Farewell to groundbreaking Reservation Dogs: ‘Nothing else out there like it’

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Reservation Dogs bids farewell with a funeral. That’s the perfect note to go out on for the cheeky, uproarious and profoundly moving coming-of-age comedy about Indigenous teens in Oklahoma, which is streaming its final episode this week.

Related: ‘It’s a completely new day’: the rise of Indigenous films and TV shows

Anyone who has been following the celebrated Peabody-winning series since it debuted two years ago knows that a funeral can be a joyous occasion – a chance for the tight-knit community in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, played by a sprawling and delightful ensemble cast, to gather and honour a life that isn’t ending so much as discovering a new beginning. There is no sense of finality in Reservation Dogs, because those who pass become spirits, and those spirits tend to hang around, for the jokes and the vibes.

“You often see a thin veil between the spirit world and what we call the real world,” says Cree and Metis film-maker Danis Goulet to the Guardian. “In an Indigenous context, there is no divide between those two things. They just all exist in the same space.” She’s speaking to how the series, where rascally teens share conversations over fried catfish or pie with long-dead warriors and mythical beings, has fun with the culture while also honouring it.

“It’s all-encompassing in terms of the physical world and also the spiritual world,” adds fellow Rez Dogs director Blackhorse Lowe, who hails from the Navajo Nation. “There’s nothing else out there like it.”

As Reservation Dogs directors who are not part of the season three writers’ room, they’ve become spokespeople during a WGA strike that is winding down just as the show, created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, wraps up. We’re all gratefully commemorating how much the potent and trailblazing series – that bafflingly escapes the attention of the Emmys – has accomplished over three seasons, both in terms of storytelling ingenuity but also Indigenous narrative sovereignty.

Harjo, the showrunner who hails from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, leads an entirely Indigenous writing and directing team who bring a wild mix of tones and styles to the irreverent series, which is as inspired by zombie fare as it is Richard Linklater’s slacker comedies. In many ways, Reservation Dogs feels like the result after decades of community building among Indigenous creatives. Harjo, Waititi, Goulet and Lowe are among a cohort that used to confab in the early 2000s at festivals like Sundance, which has an Indigenous programme, and imagineNATIVE in Toronto, where Goulet was executive director for a time. They would make short films and support each other’s works while battling with gatekeepers to score the kind of feature film budgets seemingly reserved for white film-makers. “This current wave that we’re in,” says Lowe, “we’re all people who started from that time. I’ve slept on Sterlin’s couch many times, helped him on many of his short films.”

Devery Jacobs and Elva Guerra
Devery Jacobs and Elva Guerra. Photograph: FX

“Reservation Dogs has created this shining, incredible, impactful and profound example of what Indigenous-led projects can be,” says Goulet, who has spent years as an active voice lobbying for her community’s voices to be heard. “It’s set a new bar for that.”

The show stars Devery Jacobs, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Paulina Alexis and Lane Factor as the titular band of affable misfits we meet in the pilot episode heisting a chip truck. They’re young and feisty hustlers scrapping together what cash they can in the first season to set off for California, while the elders tend to turn a blind eye to their petty crimes. That includes the local tribal police chief (Zahn McClarnon) and the store clerks whose merchandise gets lifted. The heartfelt series is about a nurturing community – that has survived settler violence, cultural genocide and intergenerational trauma – choosing to protect their young ones from carceral punishment and other causes of cyclical harm.

The first season is largely about how the young Rez Dogs – as they’re dubbed around the community – mourn their friend Daniel (Dalton Cramer), a teen who killed himself a year earlier. Their insistence on heading to California at first is fueled by a belief that the reservation and the struggles that afflict Indigenous populations is something they need to escape, before learning that staying and strengthening their community is a path towards healing.

Daniel isn’t just a season-one plot thread. He, and others who are taken too soon, tend to linger and remain a presence throughout all three seasons, whether as deeply felt memories or giddy spirits haunting their loved ones. Reservation Dogs can be the goofiest comedy, especially when a film-maker like Lowe has the runway to play with psychedelic genre influences in episodes about stoners happening upon demonic cults and space aliens. But that humour shares space with a remarkably mature and soulful approach to mourning, an honest representation of how its characters must learn to carry loss and absence – not move on so much as move along with.

That’s been the overarching journey throughout the series, which began telling a story about an Indigenous community helping its young generation find healing, and now ends, in its final stretch, with the young generation helping the elders do the same. Season three introduces Indigenous icon Graham Greene to its generation-spanning cast. He plays a lost member of the tribe suffering from mental health issues and other unresolved traumas, who is coaxed back into the fold.

The way Reservation Dogs depicts struggles specific to Indigenous communities, couched in narratives focused on community love and healing, feels singular in a TV and movie landscape that tends to exploit trauma. Look no further than Taylor Sheridan’s movies (Hell or High Water, Sicario) and TV shows (Yellowstone), in which Indigenous characters are made to suffer to prop up white male cowboy fantasies.

Earlier this year, in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Sheridan attempted to give credit for the passage of the Violence Against Women Act to his white saviour movie Wind River, a detective thriller touching on the missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic. “[Wind River] actually changed a law, where you can now be prosecuted if you’re a US citizen for committing rape on an Indian reservation,” Sheridan said, the paternalism straining through his content laying claim to the results of on-the-ground activism led by Indigenous women.

“If you want to talk about our trauma or you want to go to hard places, there’s a question about how you do that,” says Goulet. “You got to lead with the humanity of it.”

Goulet was at the helm of the toughest episode this season. Deer Lady depicts the history behind a recurring character, a mythical vengeful woman with hoofs played by Kaniehtiio Horn. As a child, Deer Lady is removed from her family to live in a boarding school where her culture and identity are violently erased. Goulet, who touched on this history in her dystopian feature debut Night Raiders, doesn’t shy from the insidious horror of it, which so many in North America are only now discovering. But she frames her flashbacks in the tender and comforting present-day exchanges across generations between Deer Lady and Woon-A-Tai’s young and sensitive Bear.

Related: Reservation Dogs: a groundbreaking, hilarious sitcom about Native American teens

She also made the episode an act of preservation, hiring consultants to help the young cast learn the endangered Kiowa language, which has only 20 native speakers remaining. Goulet says she was expecting pushback on the language front from some network executives, given the history of offensive and insensitive notes she’s been given from gatekeepers along the way. The comments she fielded in the past range from “audiences refuse to read subtitles” to “residential school abuses have no relevance today”.

“I was ready to have to go march to whatever FX executive or make the case to the producer,” says Goulet, describing a sort of shellshock for Indigenous film-makers navigating a settler industry. “I had my arguments all ready: if Jabba the Hut can speak in subtitles, certainly we can have our characters do this. And the no never came.”

Goulet credits the turn of events to the community and environment that Harjo fostered on Reservation Dogs. “It’s almost like a giant family down there in Oklahoma,” she says. “Your vision is just totally embraced and there’s nobody breathing down their neck. They’re just there to all support.

“That’s been the vision that we’ve been holding,” she continues, describing the opportunities her community has been fighting for since those early days at Sundance and imagineNATIVE, and will continue to push for in whatever new beginning the end of Reservation Dogs brings.

“The dream is partly about representation, but it’s also partly about a way to do this that is not exploitative and extractive, that feels like a community project. And Rez Dogs felt like that.”

  • Reservation Dogs is available on FX and Hulu in the US and Disney+ in other territories