The 'Reservation Dogs' team feared for its future. Then came the 'surreal' part

·6 min read

Devery Jacobs was thrilled as she filmed the pilot for FX's "Reservation Dogs" two years ago. The coming-of-age story about a group of mischievous teens on a Native American reservation in rural Oklahoma reflected her own experience, and she felt personally invested in the project.

Jacobs also feared that the show would never see the light of day.

The actress/writer for years had confronted resistance in Hollywood to telling stories of Indigenous people, particularly stories that extended beyond the industry's long-standing stereotypes central to the Western genre. She was concerned that "Reservation Dogs" might meet the same fate.

"We didn't know if FX was going to pick it up, and that this might be the one and only time we had to tell this story," Jacobs recalled. "It was a love letter to the reservations we all grew up on. We were putting our hearts and souls into it. It was such a cathartic experience. We did it for ourselves. We thought, 'If we never get to tell this story again, we will have laid it all out on the table.'"

Her worries soon dissipated. FX did pick up the series, which quickly became one of the freshman darlings of last year, charming critics and viewers with its offbeat humor and eccentric characters while putting an authentic and affectionate spotlight on a universe that has rarely been featured in mainstream film and TV. (Both Times TV critics Lorraine Ali and Robert Lloyd selected "Reservation Dogs" as one of the best TV series of 2021.)

Season 2 of "Reservation Dogs" launches Wednesday on Hulu with several major honors in hand, including a Peabody Award and two Independent Spirit Awards. The show is shot entirely in the Muscogee Nation and has an all-Indigenous writing and directing staff.

"This has been such a surreal experience," said D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, who plays Bear Smallhill, the unofficial leader of the Dogs. "I never thought I would be on a project I'm this proud of. I was anxious about what the perception of the show would be. I knew it was good, one of a kind. And I knew it was funny. We're funny people, cracking jokes during hard times. It may seem inappropriate, but that is how we deal with trauma and pain."

"Reservation Dogs" is at the center of an elevated Native American presence on screen in the past few years, with characters and plots that are worlds away from Hollywood's longtime Western formula of warring "cowboys and Indians."

AMC's "Dark Winds," Peacock's "Rutherford Falls" and Paramount Network's "Yellowstone" all have central and topical storylines related to Native Americans. "Reservation Dogs" co-star Wes Studi ("Dances With Wolves") stars in the new theatrical release "A Love Song." And several more projects spotlighting Indigenous characters and themes are on the horizon.

Jacobs referenced Hollywood's past treatment of Indigenous people last year when the show received the Independent Spirit Award for best new scripted series. She paid special tribute to Native American artists who she said had paved the way for "Reservation Dogs."

"To all of those who came before us playing antagonists in Western movies and mythic, stoic and savage Indians, to Native creators who had to break down tropes in this industry, we are here accepting this award because of you," she said in her acceptance speech. "We are walking on the same path you walked for us and carved out for us. We hope this marks a new beginning."

A few hours before hitting the red carpet for a premiere event at Tulsa's River Spirit Casino Resort, executive producer Sterlin Harjo reflected on the show's success and its significance.

"Part of it is hard to comprehend, and part of it is about being happy and living in the moment," said Harjo, who created the series with Oscar winner Taika Waititi ("Jojo Rabbit"). "It's exciting, but I take it all in stride. The big reward for me is having this show and being able to tell this story. I knew that if I had the support to really find the right way to present Native humor and a good Native story and fill it with drama and magic, I could create something that resonated."

On the dramedy, the Dogs — Bear, Elora Danan (Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and Cheese (Lane Factor) engage in petty crimes and other schemes to fund their planned exit from the reservation to more seductive opportunities in California.

Motivating their mission is their ongoing grief over the death of their comrade Daniel, who took his own life one year before the series' action begins. In addition to their interactions with several colorful adults around the reservation, the Dogs also are battling a rival group — known as the NDN Mafia— who gunned them down in a paintball drive-by shooting.

When the second season opens, the Dogs are splintered — Elora Danan has embarked for California after making an uneasy truce with NDN leader Jackie (Elva Guerra), while the others continue to try to make the best of it on the reservation.

"The first season has the Dogs dealing with losing Daniel, while the second season shows them working on their relationship with each other," said Harjo.

Asked what he felt audiences were responding to in the series, Harjo said different viewers were drawn by different elements. "For non-Native people, it's immersive," he said. "It puts you into a world that you never knew existed. That's good storytelling. And for Native people, they're seeing themselves for the first time. It's a truthful depiction. There have been so many false depictions of ourselves."

The humor and the chemistry of the cast are also attracting audiences. Most of the actors had never met before the project began, but they still felt a connection with one another.

"We all liked each other right off the bat," said Woon-A-Tai. "When we were all in L.A. for the final callbacks, it didn't even feel like we were competing with each other. Plus, you throw 10 Indigenous teens in a room together and we're all going to tell jokes and talk s—."

The success of "Reservation Dogs" makes Harjo optimistic about the future of Indigenous people in Hollywood.

"This culture is literally the longest culture to be on this land, so there are so many stories," he said. "This show has opened everyone's mind. If you let Native people tell their stories, there's no end to where they can go."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.