Protests at Standing Rock. The commemoration of the first annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, or “Orange Shirt Day,” in Canada. A challenge to the Indian Child Welfare Act, which was covered in season two of the podcast “This Land”: Indigenous issues have begun to get some well-deserved media attention in recent years.
Indigenous storytellers and actors, too, are getting their moment in the spotlight. Native people have held roles in popular films and television shows since the early days of westerns, but almost never in any significant number or with any voice in the creative process. Peacock’s summer sitcom “Rutherford Falls,” about a town embroiled in a controversy over a problematic statue, had five Native writers and was co-run by the first Native showrunner of a TV sitcom. And now FX’s “Reservation Dogs” features the first entirely Indigenous writer’s room and set of directors, an almost entirely Native cast and is shot on Muscogee Nation land.
FX’s “Reservation Dogs” features the first entirely Indigenous writer’s room and set of directors and an almost entirely Native cast.
Cast and crew includes members of the Muscogee, Caddo, Seminole, Mohawk, and Lakota Nations, which has led to well-developed characters and stories of growing up on an Indian reservation. They stand in stark contrast to previous stereotypical representations of Native people within popular media.
“Reservation Dogs” tells the story of four Native teenagers who have formed a gang of thieves—“The Reservation Dogs”—in order to make some extra cash so that they can leave their reservation behind and move to California. In the opening, we find our band of misfits each grappling with profound loss in their young lives.
Elora (Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs) grieves a mother she hardly remembers. Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) is struggling with the absence of his father, who has abandoned Bear and his mother to pursue a rap career. Cheese (Lane Factor) lives with extended relatives as his parents are not in his life. And all of them are coping with the suicide of Willie Jack’s (Paulina Alexis) cousin Daniel, who was formerly the fifth member of their circle of friends.
Daniel’s death sets the story in motion, driving the characters to form a gang and pilfer and pillage their way toward saving up enough money to flee to California. “That’s why Daniel’s gone,” Elora says, “Cause this place killed him. You know, I’m not letting it kill me.”
The show’s creators, deliver a show with impressive emotional range that achieves an honest portrayal of the hardships that many Indigenous communities face.
Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo, the show’s creators, deliver a show with impressive emotional range that achieves an honest portrayal of the hardships that many Indigenous communities face, including high rates of suicide, poverty, alcoholism and disease. But they also manage to provide breakthrough moments of humor, often through the use of elements of magical realism, a trademark of Waititi’s work (see “Jojo Rabbit” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.”)
Although our protagonists are gang members and thieves, their goodness shines through the surface level immorality of their actions. I was reminded of Father Greg Boyle’s book, Tattoos on the Heart, and the distinction he makes between doing bad and being bad. In one scene, the Reservation Dogs steal a truck full of Flaming Flamers potato chips. Though they pull off the theft, it is clear from the start that they are not exactly cut out to be hardened criminals. In the middle of jacking the truck, Bear and Elora argue over whether she should put her seatbelt on, while Willie Jack cries out that she needs to call her mom.
Although our protagonists are gang members and thieves, their goodness shines through the surface level immorality of their actions.
Similarly, when they negotiate with the meth heads who are their buyers, the Reservation Dogs politely introduce themselves, with Cheese even including his pronouns, and are surprisingly mannered and gracious upon receiving their payout. Later, when they hear about the downward spiral that the truck driver’s life has taken since their theft, they actually attempt (unsuccessfully) to buy the truck back from the meth heads and return it to its rightful owners.
“You’re good thieves. Best in town,” one of the meth heads tells them. Then he clarifies: “It is a small town.”
In spite of their gang activities, it is evident the Reservation Dogs are actually kind-hearted. In one scene, Bear slips some of the extra cash he has made into his mom’s wallet so she will have money for her night out. Cheese spends time humoring a lonely old woman who mistook him for her grandson. Willie Jack secretly gives her depressed dad an anniversary present to give to her mother because he has forgotten the special day. Even Elora, who has the hardest exterior of the four, stops in the middle of her driving test to help her instructor search for his missing drug-addicted daughter.
Their criminal actions are in many ways a product of their circumstances, as they feel trapped in a community that has no future to offer them. After Daniel succumbed to the pressures and hardships of life on the reservation, they are determined to create a different fate for themselves. To them, running away is literally a matter of life or death.
Their criminal actions are in many ways a product of their circumstances, as they feel trapped in a community that has no future to offer them.
The show covers a remarkable amount of ground in just eight episodes. Although the first several episodes serve to establish the group dynamic, as well as the feud with the other reservation gang—the NDN Mafia—later episodes explore each individual character on a deeper level. Bear in particular stands out.
The better angels of Bear’s nature are personified by a spirit named William Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth), a warrior who died when his horse tripped in a gopher hole during the Battle of Little Bighorn. The magical realism of the spirit’s appearance is a vehicle for comic relief, but Knifeman also serves as a guide in Bear’s life, visiting him in difficult moments. “You and your thuggy-ass friends, what are you doing for your people?” Knifeman asks Bear after he gets beaten up by the NDN Mafia. “It’s easy to be bad. It’s hard to be a warrior with dignity. Remember that.”
As the gang gets closer to leaving town for California, this question of “what are you doing for your people?” begins to weigh on their minds. What do we owe the communities we come from, and the people who have raised us?
During a visit to Daniel’s grave, Willie Jack explains the difficult decision that lies ahead of her. “Everyone wants to go to California, but it’s really hard leaving everyone here,” she admits to her deceased friend. “I don’t know how you did it.”