States and was open to casting non-actors from around the country. Many of the kids who weren’t picked to be in the main four made it into the show as the rival gang. The show is shot on location in Okmulgee, Oklahoma which has a large Indigenous population; 18.2% of the Okmulgee population is made up of American Indian and Alaska Native. The tribe residing there is Muscogee Creek Tribe. Harjo has Muscogee heritage and is a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and was raised in Holdenville, Oklahoma, a source of inspiration for the show.
Both Waititi and Harjo have worked on other projects with Indigenous people at the center. Waititi’s ‘Boy’ focuses on an eleven-year-old Maori boy and his relationship with his father. Harjo’s ‘Four Sheets to the Wind’ tells the story of a boy leaving his reservation after his father’s suicide. Both of these creators are represented their communities, and by extension themselves, by telling unique and heartfelt Indigenous stories. Ultimately, ‘Reservation Dogs’ explores what is like to be a child and to create your own sense of wonder, community, and identity. By having the writers, actors, directors, and producers be Indigenous, the quality and quantity of Indigenous characters on-screen grows exponentially. The unique perspective that’s previously been minimalized has a voice with this show; and that voice is endearing, funny, weird, and worth watching.
Cast: Paulina Alexis, Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, Lane Factor, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Zahn McClarnon, Kirk Fox
Created By: Taika Waititi and Sterlin Hanjo
Executive Producers: Taika Waititi, Sterlin Hanjo, and Garrett Basch
Writer (ep.1): Taika Waititi and Sterlin Hanjo
By Kylie Bolter
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