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The Power of the 'Reservation Dogs'

'Reservation Dogs' is stacked with an array of Native American performers and crew telling their own story.

I have been eager to dive into Reservation Dogs for quite some time now. Ever since seeing its initial promo, I had the impression that Native Americans were finally getting a chance to shine on a grand scale. Of course life gets in the way, and sitting down to watch two seasons of television is never easy, but I finally did it! In anticipation of the third and final season to be aired on FX in August, I thought it an appropriate time to review and recap the series for people interested in catching up.

Reservation Dogs follows four friends, Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Cheese (Lane Factor), and Willy Jack (Paulina Alexis) on a Native American reservation in Oklahoma.  It’s an open, rundown place that looks almost uninhabited.  At the beginning we find the Reservation Dogs (their gang name and series title) robbing a food delivery truck full of ‘hot chips.’  They sell the truck to the local salvage yard with the goal of raising enough money to travel to California.  The crew used to be a band of five, but their friend Daniel (Dalton Cramer) committed suicide roughly a year before the series begins and each of the Rez Dogs continue to grieve his loss.  

Elora (Devery Jacobs), Bear (d’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and Cheese (Lane Factor)

We meet side characters.  There’s Elora’s uncle, Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer), a sort of hermit intent on selling his ‘ancient’ weed and misdirecting a tornado with his mystical powers.  There’s Willy Jack’s father, Leon (Jon Proudstar), who takes her hunting while offering sage advice.  Uncle Charley (Nathan Apodaca), Cheese’s uncle, who shows Bear the ropes at a job site.  There’s also the rapping twins, Mose and Mekko (Lil Mike and Funny Bone) who bike around the neighborhood dropping rhymes and news on day to day happenings.  We also have “Big” (Zahn McClarnon) , the reservation police officer that never gets his due credit.  Lastly, the Rez Dogs must contend with a rival gang called NDN Mafia, made up of the introverted Jackie (Elva Guerra), and a guy, I kid you not, nicknamed “White Steve,” (Jack Maricle) and a few others.

Cheese (Lane Factor) and Uncle Brownie( Gary Farmer)

Elora’s mother, Cookie, passed away due to a drunk driving accident and her absence clearly affects Big and Rita (Sarah Podemski), Bear’s mother. Rita raises Bear alone. We’re introduced to his dad, Punkin Lusty (Sten Joddi), a West Coast rapper who is absent from Bear’s life in episode 3. It is a tough reality, as Bear longs for a relationship with his distant father, while his mother longs for a better male figure in his life. Bear also has visions of a guiding spirit named William Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth), a Native American warrior apparition who shows up at random times, offering the odd bit of wisdom and perspective.

There are additional spiritual presences in Reservation Dogs. Aside from William Knifeman, Officer Big sees a bigfoot like figure with red glowing eyes that moves about in the forest. There is also a Deer Lady hitchhiker entity, with hooves for feet. There is also the deceased Daniel’s ghost, for lack of a better word, who shows up in each of the main character’s dreams from time to time. Daniel’s mother, Hokti (Lily Gladstone), who’s in prison, also sees an entity called Gram (Tafv Sampson). Gram tries to guide Hokti back to her ancestral roots as a medicine woman. She has strayed since Daniel’s death.

Spiritual symbolism and supporting cast aside, it took me a while to get through the first season. There are episodes with single storylines that limit what’s covered to the characters on-screen. Nothing happens off-camera. There is not much suspense and most drama is settled, leaving little tension for an audience to grapple with. While this may make the series easier to follow, it also limits the narrative to more single-character-focused content. It may be that this slow, uneventful pacing was intended to effectively convey the boredom and discontent that living on the reservation induces within the story.  

William ‘Spirit’ Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth)

We also spend a lot of time outdoors. The Rez Dogs home is the natural world, however, this beauty is peppered with dilapidated houses and construction sites.  They move about fluidly like they don’t consider the reservation their home. Whether that speaks to the larger issue of Native American displacement and colonization is up for the viewer to decide. Specific social or political commentary does not seem to be the main objective, but rather, garnering a peek into the characters and their lives.  

The Reservation Dogs are stuck and unhappy.  But this doesn’t crush their spirits.  They all retain relatively positive outlooks while they grieve for a friend.  Much like the first season of The Bear, another FX series, these characters grieve for a lost familial figure who only shows up in flashbacks and daydreams.  Daniel’s loss looms over the dogs.  Each of them must find ways to cope with his passing while also navigating the tedium and dull reality of growing up on their reservation.

For me the series picks up around halfway through the second season.  Without revealing any spoilers, I would say the end of Season 2 provides a unity for the group as a whole and satisfaction for the viewer. Reservation Dogs is stacked with an array of Native American performers young and old. The actors who play Bear and Elora especially are exceptional talents that I won’t be surprised to see in many more film and television roles to come.

Big (Zahn McClarlon) and Gene (Marc Maron)

There are some great cameos as well in the series.  Bill Burr shows up as a driving instructor and basketball coach. Megan Mullally shows up as a rich and hospitable divorcee. Lastly, Marc Maron plays the disgruntled caretaker of a group home.  

Regardless of my dissatisfaction with the first season, as a whole the series quite effectively addresses a whole range of issues that indigenous peoples face including: teen suicide, alcoholism, racism, absent parental figures, group homes, incarceration, carjacking and theft just to name a few.  

The creators cleverly normalize each of these problems for the characters, removing the stigma.  It’s as if the message of the series was: this is everyday life for some and it is okay. You are not alone.  What would otherwise be seen as troubling or traumatic for the Reservation Dogs is treated instead with heart, sensitivity and, most importantly, humor.  There is a keen awareness for the struggle of a group historically cast to the wayside. It’s not diminishing the seriousness of these matters, but just handling them in a way without losing one’s head. Reservation Dogs is a good show with a nearly entire Indigenous cast and crew. That is a breakthrough to be celebrated.

In accepting the award for ‘Best Ensemble Cast’ at the 2022 Spirit Awards, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai put it plainly when addressing co-creator Sterlin Harjo:  

“You created the show that all of us desperately needed to see growing up, but we couldn’t have it.”

Cast and crew