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‘Reservation Dogs’ finally gets Native American culture right

‘Reservation Dogs’ finally gets Native American culture right

Stories of Native American life that appeared on TV lacked authenticity… until “Reservation Dogs” premiered on FX and Hulu in 2021. The scripted comedy-drama follows the lives of four Indigenous teenagers who recently faced the death of their best friend, Daniel (Dalton Cramer), and are raising money to move to California. 

Set in rural Oklahoma, the show was filmed on the Muscogee Nation reservation “Reservation Dogs” has a majority Native American cast and crew which brought much more representation and authenticity to the experiences of this story in comparison to predecessors.

Representation as a whole on television is important when stereotypes have taken precedence over a culture telling the truth about their identity on screen. “Reservation Dogs” breaks barriers and challenges stereotypical tropes like “Cowboys versus Indians” that put Native Americans in a position of defeat. Along with “Reservation Dogs,” newer series “Rutherford Falls” and “Dark Winds” also tell stories with depth and show culture as multi-dimensional.

Pamela J. Peters, Indigenous documentarian and Operations and Events Coordinator for UCLA’s American Indian Studies Center, is familiar with Tazbah Chavez, one of the directors for “Reservation Dogs.”

“I went to school with [Chavez] before she started working on the series,” Peters said. “She’s extremely talented: She’s a poet, she’s funny. She represented three different nations in her tribal identity, and she incorporates that into her writing, into the humor.”

The show bounces between drama and comedy, but the way the narrative is executed has an unbeatable balance of both. 

The two-episode opener of the show’s second season has multiple scenes in which the eyes of owls are blurred in pixelation, suggesting a censored effect. The average viewer who watches is likely unaware of the meaning behind the censoring. 

“It talks about spirituality, but it also adds this layer of humor with it. We get it as a community; we get why they did that,” Peters said.

Vinent Schilling, a Native journalist and critic on Rotten Tomatoes said during an interview for NPR that in many Native cultures “the owl is a harbinger of evil, and you wouldn’t know that unless you’re involved in the Native community.”

The fifth episode of season one, called “Come and Get Your Love,” features Deer Lady — part of Indigenous folklore — through interactions with the character Big (Zahn McClarnon), who is the reservation’s police officer. In the reinterpretation of the folktale, Big sees Deer Lady (Kaniehtiio Horn), who is half woman, half deer at a convenience store. Deer Lady stomps on men attempting to rob the store with her hooves before giving Big, who is hidden in the bathroom, toilet paper under the stall. 

He last sees her at a family funeral when the Deer Lady tells Big she “kills bad men” and advises Big to “be good and fight evil.” The presentation of Deer Lady in this episode resembles the folktale where she lures men to their death in order to protect her community against malicious men.

“The folktales, most of what they’ve talked about, you can tell it’s from the southern tribes from Oklahoma,” said Peters. “They told it in a very contemporary story. And I love it”

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Native experiences of spirituality, grief, and loss permeate the show. In season two, the character Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) prays with Daniel’s mother (Lily Gladstone) and their ancestors appear behind them. Willie Jack’s hands are held out on the table and tears form in her eyes.

“Reservation Dogs” also presents spirituality through a satirical lens that calls out ridiculous stereotypes of Indigenous culture. For example, the character Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Ti) occasionally gets advice from the character Spirit (Dallas Goldtooth) who appears out of thin air, shown dressed in feathers and riding a horse. Spirit randomly appears outside of Bear’s bedroom window — or even a porta potty — to rant or give advice.

“Reservation Dogs” shows how these characters deal with the trauma of losing their friend and growing pains, seeking to know their worth in the world. Many episodes are purely comedic and follow the teenagers’ daily lives and explorations on their reservation.

“We laugh a lot, despite all the atrocities. That seems to be what has kept us going,” Peters said. “In different tribes, there’s meaning behind laughter — and that’s what brings your soul to life. And I really like the fact that they’ve incorporated that in every episode.”

Photo: FX Networks

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