An Ode to Reservation Dogs
Justin Langan | February 04, 2023
No recent show has created an authentic representation of modern Indigenous people better than Reservation Dogs.
Cinematically filmed and stylized with a touch of 1990s indie grit, Reservation Dogs marks a crucial symbolic victory for Indigenous communities and intrigues audiences of all backgrounds with its subversive, unapologetically Native-specific humour.
The show explores the hijinks and endearing bond between four Native teens on a reservation in Oklahoma, as Bear (D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and Cheese (Lane Factor) commit a string of small-time heists to raise money to escape the small town they've come to despise.
Reservation Dogs" is a slice-of-life comedy that lets us tag along with the characters on everyday adventures. Bear sustains an injury requiring a trip to the local clinic, where a tired staff runs the place like a typical bureaucracy. Another quest leads them to Elora's uncle, an unstoppable brawler back in his day who has since turned into a paranoid connoisseur of ancient weed. One thing to note about this show is that it is also the first American television show created, written by, and directed by Indigenous artists.
It shouldn't feel so revolutionary, but for all its unpretentiousness, it does.
Hollywood had declared that Indigenous people were the obstacle to progress. The portrayal of Indigenous people in cinema throughout the decades had been faceless, soulless husks that folks like John Wayne would heroically dispose of in the name of significant western expansion. This led to a false image of a group of people who have been victimized over and over throughout history.
Before Native-led and created projects like "Reservation Dogs," there weren't exactly a lot of attractive opportunities for Native talent in Hollywood. Hollywood makes a Western every few years when Native actors get to come and get killed in front of a camp.
One of the things that became clear in Indigenous storytelling is that all the stories being told were always funny. And Native people represented in Hollywood, you never get to see that humour. It's always so earnest and so sad or depressing. It's not reflective of Indigenous communities. Indigenous people have survived because of their spirit.
The cleverest filmmaking odes in "Reservation Dogs" tell on the mainstream audience by satirizing racist tropes perpetuated by Hollywood that have taken root in the culture. Like in the spirit guide:
Spirit perfectly encapsulates the Reservation Dogs ethos, which is taking all the stereotypical nonsense surrounding Native Americans and tossing it out in favour of everyday realism and comedic mundanity.
Reservation Dogs is born out of a microgenre wherein comedy flourishes in settings most have been allowed to see only as tragic.