Reservation Dogs. Exploring Indigenous Culture and Identity Through a New TV Series

Introduction

Reservation Dogs is an Indigenous American comedy-drama television series created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi that premiered on FX on Hulu in August 2021. The series follows four Native American teenagers living on a reservation in rural Oklahoma who commit crimes in order to raise money to get to the mysterious and faraway land of California. While Reservation Dogs has moments of absurdist humor and hijinks, overall the show presents a realistic and nuanced look at contemporary Native American life and confronts issues like poverty, loss, grief, and the desire to escape.

Co-Creators

Reservation Dogs was co-created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi. Harjo grew up in Holdenville, Oklahoma and is a member of the Seminole and Muscogee (Creek) Nations. He is the first Native American to create and produce an original series for FX Networks. Harjo previously created the AMERINDA Film Festival and Four Sheets to the Wind, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. According to an interview with NPR, Harjo says he “grew up surrounded by the best storytellers in the world” on his reservation, which inspired him to tell authentic Indigenous stories through film and television (NPR).

Taika Waititi is an Oscar-winning writer, director, actor and comedian originally from New Zealand. He co-directed the film Boy and directed Thor: Ragnarok, Jojo Rabbit and two episodes of The Mandalorian. Waititi is Māori and Jewish, and Reservation Dogs represents his first time collaborating on a television series set in an Indigenous community.

Setting

Reservation Dogs is set in the fictional rural town of Okern, Oklahoma located within the territory of the Native American reservation. Though Okern is fictional, the show was actually filmed on location in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, a small city with a significant Native American population located in the region known as “Indian Country.” Much of the filming took place in the traditional grounds of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation (“Where was Reservation Dogs filmed?,” n.d.). By rooting the setting in an actual Native community in Oklahoma, the show authentically captures the people, language, and culture of that area (“How ‘Reservation Dogs’ Built Okern in Okmulgee, Oklahoma,” 2022).

an aerial view of the rural oklahoma landscape

The rural reservation setting is isolated yet close-knit. It provides a backdrop of poverty and lack of opportunity for the young characters. However, it also anchors their cultural identity and traditions. Overall, the show’s grounded sense of place enhances its realistic and raw portrayal of contemporary Indigenous youth.

Characters

Reservation Dogs centers around four Indigenous teenagers living on a reservation in rural Oklahoma: Bear Smallhill (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora Danan Postoak (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor). They form a kind of found family after the loss of a mutual friend, Daniel, and spend their days committing small crimes to raise money to get to the mythical California.

Bear is the de facto leader of the group, a stoic and protective presence who is still dealing with the trauma of losing his best friend Daniel. Elora is the most level-headed and determined to make a better life for herself outside the reservation. Willie Jack provides comic relief as a good-natured goofball. And Cheese is a sensitive germaphobe who rounds out the crew.

Other prominent Indigenous characters include tribal police officer Big (Zahn McClarnon) who keeps an eye on the kids, Bear’s uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer) who dispenses wisdom, and rival gang member Jackie (Elva Guerra) who has her own California dreams.

Plot

Reservation Dogs follows four teenagers – Bear Smallhill, Elora Danan, Willie Jack, and Cheese – living in a rural part of Oklahoma located within the Muscogee Nation reservation. The teenagers, who call themselves the “Rez Dogs,” spend their time engaging in various antics and petty crimes as they dream of making enough money to get to the exotic promised land of California (Wikipedia).

the main teenage characters smiling and walking

In the first season, the Rez Dogs’ antics include stealing a potato chip truck and engaging in a turf war over dead man’s corner, while dealing with grief and trauma from the loss of a friend. They participate in Indigenous cultural practices and deal with typical teenage struggles with identity, family, and maturity along the way (TheWrap).

The second season continues to follow the Rez Dogs on their misadventures and escapades as they continue pursuing their dream of reaching California, form new relationships, and confront various challenges.

Tone

Reservation Dogs expertly balances comedy and drama throughout the first season. As described in a review from CBR, one notable example is the hospital sequence in episode 5. The scene depicts the somber realities of life on the reservation after one of the main characters is injured, showing “a grim lesson about real reservation life.” However, this serious moment is undercut by humorous dialogue between the characters, highlighting the show’s ability to blend heavier emotional moments with laugh-out-loud comedy.

Overall, Reservation Dogs uses this mix of humor and drama to portray both the lighter and heavier aspects of reservation life. As noted in The New Yorker, the show is “a mood piece, and a sweet one, a collection of intertwined and poetic portraiture.” By balancing comedy and drama, the show paints a nuanced picture of its characters and setting.

Reception

Reservation Dogs has received widespread critical acclaim and won several major awards. The show has a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics praising its originality, authentic portrayal of Indigenous lives, and blend of drama and deadpan humor (1).

In 2021, Reservation Dogs won the Gotham Award for Breakthrough Series and was named one of the 10 best shows of the year by the American Film Institute. Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi received the Independent Spirit Award for Best New Scripted Series.

The show and cast have earned multiple nominations for major awards like the Critics Choice Television Awards, Primetime Emmy Awards, and Peabody Awards. Devery Jacobs was nominated for Best Actress at the 2022 Critics Choice Television Awards for her role as Elora Danan (2).

Overall, Reservation Dogs is considered one of the most groundbreaking and acclaimed new shows in recent years for telling relatable coming-of-age stories through a very rarely seen perspective with nuance, humor, and heart.

Sources:
(1) https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/reservation_dogs/s01
(2) https://www.npr.org/2023/08/02/1191671833/the-unassumingly-brilliant-reservation-dogs-is-back-for-its-third-and-final-seas

Themes

One of the central themes of Reservation Dogs is coming of age and Indigenous identity. The four main characters – Bear, Elora, Cheese, and Willie Jack – are all Indigenous teenagers living on a reservation in rural Oklahoma (source). As they come of age, they grapple with their Indigenous heritage and what it means to them. Elora in particular struggles with wanting to leave the reservation for California but also feeling tied to her community (source). The show explores the characters searching for purpose and belonging as young Indigenous people. As noted in one review, Reservation Dogs “delves into themes of friendship, family, and heritage” as the teens figure out who they are and where they come from (source).

the four friends embracing in a circle

Tribal Inspiration

Reservation Dogs draws inspiration from the cultures and experiences of various Indigenous tribes, most notably the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. As referenced in this Screenrant article, the show’s co-creator Sterlin Harjo belongs to both the Seminole and Muscogee Nations. The show is filmed on the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.

In an interview with NPR, Harjo explained how the feedback from tribal citizens, including his own parents who are Muscogee, impacts the show’s creative direction. While the fictional Bear reservation is an amalgamation of different tribes, the characters, settings, and cultural elements are grounded in lived realities and informed by Muscogee and other tribal advisors. As Harjo notes, “We’re writing about specific people in a specific place…It’s all based on real life and real experiences.”

By showcasing contemporary Indigenous stories with comedy and heart, Reservation Dogs provides an unprecedented platform for Native representation. The show explores universal themes of youth, family, and belonging through its Muscogee-inspired lens. According to sources, Reservation Dogs advances the mission of upending stereotypes and empowering new Indigenous storytellers.

Impact

Reservation Dogs has had a significant and positive impact on Indigenous representation and communities. According to “Reservation Dogs” Leaves Lasting Impact on State’s Film Industry, the series is estimated to have generated nearly $50 million in economic impact locally in Oklahoma through hiring Indigenous crew, vendors, and actors. Beyond the economic impact, the show has received praise for its authentic portrayal of contemporary Indigenous youth and communities. As noted in How ‘Reservation Dogs’ became a breakthrough hit for Indigenous representation, the show stands out for having an all-Indigenous writers room and Indigenous leadership, enabling more accurate and nuanced representation. By showing the diversity of Native experiences and bringing an authentic Indigenous lens, Reservation Dogs provides a model for how Indigenous communities can be portrayed respectfully and fully on screen.

crew filming the show on location

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