In “Reservation Dogs”, Native Americans tell their own story

In the very first episode of the Hulu/FX drama series Reservation dogs, four Native American teenagers gather to mark the first anniversary of their friend’s death. They’ve concocted a makeshift shrine and arrive in black suits with white shirts and thin black ties to mimic Quentin Tarantino’s characters. reservoir dogs. They stand in front of the shrine, burn sacred herbs in a traditional smudge pot, and conduct a ritual of spreading smoke over themselves and the shrine.

This moment plumbs the depths of what series creator Sterlin Harjo is doing in Reservation dogs, which launched its second season in August. These kids — so full of typical teenage bluff and bravado, so glued to their cellphones, so saturated with American pop culture — still know how to remember the dead in a traditional ritual. It became a powerful theme throughout both seasons. The natives are here. They are part of us. They do not live in tepees or longhouses. They live in housing estates. They might eat at a Sonic Drive-In or a local fried catfish cafe, but they also keep traditions, honor their ancestors, pass on legends, take responsibility for each other, and laugh a lot.

Harjo himself is Seminole of Muscogee Creek ancestry. He was born and raised in Oklahoma, the territory that Indigenous nations in what is now the southeastern United States were forced into when President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830. Harjo went to college in Oklahoma and never left the state. His three independent feature films, as well as a documentary, are all set in Oklahoma and filmed there, as is Reservation dogs. But that’s only the beginning of the attention to authenticity that gives the series such deep resonance. The producers, directors, writers, cast and crew are all Aboriginal.

Without giving away too much plot, it can be said that the first season is driven by all the factors that might make the teenage protagonists want to escape from their community, while the second is more about how the natives help each other to make their life there. . The subdivision where most of the characters live has a spray-painted sign dubbing it “The Village”.

While only one of the four youngsters at the center of the series has a two-parent family, as we follow them on their coming-of-age journeys, we encounter the right village to raise them – a rich assortment of aunts, uncles and grandparents, some blood relatives, most not. The children also receive help from a comical spirit guide – a feathered and sequined Hollywood Indian, who claims to have died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

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It’s been a long road for Indigenous peoples to reach the point where they’re able to tell their own story on such a massive entertainment platform. Natives have figured prominently in American pop culture since at least the late 1800s, but for the first 100 years they were most often depicted as wicked savages or docile helpers to white men, in the mold of the Pilgrim’s Squanto and the Lone Ranger’s Tonto. At the turn of the last century, we saw guilty white liberal versions of Indigenous history (for example, little big man, dance with wolves, etc.). However, even in these well-meaning productions, a white man is the hero and the natives support the actors in their own dramas.

Only in the last 25 years, since the success of the movie Smoke signals (which was produced, written, directed and performed by Indigenous people), Indigenous artists were able to tell their own stories on their own terms. Reservation dogs factually takes this as a starting point and shows us the daily life of people who are still adapting age-old traditions to a strange, often hostile environment.

Let’s start with the Oklahoma location. The natives of the series revere their place on Earth and are loath to leave it. But, of course, it’s not their real homeland, and they haven’t forgotten it. One figure actually has an enlarged portrait of President Jackson’s $20 bill hanging on the wall to use as a knife-throwing target.

Yet in the second season, these characters are found somewhere in eastern Oklahoma, standing by a river and carrying out a half-forgotten ritual to counter a curse. After impromptu prayers to the Creator, the character leading the ritual says, “Now we sing a song. . . . An old. But what old song? No one really remembers. The leader hems and haws, then finally launches into an offbeat rendition of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.” These Native Americans are totally indigenous but also ineluctably American.

During his pilgrimage to Canada earlier this year, Pope Francis issued an apology for the Church’s role in crimes against Indigenous peoples in North America. He said: “When the first European settlers arrived here, there was a great opportunity to bring about a fruitful encounter between cultures, traditions and forms of spirituality. Yet for the most part this has not happened.

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History can judge that the Europeans were the biggest losers of this failed encounter. The natives are no longer what they were in 1491, but, as Reservation dogs shows us, they are still very much native themselves. The people who had all the power of the Western world – cultural, political and military – turned against them survived with many of the essentials of their community life intact and a sly sense of humor about all the sadness and beautiful story.


This article also appears in the November 2022 issue of american catholic (Vol. 87, No. 11, pages 36-37). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Courtesy of FX on Hulu

Nohemi M. Moore