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Vincent Schilling
Indian Country Today

Greetings #NativeNerd readers. Today I am reviewing the more than highly-anticipated FX / HULU program “Reservation Dogs” co-created and produced by Sterlin Harjo and executive produced by Taika Waititi.

Here’s a list of the episodes I watched, the descriptions, titles and information is taken directly from the press materials FX / HULU submitted to me:

Episode 1 - “F*ckin’ Rez Dogs” - Aug. 9, exclusively on FX on Hulu

One year after the death of their friend, four Native teens commit crimes to fund their efforts to leave their home in rural Oklahoma.

Written by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi; Directed by Sterlin Harjo.

Episode 2 - “NDN Clinic” – Aug. 9, exclusively on FX on Hulu

A new crew threatens the Reservation Dogs while they try and make some money selling meat pies outside the local IHS Clinic.

Written by Sterlin Harjo; Directed by Sydney Freeland.

Episode 3 - “Uncle Brownie” – Aug. 16, exclusively on FX on Hulu

With a new rivalry crew threatening the Rez Dogs, Elora seeks out her Uncle to help them learn how to fight. Written by Sterlin Harjo; Directed by Blackhorse Lowe.

Episode 4 - “What About Your Dad” – Aug. 23, exclusively on FX on Hulu

The town gets ready for Bear’s rapper father to come into town and perform at the local IHS conference.

Written by Bobby Wilson and Tommy Pico; Directed by Sydney Freeland.

"Reservation Dogs" cast members and show creators at the premiere in Los Angeles on Aug. 5, 2021. (Photo by Max Montour, Indian Country Today)

So without further ado, let's get into my review.

A note about my #NativeNerd scoring system

When reviewing movies, I employ the decimal system to a tenth of a point. So instead of 7 stars, I might give a 7.4 out of 10. Some movies aren’t an eight but deserve a little more than a seven.

Reservation Dogs

9.8 out of 10

My quick quote: “So many TV viewers have never seen Native Rez life, Sterlin Harjo brings it in all its captivating glory. Reservation Dogs is beautifully sincere.”

Reservation Dogs poster

Synopsis: From Co-Creators and Executive Producers Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, Reservation Dogs is a half-hour comedy that follows the exploits of four Indigenous teenagers in rural Oklahoma who steal, rob and save in order to get to the exotic, mysterious and faraway land of California.

Official trailer

Certainly the world of a Native American reservation (aka the rez) has never really made its way to television—at least not in the way Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi have done it.

I have to admit, at first I was worried. The initial trailer snippet of “Reservation Dogs” which premiered on HULU Aug. 9, showed the four lead actors running out of a store with bandanas over their faces, excited to be getting away with their latest act of stealing against a Native store owner, or employee.

Reservation Dogs banner: (From left to right) Willie Jack portrayed by Paulina Alexis, Bear Smallhill portrayed by D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Cheese portrayed by Lane Factor and Elora Danan portrayed by Devery Jacobs.
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I cringed, thinking “uh oh, this is how the rest of the world is going to view Native kids.”

In some ways, If some people see the trailer and not the show, this might be the perspective they hold onto. If you are one of those potential people, (if you are reading this however, it is likely you are not, unless you aren’t going to get a HULU account) I would implore those of you who might be hesitant to give the show a chance.

I dove into the episodes, interested, if a bit apprehensive.

And then the magic happened.

In order for me to describe the episodes in some way (but don’t worry, I won’t give any spoilers) I will also provide a longer description of the four main characters in the show. Again the description is taken directly from the press materials FX / HULU submitted to me:

“Bear Smallhill” (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) is destined to be a warrior, and a leader. The only problem is he’s not a good fighter, and the gang doesn’t really consider him the leader. But with the guidance of a questionable spirit guide, he just might get there. “Elora Danan” (Devery Jacobs) may be the true leader of the group. But she’s so focused on getting to California, and so oblivious to her own power, that she often can’t see the beauty and goodness in herself and all around her. Street-smart tough girl “Willie Jack” (Paulina Alexis) is the beating heart of the group. She’s always looking out for her crew. Meanwhile, “Cheese” (Lane Factor) is the gentle, quiet ride-or-die who is so willing to go along with the group that he never stops to consider what his own dreams might be.

Reservation Dogs - Courtesy FX (1)

Before I say anything about this show, I want to give massive props to the four young Native actors; Bear Smallhill portrayed by D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Elora Danan portrayed by Devery Jacobs, Willie Jack portrayed by Paulina Alexis and Cheese portrayed by Lane Factor.

Woon-A-Tai, who has acted in a few films, absolutely excels in this series. He is honest, real and troubled. I never question his choices as an actor and enjoy watching his slow-fire burning underneath his psyche.

Alexis, who has two films under her belt, is a firecracker. She’s quick with a comment, and though she might be the first of the four to get in your face, she has a layer of protection no one could likely infiltrate. Factor, who portrays Cheese, has no prior acting credits to his name, but you would never know it. He is a natural. He might be a troublemaker, but he wears his heart on his sleeve. He might steal a box of chips off a truck, but he’d be the one to put a baby bird back into its nest.

Devery Jacobs, who has done the most acting in her career among this quartet, is bringing some of the best work to the screen that I have seen in her career. It is a wonderful thing to watch. She deserves to be proud of what she is bringing to this production.

Director Sydney Freeland, Navajo, at the premiere of "Reservation Dogs" in Los Angeles on Aug. 5, 2021. Of the first episodes, two are directed by Freeland. (Photo by Max Montour, Indian Country Today)

If there is one word I would use to describe “Reservation Dogs,” it would be sincerity. The show, with all of it’s display of struggle, all of its display of seeking a better life amidst a decaying and abandoned building in the middle of the rez, the show has a realness I haven’t quite experienced before.

So the quartet does steal a truck, they do steal other stuff in an attempt to get to California, but the relief to me came was the fact that Bear Smallhill feels terrible. In fact, they all question their behavior and struggle to rationalize if the ends truly justify the means.

RESERVATION DOGS “Pilot” Episode 1 (Airs Monday, August 9) — Pictured: (l to r): Lane Factor as Cheese, Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as Bear and Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan. (Credit FX)

There are oodles and oodles of fun to be had in the world of Native actors. I was thrilled to see everyone! And yes, so many of them I have interviewed, met, talked with, corresponded on social media, etc. etc.

I was thrilled to see Jana Schmieding (Native star of “Rutherford Falls”) as “Bev” the IHS Clinic receptionist, Zahn McClarnon as a regular in the show “Big” the tribal police officer. Both actors deliver the best in acting entertainment. Brilliant and Bravo.

I also loved Sarah Podemski as “Rita” the Native auntie/mom always looking to hook up with a snag. There was a scene where a man fetishizes her - which was absolutely brilliant. Podemski's awesomeness definitely runs in Sarah’s family, she is a brilliant part of the show. I was also excited by the work of Sten Joddi, a hip-hop tattoo artist who played, of all things, a hip hop artist. As much as he was funny, he was also realistically tragic.

I also loved Gary Farmer who indulges in so much playfulness in the show, I was mesmerized. There isn’t much funnier than an elder sniffing his jar of old weed. Farmer hit it out of the park.

Dallas Goldtooth also makes a few appearances, demonstrating the antics you would certainly expect from Goldtooth. Goldtooth does a brilliant and refreshing job of smashing the stereotypical and romantic Indian trope. Beautiful choice by Harjo and Waititi on flipping that tired old script. Who knew that old spirit world Indian might check out his crotch in the IHS clinic or use the eff-word.

Two standouts in the show

RESERVATION DOGS - Pictured: (l-r) Funnybone as Mekko, Lil Mike as Mose . CR: FX

I really have to give an appreciative shout to Lil Mike and Funnybone. The two brothers (Lil Mike is 40-years-old and FunnyBone is 35-years-old) who brought “Do the Rain Dance” to America’s Got Talent.

Lil Mike and Funnybone portray Mose and Mekko respectively, and to me, (in addition to the fabulous four co-stars) they are two of the best characters in the show. I look forward to their appearances, I look forward to what they are going to say and I look forward to them

Last words

Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi have pulled off something wonderful. The show, which delves into the real world of gangs, stealing, and childhood innocence brought face to face with the reality of survival on a Native reservation in Oklahoma, is reality without becoming poverty porn.

The words are magic, the reality is the message and the message to America. Native Americans are still here, and once we get enough money saved up, we’re coming to California.

Watch out world, Sterlin Harjo quite certainly, made it to California.