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We all want to tell our own stories, not have them told by people who don’t understand us or take our lives seriously. But that is often the fate Native Americans have had to endure for countless decades. So when Reservation dogs was released last year, the series has been rightly hailed as groundbreaking. With a cast, production crew, and lead creator, Sterlin Harjo, who were all Indigenous, it offered an inside look at lives that are usually overlooked.
As Reservation dogs begins its second season strong, it should be noted that the series, co-created by Taika Waititi, is also one of the best and most original shows on television. Set in Native American Territory in Oklahoma, it mixes dumb jokes, clever jokes, satire, pathos, social realism, magical realism, and tribal lore — not to mention American Indian history. – in a fresh, funny and heartfelt series.
As you may know, the series centers on a gang of four teenagers, known as the Rez Dogs. There’s Bear (played by the emotional-faced D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), who yearns for the father who abandoned his family. There’s the soulful Elora (Devery Jacobs), who is the band’s true center of gravity. There’s the rude Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and the affable known as Cheese (Lane Factor), who gets along well with everyone. They are surrounded by adults who range from Uncle Brownie, a former bar fighter who is now a hermit, to an oddly benign cop named Officer Big, played by Zahn McClarnon, the star of AMC’s terrific Navajo mystery series. +, dark winds.
In season 1, this gang of four was busy hoarding money – sometimes illegally – in order to leave the reservation and go to California. But their plans were shattered when a tornado hit the town, and only Elora left, along with one of the gang’s enemies, the tough and deadpan Jackie. As Season 2 begins, these young women try to get out of Oklahoma in their ramshackle car, while back home Bear searches for work as Willie Jack and Cheese search for a way to undo a magic curse. black that turned against him.
Now, I’m always nervous when a show I love enters season 2, and I feared the worst when episode one leaned a little too much towards the comedic fantasy that it sometimes lacks. But the show quickly found its footing and started doing what makes it special.
Working in a loose, independent film style, Harjo and company build around moments, not plot points, and avoid the temptation to make a big statement about the plight of American Indians. They use the everyday lives of their young heroes to offer glimpses – some silly, others deeply moving – into a modern Native American reality that goes beyond the familiar tale of victimhood and misery.
Despite living with poverty and fractured families, the show’s characters are vibrant living. And there are episodes – like Cheese taking a ride with Officer Big; Willie Jack hunts with his father; or Bear learning to be a roofer – who shine with rare warmth and wisdom on television. I can’t think of any other show that gives a clearer sense of what it means to live in a community that feels like a community.
Reservation dogs evokes a culture in which age-old tribal curses coexist with discussions of gender pronouns, and Crazy Horse’s heritage sits alongside hip-hop and references to Star warss. The show is demure enough to poke fun at classic tropes, like the stoic, taciturn Indian, and to shed some light on the notion of spirit guides. However, these are jokes of the on the inside. Even as the show plays around with Native American tradition, it finds a way to honor it, like in this season’s beautiful episode where everyone comes together in a deathwatch for Elora’s grandmother.
Back in Season 1, Willie Jack talks about all the seemingly uncontrolled dogs running around the streets. “No one cares about Rez dogs,” she says, referring as much to herself and her friends as to their four-legged namesakes. But she is wrong. This show cares, and I suspect it will make you care, too.