FX Series 'Reservation Dogs' Showcases Oklahoma, Breaks New Ground With Native Cast And Crew
The new show Reservation Dogs is set to premiere on FX this month. The eight-part series is shot entirely within the Muscogee Nation reservation boundaries in Oklahoma — something director and co-creator Sterlin Harjo says gave him the freedom to tell the stories that uplift Indigenous life while showcasing the nuance, too.
The comedy follows four Indigenous teenagers as they navigate life in a small town, experience the loss of a friend and try to solve crime on the reservation. Along with Rutherford Falls, which debuted on Peacock this spring, the show features Native writers, directors, cast, crew, producers and showrunners who say it's their time to tell their own stories and write their own characters.
On a humid late spring day on the Reservation Dogs set in Okmulgee, Harjo is getting ready. He pulls out the day's scenes from his pocket. They're filming something from the inner life of Willie Jack, one of the main characters.
"Today we're shooting some of those, not flashbacks but flashes to her imagination of what she wants to do. So that's what we're doing today," explained Harjo as he walked around the sprawling set. All around him, crew were busy setting up lights, cameras and sound equipment as the monthslong shoot of the series neared the end.
In one of those flashes forward, Paulina Alexis, who plays Willie Jack, imagines herself to be a chef. At the end of the scene, she artfully showers the dish with salt, à la the Salt Bae.
"Doing stuff like this, I really relate to the character," said Alexis, who used to cook for her siblings growing up. "Willie Jack is a lot like me. And I think a lot of other Indigenous kids will relate to her as well."
Alexis is a citizen of the Nakota Sioux Nation in Central Alberta, Canada. She had three older brothers who were interested in film and art, and they helped their dad with his production company — setting up lights and serving as the crew as he filmed and edited powwows.
"Growing up, you didn't see a lot of Native people on TV," said Alexis, who starred in Beans, about the 78-day standoff between two Mohawk communities and government forces in 1990 in Quebec, and in Ghostbusters: Afterlife.
She's right. A lot of movies and television series have featured Native characters without an inner life, or worse, played by non-Native people. But in the last few years, all of that has changed.
More Indigenous artists, writers and filmmakers are saying that it's time for them to tell their own stories instead of white producers and directors. Harjo, who is from Holdenville, Oklahoma, has been a writer and director for more than a decade when he was a fellow at the Sundance Institute. His short film, Goodnight Irene, premiered at Sundance in 2005.
In another scene, Alexis imagines herself to be an MMA fighter squaring off in the ring. Before shooting the scene, Alexis practiced the tricky maneuver with another actor, throwing him onto the ground over and over like an empty bag of potato chips.
Finally, the referee raises Willie Jack's arm as she's declared the winner, then it's on to the next scene.
Scenes for Willie Jack's inner life were being filmed just blocks away from the Creek Council House in downtown Okmulgee, the Muscogee Nation's capital, where visitors learn about the tribal nation's history in Oklahoma after their removal. Harjo wanted the show to be filmed in Oklahoma as a way to make the series more relatable.
The set had the feeling of a family affair where practical jokes were being played and friendships were being made and rekindled. Even the catering crew, who had the honorable job of keeping people caffeinated and fed, called out over the breakfast tacos and snacks to ask how people were doing.
I've known Harjo for five years now, and full disclosure: I've done some work with his former company Fire Thief Productions. So, I've heard him tell some of the stories that he includes in Reservation Dogs. They're based on his childhood experiences growing up in Holdenville on the Seminole Nation reservation. Like a scene where one of the tribal police officers finds rocks in people's mailboxes. It's based on something that happened to Harjo’s uncle Junior — who found rocks in his mailbox.
"He thought somebody put a curse on him, like put bad medicine on him by putting these rocks in his mailbox," laughed Harjo.
Harjo has a lot of those stories, and he's peppered them throughout all of his narrative films. Like in Four Sheets to the Wind, about uprooting himself from his small town and moving to Tulsa, and Mekko, about a Native man experiencing homelessness while gaining redemption from a past crime. Making those movies led up to setting Reservation Dogs in Oklahoma and showcasing his own Indigenous community for a wider audience.
"I think that for my narrative films, I just never had the budget to do what I needed to do to capture it," said Harjo about the experiences and feelings he holds about Oklahoma. "To sell the magic that butts up against the reality in the stories, and Reservation Dogs has that."
He has the budget now because the show has major backing by the FX Networks and will premiere on the streaming service Hulu later this month. It's also because of his longtime friendship with Hollywood director Taika Waititi, who shares a creator credit on the series. The two connected over shared childhood experiences growing up Indigenous.
Harjo wrote the pilot and three more episodes with Waititi . For the rest of the eight episode series, he brought in writers he worked with before, including some of The 1491s — Harjo's comedy group.
"Then we just used everyone's collective experience, like I used mine," recalled Harjo. "And we just came up with the rest of the show."
So, it's not surprising that a majority of the cast is Indigenous.
"I'm Mohawk from Mohawk territory, and I've been working in the film industry for 14 years now and never have I seen a project like this before," said 27-year-old Devery Jacobs, who plays Elora Danan. She has been in a few films like Young Ghouls and was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award for Best Performance by an Actress, but she said none where the showrunners, the writers, directors, producers and cast are Native.
She recalls shooting a scene with Harjo for the pilot.
"There's a scene where we're collectively mourning the passing of our friend Daniel, the fifth member of the Reservation Dogs," she said about the scene that appears near the end of episode one that's set to the music of Oklahoma songwriter Samantha Crain.
"I remember when we shot that with Sterlin, and he shared with us that this was based on his experience and his upbringing and a community member in his life," Jacobs said.
Jacobs has some funny riffs in the show, too, like helping to steal a delivery truck full of Hot Cheetos and selling them to make money to get out of town. In the series, she and Alexis are joined by two other very second rate criminals named Bear and Cheese, played by D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai and Lane Factor. All four want to make it out of their small town and head to California, so they might escape the same fate as their friend. They commit a series of hapless crimes in the process.
For Harjo, those two scenes are what make Reservation Dogs unique — the chance to show Indigenous humor and collective trauma in thirty minutes.
"We don't come into the story saying we are Native American, here's what we do, like, this is how we live," Harjo said of how other shows written by non-Indigenous writers might turn out. "We just drop you in the middle of these kids' lives, and you have to catch up. So it encourages an audience to go, 'I don't know what's going on, but I'm going to invest and follow them.'"
Reservation Dogs premieres on FX on Aug. 9.
(And if you aren't sure what that means, I guess you're just going to have to watch the show.)