‘Reservation Dogs’ Speaks Truth to Indigenous Culture

Native American filmmaker Sterlin Harjo and New Zealand film director Taika Waititi have teamed up to create an all new comedy, “Reservation Dogs.” The series takes a fresh spin off of the typical teenage comedy. It centers around teenager Bear Smallhill (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) and his group of friends Elora (Devery Jacobs), Willie (Paulina Alexis) and Cheese (Lane Factor) living in a reservation in rural Oklahoma. Their dream is to save up enough to move to California, so they attempt to make money in the fastest way possible: committing small town crimes.

All of the writers, directors and most of the cast members (all of the series regulars) are of Indigenous descent, allowing “Reservation Dogs” to speak the ultimate truth about Indigenous culture. It is important to continue seeing these types of representations of underrepresented groups on television, and “Reservation Dogs” is very enriching due to this cultural breakthrough it portrays. 

The importance of having Indigenous representation both on and off screen in “Reservation Dogs” is very evident. So far, in each episode Bear encounters a Native American spirit, the playfully sarcastic and inferior warrior William Knife-Man (Dallas Goldtooth). In the first episode titled “F*ckin’ Rez Dogs” we learn that William’s job is to guide Bear, a lost soul, and to help him find his dignity in being a warrior.

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Shortly after Bear’s first conversation with William, Bear begins to feel guilty for the crimes he has committed with his friends, and attempts to lead them away from the toxic path they’ve been traveling down. D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai does a fantastic job of portraying Bear’s emotions particularly during this realization. 

Bear’s emotions not only humanize him, but they show that he cares and is trying to do better. The audience hopes that Bear’s emotions will enable his character to grow into a better person, and that he will successfully lead his devoted friends in the right direction as well.

In addition to watching Bear work through his own emotions in “F*ckin’ Rez Dogs,” we begin to see feelings of guilt play out through other members of Bear’s friend group in the second episode, “NDN Clinic.” Elora sees Dr. Kang (Bobby Lee) for stomach pains, and the doctor concludes that her stomach pains are from eating numerous bags of Flaming Flamers chips every day. 

However, Elora’s stomach pains from the chips represent more than just physical pain from eating too many; it symbolizes her emotional guilt from stealing the Flaming Flamers chip truck and committing the various other crimes she’s done. By stealing the truck, she’s also stolen the truck driver’s job (and ultimately his happiness in life), and the guilt is beginning to catch up with her from stress eating too many bags.

Dr. Kang reacts to Elora’s obsessive chip eating as “fucking insane” and intelligently remarks that she “could die” before leaving her with mild advice of going easy on her stomach. Dr. Kang’s almost useless advice doesn’t stop at helping Elora. It’s important to note that whether a patient is in for their eyes, body injuries or gastrointestinal issues, Dr. Kang is “the everything doctor” at the NDN Clinic. 

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Despite the fact that he sees every patient for any medical issue, Dr. Kang doesn’t actually seem to have considerable knowledge in each specialty of medicine. This character flaw in Dr. Kang is clear to be purposeful; it conveys the common pattern that small towns and less wealthy populations — especially those of Indigenous descent — are often pushed to the side by not being given proper care and medical attention. In fact, Dr. Kang’s lack of interest and his careless bedside manner don’t hold him back from admitting to an injured Bear that he doesn’t like his job and wants to move back to San Diego. 

And it’s not much of a surprise that another rural Oklahoma resident wants to move to California, just like Bear and his friends. The writers of “Reservation Dogs” purposefully slip this information in about Dr. Kang because it emphasizes the influence that California has on many people aside from Bear. It’s very possible that this pattern of a California dream will continue to occur throughout the series, and it will likely be a contributing influence to Bear and his friends’ dream about moving to The Golden State.

Overall, “Reservation Dogs” provides a fun watching experience. The adventures of teenagers Bear, Elora, Willie and Cheese are relatable and funny. Although viewers want the crew to achieve their California dream, we hope that their quest for money becomes a more ethical one. Viewers should expect Bear and his friends to achieve this as long as Bear focuses on his morals, leads with grace, and grows as a character. We’re looking forward to following the “Rez Dogs” as their experiences continue each week.

“Reservation Dogs” releases episodes every Monday exclusively on FX on Hulu. 

By Lauren Weber

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