‘Reservation Dogs’ showcases indigenous culture with humor

“Native humor can be dark and vulgar, and it’s weird,” says Tazbah Chavez, writer, producer and director of “Reservation Dogs,” the quirky show that follows Native teenagers who surf their community in rural Oklahoma.

The bizarre, often bittersweet series is both silly and sublime, and the comedy-drama’s first season has already garnered two Independent Spirit Awards, a Peabody Award, a Gotham Award, an American Film Institute Award, and Television Academy Honors. Created by writer-director Sterlin Harjo, director of Oklahoma’s Seminole and Muscogee Creek, and New Zealand director Taika Waititi, the pair of friends share an interest in extracting their respective indigenous cultures for fun and heartwarming stories.

Executive producer Garrett Basch understood their dynamic friendship and nuanced cultural background, playing a vital role in the development of the series and encouraging the co-creators to take “Reservation Dogs” where they believed it was necessary.

“The reason the show is successful is that we trusted and were allowed to go as far and as hard as necessary,” says Harjo. “The representation of our people by the industry has been a big lie from the start. To compensate for this, we had to be blatantly honest. FX let us do it. Much of this honesty is our humor. “

Waititi agrees, explaining how crucial it was to honor their disparate, but often related, experiences in their approach to storytelling.

Even though we were born and raised in completely different parts of the world, the cultures and small towns we grew up in mean we have a very similar vision and sensitivity, “says Waititi.” We are aligned in the sense that we want to tell stories of marginalized people. who live on the sides of society “.

Dog reservation

The series draws on Harjo’s personal experiences growing up in Holdenville, Oklahoma. “He knows that world much better than I do,” says Waititi. “I couldn’t hope to go in and tell the Native American story on my own, and neither would I – it just isn’t appropriate. I knew I would be able to help, as I am a good storyteller and could help mold this into something that I felt was very Taika and very Sterlin.

Infused with Waititi’s humor, the show is balanced with a deep emotionality.

“Taika does this thing where she is able to make you feel joy at the same time you feel pain, and then it makes you come back,” says Chavez. “Sterlin’s style alone is very similar to that, so I think it was a great meeting of minds.”

There was no one else to tell this story but Sterlin, ”says Devery Jacobs, who plays teenager Elora Danan, a character who dreams of escaping her world and heading to California after her friend dies. Jacobs is also on the show’s writing staff; every fellow writer, director and main cast member, as well as much of the crew, are indigenous.

“I’ve never seen anyone honor their community’s ways while also operating in the industry,” says Jacobs. “Ultimately, this is what this show is about: the community. It is a story that follows many people and also a world we live in. I think it’s her experience and her love for the community that was really the anchor for this show.

Chavez says Harjo’s experience resonated with the cast and crew. “Bsince we all came from native communities and are culturally connected, it was not difficult for us to understand the upbringing that Sterlin had, because it is the same upbringing that we had, ”he says. “Each of us has family and community members who are the same as the people he lived: each of us had our own version of Uncle Brownie at home, or we all know a Willie Jack.”

Every aspect of the native experience was ripe for laughter and pathos. “There was no idea it was too big or too wild for the room,” says Chavez. “Some of our best ideas came from where someone said, ‘OK, that might be crazy, but my aunt told me once …’ Sterlin really does cultivate a culture where no idea is too simple, it’s too crazy. or it’s too cheesy. That’s the good part of this show: all of these things are intertwined together. “

Jacobs suggests that it is the specificity of these stories that infuses them with universal appeal. “Some of my favorite stories out there are those that come from completely different cultures than mine,” she explains. “I am thinking of ‘Minari’ or ‘Moonlight’, many projects focused on very specific stories of these experiences of people from different cultures. I find it almost a bigger entry point. Just being so specific in your cultural and human experience ends up becoming more universal ”.

Then, there’s Waititi’s distinctive comic flavor. “The treatment of indigenous peoples in the media has always been very serious, and it has been a serious lack of comedy, which is ironic and sad because our peoples are very funny,” she notes.

“‘Reservation Dogs’ has a very native humor: it’s very dry, very witty,” agrees Lane Factor, who plays Cheese, the youngest and most mischievous member of the group. “He is an impassive character. It’s not that he’s just actively trying to tell jokes and shed light on every situation, but along with many of our native characters, their humor is just what they are. It is a good way for many indigenous people to deal with problems ”.

That quirk also helps offset the darker aspects the show explores.

“[We’re] keeping the stories light-hearted, until you have a heavier message to convey, ”says Waititi. “I always find that comedy is a great way to get the audience to let their guard down and that for me it’s a better way to get them involved and get them involved in the story.”

The widespread appeal of the show “means everything,” says Jacobs. It means that we can be seen in the way we are determining, as opposed to what Hollywood and Western society have considered us ”.