“Reservation Dogs”: Prowling a Landscape of Love and Loss

Reservation Dogs is a hilarious, bittersweet sitcom following the adventures and life lessons of the titular gang of adolescent petty criminals. They’re trying to steal their way off the reservation they’ve grown up on, never named but referred to as “The Village” in a fictional town called Okern, Oklahoma. The show opens with the heist of a chip shipment truck during which Bear lectures Elora about seat belt safety, Elora teaches him how to be a badass, Willie Jack and Cheese try to hang on to their T-shirts in the back, and chips go everywhere.

It’s a telling sequence. The kids are exactly that – kids, trying to make their way through and out of an underserved system. Bear (D’pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), abandoned by his “Indian rapper father,” is raised by a tough, beautiful single mom. Elora Dannon (Devery Jacobs), orphaned at 3 years old, lives with her mean old grandmother and dreams of a better life in California. Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), outwardly tough as nails, sticks to the old ways, hunting deer with her dad and making meat pies just like her grandmother’s. Cheese (Lane Factor), politically correct, affable, and mannerly (“I use the pronouns he, him, and his”), has no parents but lives with his uncle, who is notoriously handsy with the women in The Village.

Each episode reveals a slice of life on the reservation. The kids and the actors who portray them are hysterical. Bear, sweeter than he is smart, gets beat up by their rival gang and insists “I got some good ones in” even though his bloody, bent nose tells a different story. Cheese shadows the local tribal policeman, Big, and tries to get in on the “busts” – one of which is an old man sleeping on a bench whose book on string theory was allegedly stolen. Willie Jack punctuates every sentence with “fuck” and reminds the group that she should not be responsible for the money when she gets it stuck in a motorcycle gas tank. Elora gets ulcers from compulsively eating the black-market chips they’re supposed to be selling for California money.

The peripheral characters are as important and fully drawn as the protagonists. Big, the local tribal policeman/Lighthorseman, talks big about his feats but locks himself out of his patrol car. Bear’s single mother is the Village MILF, who unapologetically seeks a doctor/lawyer father to replace Bear’s absent Indian rapper father, but she’s no sucker. She rebuffs advances from Big and the nerdy Korean doctor at her clinic. Elora’s Uncle Brownie, a grumpy recluse who says he lives off the land although Willie Jack observes the effluvial Sonic debris around his house, proclaims his “medicine is strong” (even though his homegrown ditch weed is weak compared to the newly legalized marijuana). The kids get their best Village gossip from Mose and Mekko, rapping twins cruising around on their bicycles, who name the gang “Reservation Dogs” so they can compete with the new criminal competition.

The show is definitely a comedy, but it’s balanced with real issues – political, emotional, socioeconomic, and racial, among others. The kids struggle with poverty, limited opportunities, mental and physical health, and family dysfunction. They also mourn the loss of their friend Daniel. Episode one, “F*ckin’ Rez Dogs,” establishes that he died one year previously, and that’s why the gang has undergone a life of crime to fund their emigration to California – because “this place killed him – that’s why we’re gonna get out of this dump.” The Village life is two dollars a day of catfish, trips to the dreaded Indian Health Service clinic for what ails them (“I hate this place”), and poaching on land the government took and sold to rich Texans who never step foot there. An old white couple on an idyllic Sunday drive argues about the meaning of “Land Back” spray-painted on a road sign, resulting in deer roadkill that the kids load into their trunk to make backstrap. The white man who picks up Bear’s mom in a bar seems like a bacon-scented dream come true, but she’s awakened by a freezing cold dose of reality. The politics are present but also written with humor. Big calls soda “the white man’s bullet” but then drinks an energy drink, saying it’s made “from ENERGY – it’s organtic.”

The community, though, with its quirks, characters, and conundrums, is the focus, mostly seen through the eyes of the kids. The receptionist at the IHS clinic throws shade like it’s an Olympic event. Big, though he seems goofy and ineffective, knows his villagers and discerns the good guys from the bad guys, as Cheese discovers during their ride-along. Uncle Brownie and Elora teach each other about real family ties. Willie Jack and her dad work through genuine pain as they hunt for the elusive Chunk, a mythical deer that Daniel could never catch, and get adopted by a wild turkey in the forest they once owned. Cheese finds a new grandmother because of his own kindness. The love and affection of the place and the characters make this show infinitely bingeable and the writing makes it as quotable as the recent Canadian hit, Letterkenny. I can’t count how many times I’ve affectionately called my family “shitass” since watching.

Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi are no strangers to creating communities on film. Harjo is a prize-winning Native American filmmaker whose first feature, Four Sheets to the Wind, about a Seminole Indian, premiered at Sundance in 2007. Waititi, a New Zealand native and part Maori, is not only known for his Oscar-nominated Jojo Rabbit, but also for his cult hit mockumentary, What We Do in the Shadows, which follows a group of vampire roommates from different centuries who create their own community within their little household. They choose to leave the Rez Dogs’ tribe unnamed (perhaps for universality to the Indigenous characters and their reservation experiences), but the rituals and traditions are inserted so naturally as to be stealthy. The characters cover their eyes when they see a taxidermied owl and the filmmakers also blur the owl’s eyes out – brilliant problem-solving for the beliefs they’re conveying and practicing. The burial practices are shown in a brief scene with Willie Jack revisiting Daniel’s grave. The kids conduct a tribal memorial at the end of episode one, dressed as the Mr. Color characters from Reservoir Dogs. Bear meets his hapless but helpful spirit guide after an epic paintball massacre. Spirit advises him to aid his community instead of harm it and Bear knows that you respect your ancestors, even if their “shitass” horse won’t even heed their words.

If you haven’t seen this yet, clear your weekend, get Hulu, and watch it twice. You will laugh, cry, and learn that if a book on string theory disappears in act one, it will reappear by the end in an unexpected place. The beautiful acting, writing, and cinematography will leave you with the feeling of a new home, and better yet, a new family.

Created By: Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi
Written By: Sterlin Harjo, Taika Waititi, Bobby Wilson
Directed By: Sydney Freeland, Sterlin Harjo
Starring: D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs, Paulina Alexis, Lane Factor