The kids of Reservation Dogs plot their next move in a quest for California.
My Native blood comes from my father’s side of the family. His education about Native ways was supplemented by visits to my grandmother a few times a year. She married a white man who was a terrible, abusive alcoholic, and in many ways, I feel like this was the entire relationship between Natives and non-Natives in America in microcosm. She loved him despite his many faults (although I would argue my grandfather had pretty much no redeeming qualities, unlike America – we have pretty good food, for example).
One of the things I learned from them was how deeply full of shit our country was about Native history, and how terrible portrayals of Natives are in the media. These portrayals have greatly clouded the average American’s perspective of Indigenous people. When I was on a powwow drum for several years, I experienced this first-hand. We’d get asked questions like “why don’t I hear you do the DUM-dum-dum DUM-dum-dum DUM-dum-dum” and we’d have to explain nicely that’s a movie thing, not a real Native drum song. People would sometimes get offended because that’s what the colonialist does when the conquered question the narrative. We understood these were people raised on movies featuring wild Indians woo-woo-wooing and Rock Hudson speaking pidgin English, but it was frustrating.
But recently, we’ve seen an improvement in Native-related media, with non-Native directors taking steps to make things right, and Native voices creating their own media. A great new example of this is the FX/Hulu show “Reservation Dogs.”
Reservation Dogs follows the story of four teenagers, Elora Danan, Bear, Willie Jack, and Cheese, growing up on an Oklahoma reservation and dreaming of a new life in California. This dream leads them to commit crimes to pay for their escape, including a heist of a potato chip truck in the opening episode. The show is historic in that it has an all-Indigenous writers room and directing staff. It is also extremely funny.
The stars Paulina Alexis (Willie Jack), Lane Factor (Cheese), Devery Jacobs (Elora) and D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai (Bear) are relative unknowns, but there are some familiar faces. Veteran actor and American treasure Gary Farmer plays the elderly relative of one of the kids who tries to sell 15-year-old weed in a world where pot is legal and much better. Zahn McClarnon (you may know him from the TV series Fargo and Westworld) is excellent as a tribal police officer, and standup comic Bill Burr is wonderful in a dramatic role playing coach-turned-driving-instructor who helps Elora deal with a recent trauma.
The comedy is classic Native humor and a good introduction to that world. Real-life Native rappers Lil Mike and Funny Bone are a delight as two bicycle-riding guys who sort of serve as a hip-hop Greek chorus, but the real comic weapon is Dallas Goldtooth as the “Unknown Warrior.” The Unknown Warrior is a spirit guide to Bear, who meets him at first whenever he is knocked unconscious. You initially see the spirit guide as a stereotypical warrior astride a war pony, but you soon learn he’s kind of a goof. He died at Little Big Horn, but not in a noble way (a rather ridiculous way, in fact). The next time Bear encounters him, you hear him war-whoop and then you see him urinating next to a dumpster.
Trust me, these are jokes at your expense, White Person, because white stereotypes of Native Americans are a long-time deep source of humor for the Indigenous community. But they’re not mean-spirited, just funny because the odds are good that in the hands of a white showrunner, this character would fit the Noble Savage stereotype. But he certainly doesn’t.
Other aspects of modern Native life, such as reservation health clinics, are covered in the show, and there are also some nods to Native mythology (the episode that included the Deer Woman was sublime and Kaniehtiio Horn was born to play that role).
Overall, the show is excellent, likely to make some top 10 best shows of the year lists, and is currently available on Hulu. And the good news is it has been renewed for a second season. What better day to begin streaming it than today, Indigenous Peoples’ Day?
The last word goes to Native singer-songwriter Anne Humphrey, who packs more Native history in one song than most hear in 12 years of school: