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Reservation Dogs and the Power of Indigenous Joy

(Above LTR, Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack, K. Devery Jacobs as Elora, D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai as Bear, and Lane Factor as Cheese)

This Indigenous People’s Month, let’s celebrate the most underappreciated comedy of the decade.

November is marked as Indigenous People’s Month, yet representation for Native Americans in the media has always been turbulent. Films and TV shows featuring indigenous actors and stories have been rare and oftentimes problematic. Most recently, controversy sparked about this October’s Killers of the Flower Moon. Detailing the horrific serial killings of Osage people in the early 20th century, the film took extensive care to consult with Osage members for cultural accuracy and opinion, yet some believe that too much emphasis is placed on Native tragedy in the media. This opinion is held by Devery Jacobs, one of the stars of the incredibly lovable series Reservation Dogs. The FX dramedy first graced screens in 2021 and the series ended with its third season this September. Beloved by critics but not in conversations as one of the year’s most widely seen shows, it very well could be the most underrated series with a recent release. It’s earnestly witty and despite characters grappling with grief and other interpersonal conflicts, the show is dominated by joy.

Reservation Dogs follows teens Bear, Elora, Willie Jack, and Cheese as they navigate adolescence after the suicide of their close friend. Sounds hilarious, right? It surprisingly is. Their naive attempts to become gangsters for quick cash are in pursuit of leaving for California, where their recently decease friend Daniel dreamed of going. To be clear, these characters never achieve true gangster feats. They do form rivalries with the other youthful gang on the rez, where passive fights and paintball drive-bys take place. They additionally dismiss advice from the local lighthorseman/tribal cop Big, while evading arrest for crimes like stealing copper and hot chips.

Their antics are non-threateningly absurd but the show achieves shocking levity through the themes of grief and family at its core. Between scenes featuring phallic beadwork and potentially spoiled meat pies lie compassionate stories about how to maintain strength in difficult times. The show doesn’t back down from tougher topics like suicide and addiction, yet it chooses to focus on how these difficulties don’t define the characters’ optimism.

Where many teen shows struggle to create a single engaging plotline for parents, Reservation Dogs excels in its storytelling about characters spanning three generations (four, if you count spirits). The group repeatedly showcases their respect for their elders, even kooky ones like Uncle Brownie or Old Man Fixico (Richard Ray Whitman, left). When facing emotional distress, the adults of the reservation look out for the children, who often teach them something in return. The show’s navigation between children, adults, and elders brings a sense of reality and truth to the series. Unlike simplistic shows centering adolescents, adults reel from their own mistakes and regret. This unifies the residents of the reservation, showcasing the community at the core of the show.

Reservation Dogs is a show that has spirit in every application of the word. Yet due to the casual fantastical nature of the show, both clear and convoluted routes to enlightenment are often shared by literal spirits. Most frequently we are shown the warrior spirit (played by Dallas Goldtooth, right). He says he is there to guide Bear (Woon-A-Tai, left) in moments of conflict with frustratingly vague wisdom. However, often the spirit complains about his own troubles, such as his hard nipples as a response to the cool climate of the spirit realm. The show deftly navigates humor in these appearances while still maintaining reverence for the spiritual elements of indigenous identity (most of the time). Some characters interact with spirits more closely than others. Bear begins seeing the spirit pictured above in the show’s first episode and Big ran into the murderous but fiercely protective Deer Lady as a small child. However, sometimes this spirituality is felt in a less literal sense. Willie Jack feels Daniel at times and throughout the three season arc, begins interacting more closely with the spiritual realm.

Not all spirits are detached from the present. Even Daniel makes his presence occasionally known though nonhuman appearances when his friends need him most. While some spirits are hilarious, the recognition of spirituality is never approached with malice.

The indigeneity of the show expands beyond the characters on screen, who (excluding a handful of characters like White Steve) are played by exclusively Native actors. Creator of the show Sterlin Harjo set and filmed the series on Muscogee land in Oklahoma. Utilization of the tribal land was expanded by hiring indigenous cast, and crew. This representation also includes executive producer and co-creator Taika Waititi. The Oscar-winning filmmaker is Maori and his signature quirky wit is felt throughout the show. Even forms of merchandise is handled by Creek citizens. When I visited the Muscogee Nation where the show was filmed this summer, I was told by an inside source that the T-shirts promoting the show were designed by one of Harjo’s relatives. For a show that honors how community can become family, I am constantly impressed by the community built behind the camara.

Reservation Dogs navigates humor and heart with a delicate balance. It excels at being joyous and silly without compromising or dismissing harsh truths. The cast excels at behaving like family which is an easier feat with strong stories and indigenous storyytellers behind them. So although there may be impressive works about the widescale traumas Native Americans have been subjected to, I urge you to bask in the glory of a show with so much hope. It’s rare for a series to maintain such excellent standards throughout its run and although I’m sad to have seen the show end after three seasons, it means viewers can watch any episode to feel the heart and love within the series. The love and genuine compassion within each episode is comforting, authentic, and all-consuming.

Written By Mary Leer

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