Taika Waititi’s ‘Reservation Dogs’ Brings Fun Grit to Indigenous Life in Oklahoma

Reservation Dogs” starts off with a crime spree that has little to do with wanting to be flashy. It is instead part of a desperate plea for the desire to leave one’s hometown. The small-time bandits are a pack of friends, all Indigenous, who live in that corner of Oklahoma known as Indian Territory. That still isn’t what makes this new FX on Hulu series by Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo so original and addictive. Groundbreaking in terms of Native American representation, “Reservation Dogs” plays down what tends to get sensationalized in other shows. It’s all about the characters and how they live, interact and laugh through adversity in a tight-knit community. 

In Okmulgee, we meet the misfits who lead this story. Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) would like to think of himself as the leader of a pack that includes sharp Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), level-headed Elora (Devery Jacobs) and innocent Cheese (Lane Factor). They are currently involved in a small local crime wave involving the theft of food trucks, street light copper, and anything that will score them money on the black market. Their goal is to amass enough funds to eventually move to California. This town is a rundown void that already killed their friend Daniel. It’s a place where opportunities are scarce and big dreams are a near-joke. The status quo is in for a shake-up when a mysterious new group of kids do a paintball drive-by that knocks Bear unconscious. Local rapping twins Mose (Lil Mike) and Mekko (Funny Bone) inform them that the shooters were part of a new crew, the NDN Mafia. Essentially they’re just a bunch of cousins, but turf wars here are serious business. 

“Reservation Dogs” has the unique feel of a show where there is never a doubt that the writers know its world inside-out. The humor is great but also specific to Indigenous communities, and stereotypes are busted even as the show makes statements through the narrative about the ongoing plight of Native peoples. The world of Bear, Jack, Elora and Cheese could be East L.A., east side El Paso, Texas or South Side Chicago. Anyone planning any shows about those corners of America should take notes from the work done here by Waititi, Harjo and directors like Sydney Freeland. They never set out to cater to white demographics. Since they are excellent storytellers, there is an understanding of how good characters can grab any viewer. “Reservation Dogs” has a rural setting, but also boasts the grit you tend to get in inner-city dramas or movies. At the same time it’s roaringly funny. There’s Native humor, like local top cop, Big (Zahn McClarnon) warning Bear that sugar is “white man’s bullets,” as he buys an energy drink because they are naturally “made out of energy” and “organtic,” and then cute pop culture jokes like the fact that Elora was named after Elora Danan, the baby in the 1988 fantasy epic “Willow.” This revelation inspires quite the Tarantino-esque geek aria about the movie by Kenny Boy (Kirk Fox), who runs the salvage yard where the gang drops off their stolen goods. Mose and Mekko are particular scene-stealers with their rhymes and rapper attitudes. They unintentionally turn their friends into targets by boasting that they told the NDN Mafia kids Bear and his crew are the big, local “gang.” 

“Reservation Dogs” captures with pristine detail life in a low-income, working class community. There are no “major gangs” or “mafias” in this town, just bored kids who are denied the resources needed to imagine something better. When they overhear the driver of the food truck they steal in the pilot complain that he’s lost his job, wife and might suffer from diabetes, the guilt drives Bear and the gang to try to buy the truck back. Everyone is trying to get by and some adults get cynical. Bear’s mother, Rita (Sarah Podemski) scoffs at her son’s absentee father being described as an artist. While getting ready for a date she asks Bear if he wouldn’t prefer she finally find him a lawyer or doctor for a dad. The only candidate might be a bumbling Korean doctor at the IHS Clinic, who rightfully corrects Bear when he assumes he must be Chinese, but then tries to flirt with Rita. He openly concludes she must miss having a man around who can hunt. This is a show proudly Indigenous, yet not in some romanticized way. Never does the writing need to explicitly explain that Okmulgee is a struggling corner because of issues going all the way back to violent American colonialism that stripped the Native peoples of their lands, cornering them in reservations and other spots. One can easily imagine someone in Gaza watching this show and relating to its characters. 

The writing never has a tinge of misery or hopelessness, but a vibrant energy that finds lots of humor in cultural references. Jackie and Elora roll their eyes at the old-timer who sits outside of the clinic selling “good medicine,” and they can only laugh at Bear when he assumes he must be the leader of their crew. When the NDN Mafia show up outside the clinic, composed of Jackie (Elva Guerra), cousins Bone Thug Dog (Jude Barnett), Weeze (Xavier Bigpond), and buddy White Steve (Jack Maricle), and a near-fight ensues, all it takes is for Rita to break it up. There’s also a spirit warrior, William Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth), who was at the Battle of the Little Bighorn but didn’t necessarily take part in the fighting. He gives Bear words of wisdom, sort of. The writing team knows its stuff so well they sneak in a reference to the George Armstrong Custer epic, “Son of the Morning Star.” “Reservation Dogs” actually represents Native characters without falling into stereotypes. It also cheerfully subverts pop culture, like a moment in the pilot, where Bear, Jackie, Elora and Cheese walk in dark clothing, in an obvious reference to Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” with “R.E.D.” by the Halluci Nation providing a riveting soundtrack.

“Reservation Dogs” could have easily gone the route of so many other shows about under-represented communities in media, by attempting to compete with sensationalism. While this series has grit, it also has plenty of heart and is more about camaraderie than violence. We sense Bear and his friends might not get too far with their big plans for California, but we want to spend more time just lounging around with them as they rob some copper, sell meat pies and try to hide their stolen chips and other merchandise from the ever-suspicious, fatherly Big. There are no villains or evil cops, vicious criminals or major plots, just young people coming of age in an Indigenous community living day by day. For all audiences it will be a refreshing piece of addictive TV, with stellar acting all around. On a more important, pop cultural level, by finally giving Native American representation its due in a show of this kind, “Reservation Dogs” might just be the most American series of the year.

Reservation Dogs” season one begins streaming Aug. 9 with new episodes premiering Mondays on FX on Hulu.