Reservation Dogs is the groundbreaking F.X. series bringing Native American stars into households without the usual trappings of “Old West” iconography. Instead, Reservation Dogs dares its audience to rethink what they know about Native Americans just by telling their stories of existence.
In other words, Reservation Dogs is revolutionary in its normalcy. The group of teens the show revolves around, Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Cheese (Lane Factor), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Elora (Devery Jacobs), are living life on an eastern Oklahoma reservation. Their days are spent with situations like going to the doctor or coming up with harebrained money-making schemes. But while there are bits of magical realism and heightened moments for television, the immense tragedy is that part of the teens’ everyday lives includes the latent depression, frustration, and anger that permeates the history of Native American relations with white America. That tragedy hits home even closer for the group of friends since they are also grappling with a personal loss. One of their mutual friends died the year before we entered the story. In their words, the reservation killed him. That loaded statement references the feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and the fear of never escaping psychological trauma.
In public health terms, that phenomenon of living with a framework of racial and social discrimination is “weathering,” a concept that was first studied by comparing Black Americans’ higher rates of chronic illnesses to the constant stresses we face on a daily basis. With weathering, a person might have all of the potential to have great health, but when a person lives in a society that deems them inferior in all aspects–in healthcare, the job market, and even in a lack of positive images in the media–that stress can compound. Even worse is if the area a person lives in is also stressed by that society, as in, if the area the person lives in doesn’t have constant access to running water, adequate support, or environmental safety. All of those elements work together to literally shorten or end a person’s life. Weathering led to the death of Bear’s friend, and America is to blame.
From my point of view, the reservation has the same emotional touchstones as the projects for Black people. Like the reservation, the projects have become a symbol of unearned guilt carried by an oppressed people. I say “unearned” because Native people and Black people didn’t ask for oppression, nor did they do anything to warrant being punished for living. Instead, white power subjugated them, and racism was created as a reason for their subjugation. Bear and his friends’ urge to get out of the reservation, to find out what else they can make for themselves, seemingly rings true for many people who have come out of the projects. White America treats these and other non-white communities as throwaway objects not worth investigating. Reservation Dogs, however, is shining the light back on white people, showing them that these supposed “throwaway” communities have much more to offer and much more to live for, if only political whiteness wasn’t so gleeful to suffocate them.
For me, the way the show portrays the creeping insidiousness of communal depression is the series’ overarching message. That message comes complete with Bear’s imaginary or spiritual guide (Dallas Goldtooth, comedian and founder of the Indigenous comedy group The 1491s) as an echo of Native people’s once-sprawling majesty over the land. But at the same time, Reservation Dogs knows it’s a comedy. It keeps its tone engaging with comedic situations for all viewers and cultural inside jokes specific to Native viewers, making it a win-win for everyone.
Also great: Reservation Dogs gives longtime Native actors a chance to showcase their comedic acting, something they haven’t had many opportunities to do. Zahn McClarnon, for instance, is comedic gold as bumbling police officer Big. Kimberly Guerrero, Gary Farmer, Jon Proudstar, and others flesh out the world of the reservation with charming, off-beat characters most audiences haven’t ever had the chance of seeing.
Overall, Reservation Dogs is part of an organic movement to tell Indigenous stories in Hollywood. This show and Rutherford Falls may have been the start, but an explosive number of Indigenous stories are now in the pipeline, a sign that things aren’t slowing down but are instead ramping up. It’s a sign that the Native American storyteller is here to stay, reclaiming their rightful spot in American pop culture.