Reservation Roots

For Indigenous People’s Day 2021, Leo Koziol explores the indie-film roots of Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s hit native series, Reservation Dogs.

Breakout FX on Hulu hit Reservation Dogs speaks directly to native audiences, each episode made lovingly by a bevy of native directors, actors and crew, many of whom found their storytelling voices through independent film. Anyone new to native cinema could do no better than to start their journey with a few choice cuts from these native talents.

The indie-film factor in Reservation Dogs’ success cannot be overstated. Television has a reach that other media do not, yet the path to primetime has never been easy. Any television project can die in development, fall at the pilot stage, or fail to be renewed after one measly season. For underrepresented storytellers, this road is even rougher.

To arrive on the small screen with a fully formed voice, there needs to have been a place to warm that voice up, and it’s more often been in the world of independent film that these opportunities lie for Indigenous artists.

Reservation Dogs is the brainchild of Taika Waititi (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Aotearoa) and Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Muscogee Creek), who were both supported as indie darlings at Sundance under the watchful eye of recently retired native program director Bird Runningwater. (He has left the storied institute in order to produce his own projects.)

Lane Factor as Cheese, Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as Bear, Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan Postoak in TV series Reservation Dogs.
Lane Factor as Cheese, Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as Bear, Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan Postoak in TV series Reservation Dogs.

Episodes were also directed by veteran natives Blackhorse Lowe (Navajo Nation) and Sydney Freeland, as well as performance poet and Bishop Paiute Tribe citizen Tazbah Rose Chavez (from the Nüümü, Diné and San Carlos Apache).

Between them, these five have made fifteen feature films (and won an Oscar), which represent a wellspring of native cinema ripe for rewatching or—going by many recent Letterboxd reviews who have come to them via Reservation Dogs—first-time discovery.

For aficionados of native cinema, Reservation Dogs is full of uniquely native humor (greasy fry bread, anyone?) and pop-culture references (main character Elora is named for the baby in Willow), but the most fun aspect for me has been the in-jokes. The Skux Soda cabinet at the native clinic (Hunt for the Wilderpeople fan service), a row of Māori dolls in a native rez store (co-creator Waititi is Māori) and, best of all, in episode five, an Oklahoma cinema marquee listing films by the four Native American directors of the series: Barking Water (Harjo), Drunktown’s Finest (Freeland), Fukry (Lowe) and Your Name Isn’t English (Chavez).

Waititi, the starrier of the two creators, whose feature works range from the awkward romance of Eagle vs Shark through to next year’s Thor: Love and Thunder, has certainly injected a careful balance of humor and emotion into the series. From his filmography, Reservation Dogs most resembles his 2010 semi-autobiographical comedy, Boy. But at heart, it is Harjo’s show—set in his home community of Oklahoma, and the culmination of fifteen years of filmmaking that serve as a calling card to its themes.

Richard Ray Whitman and Casey Camp-Horinek as Frankie and Irene in Sterlin Harjo’s Barking Water.
Richard Ray Whitman and Casey Camp-Horinek as Frankie and Irene in Sterlin Harjo’s Barking Water.

Stretching back to his beginnings, you can see two of Harjo’s best shorts on his YouTube channel. Goodnight Irene mirrors episode two of the series with malaise and humor in a native clinic; Three Little Boys directly mirrors the “kids on the Rez” ensemble of the show.

Then, in a trio of dramatic features, we see the progression as Harjo’s filmmaking skills grow alongside better budgets and resources. Letterboxd members are proudly noting the thematic similarities in his works. “Like Reservation Dogs, Harjo finds his most striking emotional moments in the quiet spaces between friends and family members,” writes Hannibal Montana of the first, Four Sheets To The Wind (2007).

CoterEB notes that Harjo’s 2009 follow-up, Barking Water, slots neatly into the Reservation Dogs storytelling family: “What Harjo absolutely succeeds at is letting the audience go along with it… It’s emotionally effective without manipulation.” It’s an approach that is further on display in his third feature, Mekko (2015), Hannibal Montana again recognizing that “much like Reservation Dogs, Mekko has one foot in a nostalgia for a lost, proud past and another in the immediate issues facing Indigenous people today, namely poverty, violence, and addiction”. (Hanabi Banana gives a more pointed review of this film, which I loved. Spoiler alert!)

A still from Blackhorse Lowe’s 2009 short, Shimásáni.
A still from Blackhorse Lowe’s 2009 short, Shimásáni.

Blackhorse Lowe is a long-time collaborator of Harjo’s; he was one of the editors of Mekko, and is also a Sundance alumnus. Lowe has a two-decade pedigree across many filmmaking departments and is a champion of genre-driven Indigenous films in New Mexico. His 2009 short Shimásáni is currently available on MUBI. He’s made three features, my favorite of which is Chasing The Light.

Writing about the 2014 film, Andy Nelson observes: “Lowe, also the cinematographer, captured some beautiful and haunting black-and-white imagery, which certainly helps add to the other world wanderings. It’s worth checking out, but the grittiness and raw drug comedy elements may be too much for a lot of people.”

I’m a huge fan of Lowe’s fellow Navajo director Sydney Freeland. You can watch her 2017 second feature, Deidra & Laney Rob A Train, on Netflix, but for me her best work to date is her first, Drunktown’s Finest (2014). Leonara Ann Mint writes of Freeland’s debut: “a very nuanced and powerful experience. Native American and trans voices are both way too rare in cinema, so to get both in the same film is often a revelation. All three plot lines here have depth, warmth and nuance, and by the end, the film had achieved a deep sense of emotional connectedness with each character that I won’t soon forget.”

Jeremiah Bitsui, MorningStar Angeline and Carmen Moore in Drunktown’s Finest (2014).
Jeremiah Bitsui, MorningStar Angeline and Carmen Moore in Drunktown’s Finest (2014).

When Drunktown’s Finest was released, Freeland had not yet come out as a trans person (one of three stories in the Navajo-set film is of a trans woman, and how Navajo culture traditionally accepted those of a “third gender”). She’s gone on to cut a path in both LGBTQ storytelling and Indigenous film, and it’s wonderful to see her on the team for Reservation Dogs. Freeland is also directing episodes of Peacock’s Rutherford Falls, which shares creative talent with the Reservation Dogs collective. And with Harjo, she is making Rez Ball, a sports film for Netflix about the unique culture of Indigenous basketball.

In front of the camera, the ensemble cast of Reservation Dogs carries a film pedigree as deep as the directors behind it, and while many of the films they have appeared in are made by non-native writers and directors, their performances—and, in many ways their experiences on those sets—inform their work on Reservation Dogs.

Kahnawà:ke Mohawk actress Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs (credited as Devery Jacobs for her role as Elora) has played significant roles in Rhymes for Young Ghouls, the zombie outbreak gore-fest Blood Quantum and the Neil Gaiman series American Gods, as well as a number of short films, including Ara Marumaru for the Māoriland Film Festival Native Slam.

Dallas Goldtooth, who is Dakota and Dińe, appears on screen as the spirit of a warrior who died at Custer’s last stand. Goldtooth can also be seen as Rich Hall’s traveling companion in the comedian’s 2012 documentary re-examination of Native American stereotypes. Bear is played by Canadian actor D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai (of Oji-Cree, Anishinaabe and Guyanese descent) who has a breakout feature role in this year’s Beans, by Mohawk director Tracey Deer.

The cast also includes several veterans of the native film scene. First Nation media pioneer Gary Farmer, of the Cayuga Nation and Wolf Clan, has appeared in more than 50 films, including First Cow, Dead Man and Blood Quantum, and has been nominated three times for an Independent Spirit Acting Award.

Devery Jacobs and Kiowa Gordon in Blood Quantum (2019).
Devery Jacobs and Kiowa Gordon in Blood Quantum (2019).

The legendary Cherokee star Wes Studi, who won an honorary Oscar at the 2019 Academy Awards, has had roles in numerous Hollywood blockbusters, including Dances With Wolves, The Last of the Mohicans and Avatar. My favorite Studi film is the comedy short, Ronnie BoDean, which you can watch for free on director Stephen Paul Judd’s Vimeo.

Nothing gets made without a script, and the brains in the Reservation Dogs writers’ room also have considerable roots in independent arts. Many of the crew, including Harjo and Goldtooth, are members of the 1491s, an Oklahoma-based native sketch comedy group. The 1491s are most famed for the 2019 Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where they premiered Between Two Knees, an intergenerational comedic love story/musical set against the backdrop of true events in native history.

1491s with writing credits on the show are poet and podcaster Tommy Pico (from the Viejas reservation of the Kumeyaay nation), Bobby Wilson (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota), who plays Marcus Werewolf in the What We Do in the Shadows television spinoff, and Migizi Pensoneau (Ponca/Ojibwe), who has several shorts on his filmography.

Right after the finale of series one, FX on Hulu announced Reservation Dogs season two and an expansion of its all-Indigenous writers’ room. Director Blackhorse Lowe joins the room, along with actors Jacobs and Goldtooth.

Other new writers in the room are Ryan RedCorn (Osage), who played Mike in Harjo’s Barking Water, Afro-Indigenous comedian and director Chad Charlie (Ahousaht First Nation), who made the 2020 short Uu?uu~tah and has another, Firecracker Bullets, coming next year, and award-winning writer-director Erica Tremblay (Seneca-Cayuga). Her 2020 short film Little Chief premiered at Sundance, and she is following in Waititi’s and Harjo’s footsteps as a Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Lab fellow.

The hope for both audiences and our industry is that Reservation Dogs won’t be a one-off. At the 2021 Emmy Awards, Harjo stood on stage and said, “We are here on television’s biggest night as creators and actors, proud to be Indigenous people working in Hollywood, representing the first people to walk upon this continent.”

Joined by his four leading actors, the group collectively stated: “Thankfully networks and streamers are now beginning to produce and develop shows created by and starring Indigenous people. It’s a good start, which can lead us to the day when telling stories from under-served communities will be the norm, not the exception. Because, like life, TV is at its best when we all have a voice.”

Sterlin Harjo and Taiki Waititi. — Photographer… Robin Lori/​INSTAR Images
Sterlin Harjo and Taiki Waititi. Photographer… Robin Lori/​INSTAR Images

As someone who for many years has followed the rise of native cinema from my home film festival, the arrival of this Stateside television hit marks a new day for native creatives. To Indigenous film fans, its creators are cult heroes who have been working for decades both in front of and behind the screen getting native American stories told, uncompromisingly.

I think about the collective talent that Sterlin and Taika have wrapped around the series, and I realize they simply contacted all their friends from past indie productions and said, hey, come work with us on this all-native production, we can pay you this time.

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