'Reservation Dogs': Redefining Native American Representation on TV

Reservation Dogs

This month marks the last time that TV viewers will journey through Okern, Oklahoma with the vibrant and diverse cast of the FX Networks' comedy series, "Reservation Dogs." In its third and final season, "Reservation Dogs" broke the mold when it first premiered in 2021 with its authentic portrayal of Native American characters, with the storyline following an eclectic group of characters as they come of age. At its core, "Reservation Dogs" immerses viewers in contemporary Native American life and the complexities and beauty that come with it.

Before the series concludes on September 27, here is a closer look at how the series has and will continue to impact the future of diverse storytelling on screen.

A Promising Departure From the Status Quo

“Reservation Dogs" defied conventional coming-of-age storylines from the very start, offering a unique perspective that expanded beyond its central four teenage characters – Bear, Willie Jack, Elora, and Cheese – to embrace an entire community with diverse temperaments.

  • The show's strength lies in its authentic portrayal of Native characters that neither oversimplify nor resort to caricatures nor feature the "white savior" trope stereotypes – all while they explore their Indigenous identities and use humor throughout.
  • The series was the first to feature all Indigenous writers and directors, and the first to be filmed entirely in Oklahoma. This includes co-creators Taika Waititi, a New Zealander who has Maori descent, and Seminole filmmaker Sterlin Harjo.
  • The showrunners dug deep and scoured Native American communities to cast talent for the show. "The talent is there. It just doesn't happen to be on Hollywood Boulevard," said Harjo back during the 2021 TCA summer press tour.
  • "There was a time where the content [on Native Americans] had to be depressing," Waititi also said during the TCA tour. "We don't want to depress people because there's so much humor in our communities. There are so many jokers."
  • Harjo and Waititi were also determined to challenge expectations and avoid sentimentalizing life on Native American reservations. Instead, they focus on the essence of friendship and its ability to unite and divide.

The Importance of Community and Sense of Place

In the fictional rural town set on the Muscogee Nation, many residents are working-class Natives, and for the central characters, their community is everything to them.

  • Throughout its three seasons, "Reservation Dogs" delves into themes of friendship, family, and heritage. The absence of parental figures drives the characters to pursue personal ambitions. Unfulfilled dreams, death, desires to leave the reservation, and confronting feelings of abandonment are all explored.
  • The show's pace is defined by the characters' experiences as they get lost, wander aimlessly, or discover resolution in unexpected places.
  • At the same time, the show's appreciation for its setting underscores the supernatural aspects of the places they call home.
  • As the characters approach young adulthood, they grapple with the fear of growing apart from their friends. Yet, the show emphasizes the importance of letting go of barriers and fears that no longer serve their journey, and accepting the discomfort of growth.

"Reservation Dogs" is a testament to the power of storytelling that authentically represents and challenges preconceptions about Native American life. Its legacy will serve as a reminder of the continual need for greater diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry, offering hope for a future where Native voices are more widely heard and celebrated on screen.