Reservation Dogs: A comedic look into Indigenous realities

Reservation Dogs: A comedic look into Indigenous realities
Photo courtesy of FX Networks

New Zealand-based director Taika Waititi is continuing his decade-long creative growth with his new television show, Reservation Dogs. Created, written and produced by Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok, Jojo Rabbit) and Sterlin Harjo (Barking Water, Mekko), the show is a teenage comedy that entices the viewer with laughs but hits serious topics along the way.

The show focuses on the lives of four Native American teenagers in Oklahoma who try to move to California by starting a gang — the Reservation Dogs — and making money. The central plot follows the Rez Dogs — consisting of leaders Bear Smallhill (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) and Elora Danan Postoak (Devery Jacobs), along with members Cheese (Lane Factor) and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) — as they defend their town from a new rival white gang.

Part of what makes Reservation Dogs so remarkable is that, according to the New York Times, it’s one of the first major television shows to feature a cast and crew of almost entirely Indigenous peoples. Waititi has Māori heritage, Harjo is a member of the Seminole nation and members of the cast come from the Mohawk, Oji-Cree and Lakota nations.

Stemming from the diversity of this Indigenous team, the strongest elements of Reservation Dogs are the themes that arise from life on the reservation.

Despite being a comedy, one of the main themes of the show is the difficulties and inequalities of Native American life. In one episode, the gang waits for hours at the run-down tribal hospital, and while it’s played up for laughs, the absurdity of the conditions is true. In another, Bear goes through a goose chase to surprise his estranged rapper father, only for his father to flake on him.

What’s most important about these topics, however, is the fact that they’re finally getting recognition in mass media at all. The lives of Native Americans are often overlooked in television and film, but Reservation Dogs brings those common but rarely talked about experiences into the popular discourse.

Additionally, Waititi and Harjo present these important themes while still making the show engaging for non-Indigenous audiences. By blending important native topics with universal humor, the creators make the show accessible.

One example of this is when Bear passes out from an attack by the rival gang and interacts with the spirit of deceased native warrior William Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth). Knifeman talks about his life in the spirit world: “The spirit world is cold. My nipples are always hard. I’m always hungry.” This humorous sentiment is countered at the end of his speech, where he says, “It’s easy being bad. It’s hard to be a warrior with dignity.”

By combining the traditional with the modern, Waititi and Harjo make viewers laugh while still leaving them with facts of Indigenous life that they might not think about otherwise.

Those difficult facts, however, are a lot easier to understand through the show’s deadpan, modern comedy. This humor comes through in both Waititi and Harjo’s writing, as well as the acting.

Much of the show focuses on the hilarious, day-to-day antics of the gang. As the group transitions from petty thieves to the town’s protectors, they get caught up in awkward situations: baking meat pies, selling decades-old marijuana and learning the Indigenous style of fighting.

That comedic writing is brought to life by the four main actors, as well as the stellar supporting cast. The main actors, ranging in age from 16 to 28, bring their own life experiences into the writing, which makes the relationships in the gang appear natural. From the opening scene of them stealing a chip delivery truck to them getting shot by paintballs from the rival gang, they make the quirky action feel real.

By focusing on the humorous lives of teenagers, however, Waititi and Harjo occasionally risk entering the cheesy side of modern dialogue. With references to social media and other parts of modern teenage life occasionally interspersed for comedic value, it has the chance to feel cliché.

Realistically, though, this occasional overwriting is a necessary byproduct of focusing on teenage life.

Overall, this detriment can easily be overlooked. The stories and performances of Reservation Dogs brings the comedy to life and offers a wonderful portrayal of native teenage life that has been sorely underrepresented in modern media.