If you grow up with a father of Native American descent, you view pop culture a little bit differently. For one, you are more than a little suspicious of John Wayne. You also start to notice that American Indians in most pop culture are sort of cartoonish.
But recently, Native Americans have taken matters into their own hands, and there currently is a growing selection of Native-produced media. There are great movies, like the Predator prequel “Prey” and “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open.” There are also some excellent shows, such as the compelling “Dark Winds” and the just-ended and beautiful “Reservation Dogs.”
“Reservation Dogs” begins the story in season one with four teenage Natives living in Oklahoma attempting to hustle their way to California where they believe will be a better life. I outlined the first season here.
From there, the story expands to encompass two other generations, the parents/guardians of the teens, and their immediate elders. This week, the last episode dropped on Hulu.
It was a perfect finale to a perfect TV show. It’s funny, touching, and perhaps best of all, this is a Native American story told by Native Americans. I think the community has earned that right after decades of misrepresentation and outright nonsense (including a spirit guide character which is a chef’s kiss-perfect parody of Native tropes).
They mix in a little Native mythology and there are episodes that do a great job of showing the traditions of this particular Native community, but also make the point that these are people in and of the modern world, not historical relics. There is also a wide variety of themes, from the meaning of friendship to the sins our country has committed against its original people (boarding schools for example) to how young people can learn from elders but elders can also learn from young people (a Native concept that non Natives often misunderstand).
The acting is first-rate, featuring a who’s who of great Native actors from Gary Farmer to Kaniehtiio Horn, but the main cast of young actors is just excellent. Beyond the main cast, the show’s reputation attracted A-listers like Ethan Hawke to perform guest star roles. The high level of acting was evident in the series finale, where most of the characters from the show reconvened.
Series finales are often a mixed bag. You have great ones like “Six Feet Under” and not-so-great ones like “Seinfeld.” But Dogs stuck the landing, giving those who love the show and the characters a proper sendoff that was both perfect and left us wanting more. The good news is that the show’s creator, Sterlin Harjo, has hinted at future projects within the Reservation Dogs universe, including a movie.
Beyond the outstanding storytelling, pitch-perfect comedy, and profound themes, there is another reason why this show hits home for so many Americans. This show avoids the Noble Savage trope, the White Savior trope, the Indians Are Historical Relics trope, and most importantly, not a bit of Pidgeon English to be found.
Because Native Americans are part of modern America, including being a real political force (especially in Arizona, where some Natives were forced to travel for miles to vote and deliver major elections to the Democrats). Of all the themes offered up by this wonderful show, the fact that the Native American is not extinct is perhaps the most important.
The last word goes to two characters in another Native movie, “Smoke Signals.” They ask the eternal question many in Indian Country wonders: What’s up with John Wayne’s teeth?