Reservation Dogs is a really, really good show, and it’s a genre in its own right. Disclaimer: every reservation has its own unique identity. Through Rez Dog’s storyline, characters, acting, writing, and incredible cast, we get a fantastic window into what life feels like on a modern-day reservation as well as the different challenges that many face.
This is not a series that fetishizes any community. Nor do we focus exclusively on the traumas. The show is perfectly balanced out: equal parts funny and heart-wrenching, quirky–yet frustrating, vulgar and sweet–managing to tug on all your heart strings.
It’s not grounded in stereotypes and misconceptions. The characters are not “1/16th Native”, they are not the side characters, nor the antagonists. They each have their own unique stories, equally beautiful, raw, real, and intertwined.
This show keeps the myths, legends, identities, and visibility of Native communities, actors, and histories at the forefront of the narrative and doesn’t hesitate in touching on topics that many face as a result of genocide, structural oppression, and racism.
Only a handful of films and television shows have come out over the past few decades that really examine the realities that Native communities face worldwide. Reservation Dogs, however, is really the first show to erupt all over the media.
Even popular teen franchises like Twilight, missed the mark by not only fetishizing Native American culture through stereotypes and minimization, but failing to explore the realm of various tribes’ culture, social issues, and what life is actually like on many reservations, as well as the United State’s troubling history that led to many of the issues that thousands face.
Few mainstream shows have been able to really tap into authentic visibility. In 2014, The Red Road, a much more grim show starring Jason Momoa, graced the screens.
Hunkpapa Lakota and Irish actor Zahn McClarnon and Cherokee actor, Wes Studi (later integral characters in Reservation Dogs) also joined this amazing cast. The show was a gut gripping tale about the realities that many Native Americans grapple with in the US, touching on many relevant subjects such has crime, poverty, and the controversial topics of wealth earned through casinos.
While the show was incredibly written and holds a 7.3/10 star rating on IMDB and 67% on Rotten Tomatoes, it did not achieve the same popularity as Rez Dogs.
For years, Native American communities have been erased, targeted, misrepresented, and systemically oppressed. Native American styles have been appropriated all over the media, which has also failed to give visibility in ways that are meaningful.
Reservation Dogs breaks glass ceilings and kicks the door down in a very stylistic, comedic, and emotional approach by providing an unfiltered and quirky look into the issues that people, especially those who are coming of age in these harsh circumstances (personal, social, or financial) have to deal with through the lives of 4 best friends– just as different from one another and cheeky, as they are lovable and genuine.
When the show first aired, it was revolutionary. Its slow moving, comedic pacing, cameos and varied characters immediately captured viewers. The decision to focus the story around these 4 quirky teens created a vehicle for us to fully understand life through their teen perspectives while also talking about the contemporary culture of many Native tribes, from their slang words, to their popular soul foods.
By making slang part of the focus of the series, the series gave way to a more fresh and up-to-date representations for the many tribes who use and popularize these phrases. It was a great choice to bridge the gap that structural oppression has created in distancing many communities, geographically and metaphorically, from media visibility.
The show is unlike any other. It not only explores the history of various tribes in the South of the US, but shines a light on stereotypes, misrepresentations, most notably with one strikingly outrageous surprise cameo by Garett Hedlund that really hits the nail on the head when showing how Native American women are hugely objectified.
The Show also guest stars Bobby Lee as Dr. Kang, an admirer of one of the four main characters’ mom. The through-line that centers around escaping Okern lays down the blueprint for the entirety of Season 1. Our titular characters are determined to get out of Okern, the fictional rural Oklahoma small town that “killed” their friend, Daniel, who first proposed they move to California.
Now the team consisting of Bear (a conflicted teen with an absent father and loving resilient single mother who is admired and a spirit guide that always seems to confuse him), Elora (a loner without a family infrastructure who dreams of fulfilling the dreams of her late best friend), Cheese (a “woke” aspiring detective with a deadpan delivery and constant social sensitivity), and Willie (a gender ambiguous, cut-throat, slang-loving team player with a deeply vulnerable side) are determined to get there by any means necessary—even if those means are stealing. The cast is almost exclusively Native American, the writing is both hilarious and deeply emotional while also exploring more mystical themes.
The show is most brilliant in that it delivers all of this to audiences in a way that isn’t heavy-handed. These nuances unfurl without going out of their way to make a point. Reservation Dogs simply is what it is and the identity of the show speaks for itself.
The story is a mosaic of many different elements but it fits together seamlessly and the actors do quite well in their respective character profiles to one another. Willie uses the most slang and delivers her lines in a nonchalant manner, only letting slip her tremendous grief while on a hunt with her father. Bear continually loses focus on his California trip.
It’s clear that he is trying to find himself through the absence of his father. He is in conflict with doing wrong for the right reasons, being in a new “gang”, or being a hero in the community–by virtue of his recurring inuendo spewing spirit guide, “Spirit” Knifeman, who continually appears to him at the most awkward times to offer unsolicited as well as cryptic guidance, and who died at The Battle of Little Big Horn…but ironically, by freak accident–not actually in battle.
Willie Jack is a complex character in that she hides her grief for most of the show. She seems to always use the most slang expressions, accessorize the most, and always seems ready for a fight with the NDN Mafia, but in actuality, she possesses a deep reservoir of love for her family and community. She doesn’t elaborate on the depression that she has been forced to suppress since Daniel’s death until the latter half of Season 1. She is the first of the group to admit that deep down, she doesn’t actually want or need to go to California after all as she feels an unshakable love for her community in Okern.
Cheese wants to become a detective and is often the most level-headed of the group while also being a reflection of our cultural obsession with moral perfectionism by bringing woke culture into every conversation, even when it isn’t necessary. Outwardly, he seems the most emotionally removed but ends up the most insightful and compassionate. He goes out of his way to make awkward woke statements and he genuinely wants to have a positive impact, even if it means pretending to be the grandson of a lonely elderly woman in hospice so that she has someone to talk to.
Elora struggles the most to grapple with her resentment, having an unsteady home life, grieving the lost of Daniel as a friend or more, while trying desperately to make it to California as she feels she has nothing left. She pours all of her chips into getting out of Okern with laser-beam focus and feels that everyone else is distracted except for her.
Her estranged relationship with her grandmother, while not fully explored, is hinted at as being another symptom of the role that grief plays in her life when she breaks down in the junkyard after talking about Daniel and the loss of her mother to her old basketball coach. Elora also found Daniel’s body, and her battle with this trauma fuels intense desire to leave for good.
At their core, each of the kids has a loving heart of gold and are ultimately conflicted about their decision to leave and what the principle of leaving would mean. They’re collective heritage and histories seem to always be playing tug-of-war with their desire to escape the contemporary issues of life on the reservation.
The show always seems to do a throwback to legends and myths. Native American legends like The Tall Man and The Deer Woman appear in unsuspecting ways without an explanation–leaving viewers to simply do their research. The series even showcases an owl with its eyes blurred out by the camera (as owls, for some tribes, are symbols of death) and later it shows Elora’s uncle trying to slice a storm with an axe.
This strange decision is one of the ways that the show stands out. So many opposing aspects work together quite well with strikingly real and heart wrenching content as well as aspects of surrealism that don’t make an attempt to over-explain themselves. They’re subtle.
Early in the series, Elora alludes that what really killed their beloved friend, Daniel, was life in Okern. When we begin to better understand Daniel’s death, we learn that Leon saw The Tall Man the same day as Daniel’s death. The Tall Man is a Lakota and Dakota legend of a man between 12-15 ft tall that lives in the forest. According to an article on TheFocus.News, the legend says that “he has no eyes or mouth, and wears a black stove top hat. He also has the ability to influence people, and control minds. This legend is thought to have inspired the iconic game Slender Man. This piece of folklore was prominent in the Oglala Lakota tribe of Sioux Native Americans. Many people have made mention of a Tall Man spirit”.
The spirit is said to be linked to suicide.
Leon tells Willie that he saw the The Tall Man while prepping for their last hunt a year ago before Daniel died and has since been hesitant to go hunting. We later find out that Daniel had a dysfunctional homelife and committed suicide sometime after asking Elora if she’d want to go to California with him– setting off the events of the series and the squad’s plot to get out of Okern for good.
Another legend that pops up in the series is The Deer Woman in Episode 7. She first appears to Big in his childhood/adolescence, a beautiful and friendly woman with deer hooves, who is revealed to also be dangerous. She slashes several robbers trying to accost a cashier at a gas station and later meets Big at his grandmother’s funeral, telling him that he is a good person and to continue to be good so that he can do right by his grandmother’s legacy.
This catalyzes him to become an officer on the rez. In many Native American communities, Deer Woman is seen as a symbol of love and fertility but also potentially murderous and lethal to anyone who dares harm women and children. This represents what citizens of Okern are struggling with and running from.
The community on the rez genuinely all want the same thing, love, stability, wealth and they all understand the value of community. However, the issues seem to be driving them to difficult points and outlooks.
Upon stealing a truck full of chips to sell to earn money for their California trip, the four titular characters accidentally start a feud with the reservation’s gang, NDN Mafia, earning their nick name, Reservation Dogs which lays the groundwork for the 4 characters to be torn between standing up for their community or abandoning it.
By the end of the series, everyone seems to be conflicted on leaving, except Elora, who’s unsurmountable grief and resentment toward Okern has led her to abandon her friends and run away with Jackie from the rival gang, “NDN” Mafia, who tells her that California is better because everyone sticks to themselves…but is this what Elora really wants?
Cheese and Willie Jack decide not to go to Cali and this motif speaks directly to the promise of community and collectivism over individualism. Do we run away from home for a chance at a better future but abandon our friends in the process, or do we find a more structural approach to fulfilment while still protecting the love that we’ve built with those who have supported us through the storm (literal and metaphorical).
Music, too, plays an integral role in Rez Dogs. We’re first introduced to Mike Bone, Lil’ Mike and Funny Bone, who first came to the screen in 2013 on America’s Got Talent. Their hilarious pre-performance stand-up, charisma, hardcore beats, Rain Dance dance steps, drip, and unmatched bars captivated audiences from the jump. They’re in-show freestyles were a huge selling point for the show’s promotion. Mike Bone are from the Pawnee Nation and as we saw in 2013, infuse Native American idioms into their catchy rap and freestyles.
Next, we see Sten Joddi who plays Bear’s father. Joddi is originally from the Mvskoke Creek Nation Tribe and performs a song called Greasy Frybread. According to an article posted on NBC News,
“One of the legacies of that brutal aspect of colonialism is now a beloved deep-fried confection found throughout the U.S. at pow wows, Indian art markets and all manner of Native American shindigs and dinners: It’s called fry bread.
Fry bread is considered Indian country’s ‘soul food’, because — just like barbecue ribs, which were borne during the evil enslavement and persecution of Africans in the U.S.”
Throughout the show, we learn a lot. Without a doubt, Taika Waititi (of Maori and Russian-Jewish descent) and Sterlin Harjo (from the Seminole Nation) have successfully brought Native American culture to the forefront of mainstream media in a way that is genuine, authentic, gut wrenching, heartfelt, unlike anything that we’ve seen before, and a much needed watch that should be at the top of your list.
As Season 2 is only just wrapping up this month, we can only hope for a renewal.
The visibility and rawness that Waititi and Harjo have brought to the screens, the original directorial choices, and debuted interwoven narratives of the various communities and tribes that make the show what it is, has created a pivotal space in the media that has been long overdue.