'Reservation Dogs' uses humor, not magic, to conjure Native culture
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'Reservation Dogs' uses humor, not magic, to conjure Native culture
From Left: D'Pharoah Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs, Lane Factor and Paulina Alexis, who play four small-time teenage crooks who dream of a better life in “Reservation Dogs,” in New York, June 15, 2021. This new dark comedy, created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, upends the usual Hollywood clichés about Native Americans, not least by having Native writers and actors tell the story. Jeremy Dennis/The New York Times.

by Stuart Miller

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In a dramatic moment of the “Reservation Dogs” pilot, a car with tinted windows rolls up on the Dogs, a crew of four teenage petty thieves living on a Native American reservation in Oklahoma. In slow motion, the rival gang members inside lower the car windows, faces covered with balaclavas, and then aim their guns and open fire … with paintballs.

Bear, the Dogs’ self-appointed leader (played by D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), goes down in a hail of gunfire that simultaneously seems to pay homage to “Menace II Society,” “Platoon” and “Community.” While lying unconscious, Bear has a vision: A Native warrior on a horse appears through the mist and speaks to him about bravery.

“I was at the Battle of Little Bighorn,” the warrior says. But then he turns sheepish.

“Well, I didn’t kill anybody, but I fought bravely,” he corrected. “Well, I actually didn’t get into the fight itself, but I came over that hill, real ruggedlike.” He saw Custer. He charged after him.

“But then my damn horse hit a gopher hole,” he said. “Rolled over and squashed me.”

So much for romanticizing the Native American experience.

Debuting Monday on FX on Hulu, “Reservation Dogs” is an often gritty, often dark look at life on a modern-day Native American reservation as the Dogs engage in small-time criminality, try to keep the bullies at bay and dream of escaping to a wider world. But as the paintball scene helps establish early, the series forgoes the usual reductive cliches about reservation life — the show is neither pitying nor mysticizing — in favor of a nuanced and comic realism.

Thank the sensibilities of its creators, Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi (“Jojo Rabbit”), both of whom have deep roots in their respective Indigenous cultures and a keen satirical eye for the hypocrisies and the pleasures of mainstream entertainment. (The title, as well as a sequence in the pilot, is a reference to Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.”)

“We are making fun of non-Native audiences’ expectations while acknowledging aspects of that part of Native culture,” said Harjo, 41, a founding member of the Native American comedy troupe the 1491s. “We’re teasing the audience using the history of cinema. Native Americans grow up on pop culture — it’s how we learn what rest of the world is up to.”

Waititi added, “We’re tired of seeing ourselves out there wandering through forests talking to ghosts, putting our hands on trees and talking to the wind as if we have all the answers because of our relationship with nature. And there’s always flute music.”

“I don’t know any ghosts, and I don’t talk to trees,” he continued. “I grew up loving comic books and being interested in girls just like the other kids.”

“Reservation Dogs” is also a first of its kind: The first television show with an entirely Indigenous writers’ room and roster of directors. It joins the Peacock sitcom “Rutherford Falls” as one of two new series this year to have a Native American creator and to rely heavily on Native writers, directors, stars, composers, artists and production designers — quite a change, Harjo said, from the world in which he grew up. Or even that of his young stars.

“I said, ‘Hold on, am I reading this right?’ ” said Paulina Alexis, 20, who plays Bear’s sardonic friend, Willie Jack, about her surprise at first reading the script. “A show about Natives, made by Natives?’”

Sitting in an outdoor space on the roof of a Battery Park City hotel in June, she, Woon-A-Tai and their co-stars Lane Factor and Devery Jacobs seemed excited to talk to a reporter about the show. Woon-A-Tai, 19, chimed in, “When I saw that amount of Indigenous influence behind the scenes, I knew it would be a game changer.”

Harjo and Waititi come from opposite sides of the world — Harjo from Holdenville, Oklahoma, (he now lives in Tulsa) and Waititi from New Zealand — but they were friends before creating “Reservation Dogs,” having been introduced by Bird Runningwater, the director of Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous Program.

They bonded over growing up in Indigenous households. Despite the hardships they faced, Harjo said that their conversations about the past didn’t dwell on the negative but instead revolved around sharing funny stories and the occasional classic rock cover. “At some point, we ended up singing ‘Under Pressure’ together,” he said. “I can’t remember who was Bowie or Freddie, but it was a hit, obviously.”

Waititi is part Maori and part Jewish, which Harjo says lines up well with the Native American sense of humor — and not just the Indigenous half. “Native humor is very specific but it is comparable to Jewish humor,” Harjo said. “There’s a self-deprecation and a lot of teasing, and there’s a gallows humor that develops when people are oppressed.”

Waititi, an executive producer of FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows” (based on the film he wrote and directed with Jemaine Clement), had a deal with the network, and he suggested to Harjo that they pitch a series that combined elements of their shared interests and backgrounds.

“There is a lot of talk right now about diversity and inclusion, but Native Americans are always down at the bottom of the list, so having a show made by and starring Native Americans is vital,” said Waititi, 46. “Native people feel unseen, like they don’t matter as much as other minorities. If I had seen a show like this when I was a kid, it would have made all the difference.”

The friends had a couple of tequilas at Waititi’s house one night and realized they had similar concepts in mind. “We came up with the show that night, the spine of the story,” Harjo said.

Even with Waititi’s clout, Harjo was surprised how quickly it sold. He said that in the past he had projects killed because the white executives did not believe he could find enough Native talent to make it happen. Harjo knew better.

“Our communities are filled with amazing talented people,” he said. “But we are the descendants of people who survived genocide, forced removal and displacement, so we don’t leave home as easily as others. We don’t just go to LA and say, ‘I’m going to be an actor.’ So you have to find those people.”

FX made Harjo, who had directed independent films and created comedy videos with the 1491s, the showrunner. “I didn’t even know what a showrunner was,” he said with a laugh. Fortunately, he had someone he could call: Sierra Teller Ornelas, who oversees “Rutherford Falls.” That series, which she created with Michael Schur (“The Good Place,” “Parks and Recreation”) and Ed Helms (“The Office”), made her TV’s first ever Native American showrunner.

“I would call Sierra and ask, ‘When do I need to have a meeting?’ ” he said.

“Rutherford Falls” is broadly gentle in tone, befitting a show co-created by Schur — its writers’ room is 50% Native, and it centers on a friendship between Helms’ character and a Native American woman played by Jana Schmieding.

“Reservation Dogs” has more edge. With his entirely Indigenous writers’ room “writing from the inside looking out,” Harjo felt confident enough, for example, not to stop and explain all the cultural nuances and inside jokes to white audiences.

“We’re not going to hold your hand through it,” he said.

During the early sessions, Harjo said, he twice went back to the writers’ room and told everyone, “‘All right, y’all, we’re going to blow this up and redo it.’ ” It was vital, he said, that they find the right balance of humor and naturalism to really illuminate the truth of Native life in America.

Harjo was determined to help replace the decades of westerns depicting Indigenous people as the zombies of America — “faceless and soulless, the things in the way of westward expansion who had to be killed”— which he said was damaging both to Native Americans’ sense of self and to the way white Americans perceived them.

Cast members and creators from both series said that turning shows like theirs into a new normal was an overarching goal. That meant creating opportunities not only for Native actors and writers but also for composers, artists and production designers. Building such networks, Harjo said, would lead to more Native-led projects.

Michael Greyeyes, 54, a screen veteran who plays a savvy casino owner on “Rutherford Falls,” said that while the shows might help change the perceptions of white audiences, what mattered most to him was their impact in Native communities.

“It’s earthshaking in terms of the representational landscape,” Greyeyes said. “It affirms us as much as it refutes our invisibility to non-Indigenous audiences.”

Greyeyes briefly walked away from Hollywood about 13 years ago because the depictions of Native peoples in the scripts he was reading were “soul crushing.”

“Stopping was a form of protection for my well-being,” he said.

Even as the worst of the bloodthirsty stereotypes from old Hollywood westerns have largely receded, Native Americans were still rarely portrayed as fully human before Native writers and directors and other creative personnel became able to create their own movies and shows, said Schmieding, 39, who in addition to starring in “Rutherford” has a cameo in “Reservation Dogs.”

“When Native people perform in stories by non-Natives, we’re often turned into magical characters or end up being props to help a white person,” Schmieding said. “We didn’t have full lives and internal worlds.”

Jacobs, who plays Elora, another member of the Dogs, (Factor, 16, plays the youngest member, Cheese), said that even during the past five years, which have seen more and better roles for Indigenous actors, the parts sometimes felt obligatory. “It felt like a fad and made me feel like a diversity hire in a way that made me feel diminished,” she said, adding that “the industry should feel embarrassed that 2021 is a year for firsts for Indigenous representation.”

Representation doesn’t mean beatification — both shows revel in having enough Native characters that some can be mean or foolish, some can celebrate their culture while others are more concerned with getting by, getting over or getting away. But just the idea that this is still a topic of discussion confounds Harjo.

“Isn’t it crazy that it's 2021, and we’re still talking about how great it is that these people are real and have human characteristics?” Harjo asked. “It shouldn’t be radical to have Indigenous people doing normal stuff.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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