In Reservation Dogs, a Long-Overdue Portrait of Indigenous Life

Courtesy of FX

Welcome to the W TV Club, a spin-off series of W Movie Club, in which W magazine’s editors pick a season of a television show they’d recommend you binge-watch. This week, senior digital editor Maxine Wally recommends FX’s dark comedy Reservation Dogs—a hilarious, poignant series with an all-Indigenous writer and director team focused on portraying authenticity.

It’s always cool to see a true representation of yourself—un-fetishized and without forced stereotypes—on a television or movie screen. The first time I remember seeing a version of myself in a film was in 2018, when I watched Crazy Rich Asians. Admittedly, the movie is not my favorite; it undoubtedly had problematic narrative and details, and I’m not a huge fan of rom-coms. But when I saw fellow mixed-race person Henry Golding—who is half-British, half-Malaysian—in a leading role that didn’t concern subjugation, war, kung-fu, or mysticism, I was moved in a way I didn’t anticipate. Small hints from the script—Constance Wu using a formal version of “you” in Mandarin while speaking to the woman she thought was her husband-to-be’s mother, only to find out she was not—showed there were Asian people in the writer’s room and behind-the-scenes. Unexpectedly, I felt myself tearing up in the theater (at a rom-com!).

I have to wonder if the effect is similar for Indigenous people watching FX’s stellar new television series, Reservation Dogs. The show, created by Sterlin Harjo and JoJo Rabbit director Taika Waititi, portrays the everyday lives of four Native teens living on a reservation in Oklahoma. Bear Smallhill, Elora Danan Postoak, Willie Jack, and Cheese commit small-time crimes and fight them as they attempt to make enough money to escape to California. Along the way, the show’s characters paint a laugh-out-loud picture of their friends and family: Willie Jack’s paranoid auntie who answers the door wielding an X-Acto knife; a pair of twin Little People who ride bikes around the neighborhood; one witless police officer; a rival teenage crew that rolls around in a black sedan. The scenes and subject matter are Atlanta-like, meaning each episode shows a day in the life of these kids, while the humor is nonstop and the situations become more outsized and fantastical as the hours roll on.

Courtesy of FX

Muscogee and Native slang is peppered throughout the Reservation Dogs script (Willie Jack’s favorite phrase is “skoden,” and her aunt calls Bear “cvpon”), thanks to the all-Indigenous writers and directors working on the show, along with an almost entirely Indigenous cast and production team. It’s a notable first in the entertainment industry, and not only that, the show itself is simply great.

There are tons of details in Reservation Dogs that are slipped in specifically for Indigenous people. Just like Mandarin-speaking folks would pick up on Wu’s use of the formal “you” in Crazy Rich Asians, the FX show contains hidden gems that a select group will instantly recognize. In one scene of Reservation Dogs’s third episode, the four friends travel to Elora’s uncle Brownie’s house to learn how to fight. When they arrive at his cottage, the camera zooms in on a statue of an owl mounted outside his front door, its eyes pixelated and blurred. The kids let out a string of curse words, shielding their own eyes from the owl, turning around and walking backward to avoid looking straight at it.

I didn’t exactly know what was going on in the scene—this clearly was not a detail for a non-Native person like myself to understand, and that was okay. I took a look at the Reservation Dogs Instagram account, and sure enough, there was a post about the owl, with plenty of comments asking what the scene meant. Instagram users explained that in many Indigenous cultures, owls are considered a bad omen, an evil spirit, and a sign of impending death. Looking into the eyes of the animal indicates someone will soon pass away. “If you encountered one, you’d take your ass home and light some sage,” @fueledbyfrybread explained. While lots of the folks in the comment section were looking for answers, many more posted crying laughing emojis, tagged their friends, and shared their own stories on how they related.

“I’m Paiute and seeing an owl during the daytime is bad news.”

“I’m glad it was blurred out, I wasn’t tryna look at it too.”

“I appreciate the pixelated eyes...I’m the same way, I hear one outside and I’m all, ‘Nope.’”

In its small but significant way, this element felt like a special nod to a culture that’s been misunderstood and miscast for centuries. A show like Reservation Dogs is long overdue, and definitely worth the watch.