I have dithered over this review for a while, partly because I am just plain enjoying Reservation Dogs, and sometimes when you enjoy something you don’t want to commodify it. But also partly because with each new episode I fall further down the rabbit hole of struggling to express the simple joy of this slice-of-life comedy (with a solid undertone of drama) set on Indigenous lands in Oklahoma. Co-created by Indigenous filmmakers Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo, and drawing from Harjo’s Oklahoma roots, Reservation Dogs is the kind of hang-out sitcom we’re used to seeing starring white people: Friends, New Girl, Big Bang Theory. You know, the shows where a charming cast hangs out in the same places and don’t do much. But Reservation Dogs is a hang-out sitcom with a twist: it is centered on Indigenous teens in rural Oklahoma and deals with the ins and outs of their life on the reservation. It is also the first American television show created by, written by, and directed by Indigenous artists. It shouldn’t feel so revolutionary, but for all its unpretentiousness, it does.
The series revolves around a group of four teenagers: Bear (Canada’s own D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai); Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs, another Canadian); Cheese (Oklahoman Lane Factor); and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis, the final Canuck). In the first episode, “F’ckin’ Rez Dogs”, the kids are marking the one-year anniversary of the death of another friend. They say, “this place killed him” and are doing anything they can to save money to go to California, up to and including stripping copper and stealing chip trucks. This episode establishes the group around a singular goal, but then Reservation Dogs starts showing the individual lives and circumstances of the kids and pulling the group apart in little and big ways. Bear, for instance, is the self-proclaimed leader of the group, but Elora Danan—whose name prompts as many Willow references as you think—is the one with the real drive to get out.
But while Bear’s wandering focus and willingness to spend their hard-stolen money to impress his absentee father seem flaky to Elora Danan, we know that Bear is actually seeing visions of Spirit (Dallas Goldtooth, a member of the Indigenous comedy troupe the 1491s, which also includes Harjo) who asks him: if you don’t fight for your home, who will? But, far from Spirit being a noble and inspiring figure, he’s a f-ckup who died at Greasy Grass (aka Little Big Horn) when his horse tripped on a gopher hole and crushed him. Spirit is the perfect encapsulation of the Reservation Dogs ethos, which is taking all the stereotypical bullsh-t that surrounds Native Americans and tossing it out the window in favor of everyday realism and comedic mundanity. There is an entire episode dedicated to the mind-numbing, time-devouring bureaucracy of the Indian Health Service (Lainey: this is still the official name of the agency in the United States; we understand that the word “Indian” is not interchangeable with “Indigenous” but there was no appropriate replacement here because this division of US government is still recognised by this name), and another in which Cheese rides along, not solving crimes with tribal cop Officer Big (Zahn McClarnon, existing on a meta-level skewering his role as the dour Native cop on Longmire).
The show is loaded with one-off guest actors, as the Rez Dogs—so named when they accidentally become embroiled in a dispute with the NDN Mafia—cruise around the backroads and look for ways to earn, or spend, money. Macon Blair pops up as a convenience store clerk; Wes Studi plays a local ne’er-do-well who is nonetheless charming and interesting, not the usual depiction of a sad-sack Native; Rutherford Falls’ Jana Schmieding shows up as an asshole clerk at the IHS clinic; Letterkenny’s Kaniehtiio Horn is the mystical, deadly Deer Lady; and Garrett Hedlund gives a great, one-line-wonder of a performance as a white guy who fetishizes Native women. And yes, there are plenty of references and homages to Quentin Tarantino, too. The kids are growing up in Indian Territory, but they’re still Teens In America—pop culture informs their world as much as the old stories do. It’s also laced with the everyday conversations people have around Indigenous spaces. White people ponder what “land back” means; there is a (non-Native) assumption that “casino money” fixes everything despite MOUNTAINS of evidence that it does not; a decoy owl has its eyes pixelated; and the catfish everyone eats looks delicious. (Oklahoma has some damn good catfish, can confirm.)
But there is also a recurring theme of kids being raised by extended family as their parents, and often grandparents and several aunts and uncles, are out of the picture—Cheese is down to one last relative to take him in. Bear’s mother, Rita (Sarah Podemski), tells Elora Danan that she, as a Native woman, will be the one to pick up the pieces and make things work, not Bear, implying a certain chronic unreliableness (which reminds me of Annie Humphrey’s song, “Falling Down and Falling Apart”). And then there is the obvious lack of resources, despite all that “casino money” that the non-Native populace assumes everyone has on the reservation. That said, Reservation Dogs is not a dark show. There are edges of darkness, sure, and Bear and Elora Danan might be on a crash course to a friendship-ending confrontation, but so far, it’s a total hang-out sitcom about a group of teenagers who just happen to live on a reservation, and it’s goddamn delightful.
Reservation Dogs airs Mondays on FX and Hulu in the US, or on Star internationally.