Indian Country Today
There is no lack of unmistakable love for “Reservation Dogs” in Indian Country, and there is little argument that co-creators Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi have created one of this generation’s biggest Native-storyline television hits.
In an interview with Indian Country Today’s Vincent Schilling, Harjo, Seminole and Muscogee, shares details about his popular show. He talked about his process of the hidden Native Easter eggs, his unapologetic approach to showcasing life on the rez in Oklahoma, and his own childhood friend named Cheese.
At the top of our conversation, I immediately wished Sterlin Harjo a robust congratulations for “Reservation Dogs” being picked up for a second season on FX/Hulu. Harjo was understandably pleased with the news.
“It's so exciting,” Harjo said. “People love the show. You know you put this stuff out and, well, you don't know. I thought people would like it. But it has been this, like, phenomenon where everyone likes it, you know? And the response has been pretty overwhelming. Pretty, pretty amazing.”
FX/Hulu has had no shortage of press materials, show descriptions and a flood of video snippets on social media. Indian Country has followed suit and has been sharing an equal flood of memes, character shout outs and more. The main program focuses on the exploits of four main characters, “Bear Smallhill,'' portrayed by D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, “Elora Danan,” portrayed by Devery Jacobs, “Willie Jack,” portrayed by Paulina Alexis and the youngest of the group “Cheese,” portrayed by acting newcomer Lane Factor.
(Related: Indian Country’s love for ‘Reservation Dogs’)
Harjo says his choice of characters is loosely based on people he knew growing up.
“They're based on people I knew, they're based on me,” he said. “I had a friend named Cheese and he's still around. And there was always a Bear. I've known a few Bears and Willie Jack was the Billy Jack shout-out. And also Elora Danan, you know, I always think that parents of that generation give kids from that generation names from movies and culture. One of the things that I think this show celebrates is when you grow up in a small town or a reservation or, or whatever you, and if you're young Natives, you sort of gravitate towards pop culture. This show is like a celebration of the influence of pop culture.”
Harjo shared his passion for the inclusion of Native “Easter Eggs” or those things in television and films that are hidden gems of information. Such things included the infamous owl with blurred-out eyes, the legend of Deer Lady and the ominous red-eyed figure in the woods. Harjo assured me there would be more to come.
I also asked about the intergenerational quality of relationships contained in the series, most notably the “Come and Get Your Love” episode featuring Zahn McClarnon, Wes Studi and Factor.
Harjo says that due to the higher profile of the FX Network and Hulu, having high-profile actors is a much more attainable feat. And the ability to have Studi and McClarnon in the same scene was a long time coming for a Native television show.
“You know, it's something that I've always wanted to do is connect those generations,” he said “And you know, I've never had the budget to really go after all the actors that I wanted. I was just straight coming up in independent filmmaking as you know, then came right into this. So, when we had such a high-profile project and the budgets to pay for these actors — Finally, there was a show like this.
“I was always kind of thinking of a role for Wes and he reached out and also said he'd love to be a part of the show. I had this part for the character Bucky who was written for a younger person, but I was like, ‘oh man, that would be perfect to have Wes as this character, just to kind of like, shake the frost off a bit of the roles that some of our actors have to play, like to give them something to really shine with, you know, and do something really opposite of what they usually do. Yeah. That was really exciting for me.”
Harjo also shared how much the characters in “Reservation Dogs” are true slices of Native life. Gary Farmer’s character “Uncle Brownie” was named after his father’s nickname.
“His nickname, since he was a child, was ‘Brownie.’ And it's funny cause my dad's actually in the clinic lobby, and this was not planned, but he's almost dressed to a T just like Uncle Brownie in his episode, like they're both in like vests and hats. Like, it's pretty funny.”
Harjo says this honest portrayal of his life, in fact, honesty and respect in general is what he believes is the ingredient to the show’s success.
“That's the key to the show. Success, honestly, is the respect for the audience,” he said. “And not pandering to anyone, not holding anyone's hands, not overexplaining anything, it's just respecting the audience enough to drop them in the middle of this story and make them have to play catch up. It's like they have to do work as well. I think that's some of the best comedy where there are universal themes that they can relate to. And that's what keeps them there, but also they’re learning a vernacular, they're learning a rhythm and they're learning slang and everything. I think that that is what makes the show a success.”
Harjo also attributes much of the success to the support of his friend and Oscar-winning Indigenous film director Taika Waititi, a co-executive producer on the show.
“He's one of my best friends and it's interesting because we did this together. We wrote the pilot together, we created the show together and then, we broke off. He went to make Thor and I went to make the show. There has been this sort of love between us and friendship. We haven't got to see each other, but we've both been working. I've been on the boots on the ground, making the show and checking in with him and I get to see him on Zooms and stuff, but we haven't really got to see each other much except when we had the LA premiere. So, it was like a reunion again. He's very proud of it. I think it beats all of our expectations. I got to make something with my best friend and we'll always have it, you know, we'll always have it in the world. We'll always have it.”
Harjo said the journey has been a lot of long hard work. He said with the show’s success, he has felt relief, but also intense fear of having put something out into the world.
In the last words of the interview, Harjo shared advice for any filmmakers and/or artists who wish to achieve their dreams:
“I think it's super simple. It is ‘do it and don't stop.’ And you know, I'll share this advice because I had an art teacher in high school who shared this with me and it stuck with me and I've kept it until this day. He said, ‘Don't have a fallback plan because you'll fall back. If you really truly want to do this, do it.’”
“Do it and don't stop and don't take no. Because there's going to be people that try to hold you back. There's going to be people that tell you ‘you're not good enough.’ There's going to be people that tell you ‘it's impossible.’ I don't know how many times that I’ve heard ‘Native films don't sell.’ I don't know how many times I heard, ‘You want to tell about Native people in Oklahoma? No one is going to do that.’ I don't know how many terms I’ve heard. ‘You can't do it from Oklahoma.’ I don't know how many times I heard ‘there are not enough Native actors to do a TV show or to cast a project like this.’
“I don't know how many times I heard all that stuff and I never listened to it. I just kept going. And you know, the proof is here now. It is all possible.”