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Groundbreaking Indigenous series ‘Reservation Dogs’ has roots in Utah

Creators/executive producers Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi became fast friends at the Sundance Indigenous program.

(Shane Brown/FX) Lane Factor as Cheese, Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as Bear, Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan Postoak in "Reservation Dogs."

The new FX on Hulu series “Reservation Dogs” is groundbreaking: a show about Native Americans who live on a reservation in Oklahoma that stars Native Americans and was written, produced and directed by Native Americans.

And it never would have happened if the creators/executive producers — Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi — hadn’t met and become fast friends in Utah. At Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program.

(Photo by Frank Micelotta/FX/PictureGroup) Longtime friends Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi are the creators and executive producers of "Reservation Dogs."

Waititi and Harjo were young and struggling. They used to flip coins to see which friend’s couch they’d sleep on in Park City. And share hotel rooms.

“There was a long period of coming together and dreaming with each other [and] with the other Indigenous filmmakers,” said Harjo, who heaped praise on Bird Runningwater, who runs the Indigenous program. “We were all dreaming about this stuff ... but now it’s finally happened.”

Waititi (“Thor: Ragnarok,” “What We Do In the Shadows”) credits his entire career — which includes winning an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for “Jojo Rabbit” — to Runningwater and Sundance.

“That’s how I was noticed, how I got an agent,” he said. “That’s how I got a manager. That’s how I got a career. … That’s how Sterlin and I met, and we’ve been friends for … almost 20 years because of it.”

Taika Waititi, winner of the award for best adapted screenplay for "Jojo Rabbit," arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Waititi grew up in New Zealand, the son of a Maori father. Harjo grew up in Oklahoma — he’s a member of the Seminole tribe and has Muscogee heritage. At Sundance, they bonded over their indigenous backgrounds.

“All of the stories that we shared from when we were growing up, they seemed exactly the same, Waititi said. “We know a lot of people from Indigenous communities in many places ... and all of those people all share the same experiences.”

“I think one of the similarities in all of those Indigenous communities is humor,” Harjo said. “All of the stories that we would tell were funny.”

And “Reservation Dogs” is funny. Extremely dark, but funny. It’s about a group of Indigenous teens who live on an Oklahoma reservation and dream of leaving for California, where they think all their problems will disappear. They’re small-time criminals who consider themselves a gang, but they’re pretty much non-violent.

“You know, crime can be funny,” Harjo said. “It’s sort of based on experiences that Taika and I both had growing up.”

(Shane Brown/FX) "Reservation Dogs" is based on the life of creator/executive producer Sterlin Harjo.

Harjo doesn’t want to hear that he shouldn’t be portraying these kids as criminals.

“We are all Indigenous in the writers’ room, and that’s never been done before,” Harjo said. “And having an all‑Indigenous room helped us not be afraid to go hard and tell the truth and ... be funny and sort of push the envelope.”

The gang includes Cheese (Lane Factor), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and Elora Danan Postoak (Devery Jacobs), with Bear Smallhill (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) serving as the group’s sort-of-leader.

Having so many Indigenous artists in the cast and leading the creative team “made it really easy to connect and have that chemistry with them,” Alexis said. “I feel like I’ve known them all my life. Like, everyone on set, you just feel like you are related to them.”

“We are from communities very far apart from each other,” said Woon-A-Tai, “but yet we can relate to each other off the bat.”

And that dynamic more than translates onto the screen: it is the show’s deep authenticity that pushes it so far beyond what we have been taught to expect from Indigenous narratives.

As groundbreaking as this may feel for non-Natives, Harjo says, for him, “the most important thing” is what the show represents for Native audiences — especially younger viewers.

“Native kids being able to watch this show and see themselves reflected on the screen” is, he said, “something that none of us grew up having.”

“Reservation Dogs” is a mix of melancholy darkness and absurd humor. You’re supposed to laugh. The producers expect you to — and they want assure you it’s okay to do so.

Seriously.

“Non‑Natives are always afraid to laugh at Native things because they’ve been trained so hard to see us with earnestness and like we are precious,” Harjo said. “And so you have to kind of give them permission. Like, ‘Oh, you can laugh. We are funny people too.’”

In “Reservation Dogs,” Bear sometimes talks to an imaginary warrior on horseback who sort of acts as his conscience. The warrior is a veteran of the Battle of Little Big Horn who didn’t get to kill Gen. Custer because his horse stepped in a hole, fell and crushed the warrior to death. The character is a play on what Waititi called “the ghost stereotype” in movies and TV — that Indigenous people “always get visited by an ancestor. They’ve always got sage advice on how to live your life.”

Harjo thinks that “99.9%” of non-Native people, when asked to name “the first image that you have in your head when I say ‘Native American,’ it would be that spirit on the horse.’ And that’s insane.”

So this “Reservation Dogs” imaginary warrior “is a device that helps non‑Natives ease into the humor in this world. … It’s letting non‑Natives into the room and going, ‘Look what you thought we were.’ … And then they laugh with us.

“But, also, it’s actually kind of honoring our past, too, because we actually were like that at one point. And so it’s poking fun at the stereotype, but it’s also acknowledging the truths in that.”

(Shane Brown/FX) Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack, Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan Postoak, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as Bear, and Lane Factor as Cheese in "Reservation Dogs."

None of the characters in “Reservation Dogs” is exactly heroic. They’re deeply flawed, even as the show plays with both Indigenous stereotypes and audience expectations.

“There’s a lot of bad s--- that happened to us at the hands of the U.S. government and other governments,” Harjo said, “but we survived, I think, partially because of our humor. And for me, that’s the important part of the show.”

Not that they’re trying to take any of this too seriously.

“We are just trying to entertain you and tell a good story,” Harjo said.

New episodes of “Reservation Dogs” stream Mondays on FX on Hulu.

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