The new Indigenous TV series coming your way

‘Reservation Dogs’ is the latest product of an exciting new era of Native self-representation.

Production still from ‘Reservation Dogs.’ Shane Brown / FX

Seminole/Muscogee Creek filmmaker — and now showrunner — Sterlin Harjo called me from the cab of his pickup truck while he was out running errands around Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s a town he loves in a state he loves, the place where he has made most of his films. And the feeling is reciprocated; he now has a spot on the Oklahoma Walk of Fame, just in front of the city’s local art-house theater, Circle Cinema. Not too long ago I would have been able to just shoot him a text and schedule a quick interview. (Full disclosure: Harjo and I are friends.) But now, given his busy schedule, I had to go through his assistant to schedule a meeting. Because of a time mix-up on my end — he was in Oklahoma; I was in New Mexico — Harjo Zoomed me from his phone. While he drove, we talked about his exciting new coming-of-age project for FX Networks: Reservation Dogs. He was in no hurry to get home: “I got a plumber in my house, so it’s perfect timing.”

He was busy editing the last episodes for Reservation Dogs, which recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Harjo directed three episodes, Navajo filmmakers Sydney Freeland and Blackhorse Lowe each directed two episodes, while Tazbah Chavez, who is a citizen of the Bishop Paiute Tribe, directed one. In fact, all the directors and writers are Indigenous, and Indigenous people are involved at every level of production. It’s a genuine, one-of-a-kind breakthrough.

The idea for the show came about when Harjo and his good friend, the multi-talented Maori creative force Taika Waititi, realized they both had interesting scripts that shared the same themes. Waititi pitched an idea for a series to FX. Harjo expected to hear back in about a year, assuming he was lucky, but his agents contacted him just three days later with an offer.

Reservation Dogs is a comedy about four Indigenous teenagers in Oklahoma and the small town/reservation mischief they get into. It’s based on the kind of stories that Harjo and Waititi often shared. “We always told each other stories from home and laugh, and it’s always funny stories and never depressing shit. We wanted to reflect that and make a show that was a comedy. There’s real issues that they deal with, but they handle it through humor.” The four lead actors, who range in age from 14 to 17, are all Native American: D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai (Ojibwe), Devery Jacobs (Kanien’kehá:ka Mohawk), Paulina Alexis (Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation), and Lane Factor (Caddo and Seminole Creek).

Selling the project proved easier than expected, and Waititi was scheduled to shoot the pilot, but then COVID-19 hit, and everyone had to be sent home. “Of course, a Native show happens, and a worldwide pandemic shut us down,” Harjo said wryly. But FX was committed, and after a break, production resumed. Because of the pause and the change in schedule, however, Waititi was no longer available to direct, so Harjo stepped in and took over the pilot. When it was time to bring in other directors, he looked no further than established filmmakers he already had confidence in. Just as Waititi had opened doors for Harjo, Harjo wanted to do the same for his fellow Native filmmakers. “Sydney is almost a freaking veteran of TV directing now, so I wanted her to be there to help set the tone. I wanted Blackhorse and Tazbah to shadow and see Sydney directing the first episodes. But really it was just opening the door for them. And trying to get them into TV directing. It’s a hard racket to get into.”

Reservation Dogs and the new Peacock TV series Rutherford Falls mark a new era of Indigenous representation, in which Native people are in the writers’ room telling the story as well as behind the camera, directing the action. Both series are comedies, but Reservation Dogs is the more obviously cinematic of the two. “I think it’s important to have both shows,” Harjo said. “It’s cool they have that different sort of vibe.”

There’s a fair amount of cross-pollination between the two shows. Devery Jacobs appears in both, while Migizi Pensoneau (Ponca/Ojibwe) has a role in Rutherford Falls and also writes for Reservation Dogs. Writer Tazbah Chavez works on both shows, as does Bobby Wilson (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota), who both acts and writes.

And it’s not over yet, not by a long shot. This is just the beginning of a new era of Native representation, Harjo believes. “It’s an exciting time right now,” he said. “There’s all these shows coming out. There’s going to be a lot of shows, and all of them are different. That’s what’s cool, and I think that’s what’s going to solidify our place in TV. Hollywood and the public is going to see there’s no end to the stories that we have.”

Read the whole story at our website: https://www.hcn.org/issues/53.8/indigenous-affairs-media-the-new-indigenous-tv-series-coming-your-way