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Meghan Sullivan and Carina Dominguez
Indian Country Today

When filmmakers Taika Waititi, Maori, and Sterlin Harjo, Seminole and Muskogee, would trade funny stories about their Indigenous upbringings, it initially seemed the comical tales would stay between the two friends. Then one day they were struck by an idea: what if they made a show about these stories?

“We’ve been zombies in Westerns for so long… Native people are some of the funniest people in the world, and our communities are rich and vibrant, and quirky and weird, and lovely and beautiful and sad, and that’s what this show depicts,” said Harjo of his new comedy show, “Reservation Dogs,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last week.

It wasn’t the only Indigenous story found at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.

The prestigious film festival, which has occurred annually in New York City since 2001, featured eight films that either centered Indigenous stories or were written by Indigenous people. The lineup included “Reservation Dogs,” “Burros,” “Joe Buffalo,” “Catch the Fair One,” “Kapaemahu,” “Shikaakwa,” “Primera,” and “They're Trying To Kill Us.”

A scene from the premiere of Reservation Dogs at Tribeca Festival on June 15, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Meghan Sullivan, Indian Country Today)

Indian Country Today attended the screenings and interviewed cast members. The takeaway? Native storytelling on the national level is more present than ever before.

“We’ve been a part of cinema from the very beginning, and we’ve never been portrayed in a realistic way. And it’s happening now and it’s … beautiful,” Harjo said.

His highly anticipated comedy, “Reservation Dogs,” will start running on FX on Hulu later this summer on August 9, but had an early screening at the festival. It follows the adventures of four Indigenous teenagers in rural Oklahoma as they attempt to make their way to California, and stars stars D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Ojibwe, Devery Jacobs, Kanienʼkehá꞉ka Mohawk, Paulina Alexis, Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, and Lane Factor, Caddo and Seminole Creek.

‘Radical’ humor

The breakthrough production involves a “radical” concept which Harjo hopes won’t be rare in the film industry for long: every writer, director and series regular on the show is Indigenous.

“That shouldn’t be a radical thing that they’re showing us as human beings but it’s very radical and it’s about time in 2021,” Harjo said.

Throughout the interviews, cast members, who had gathered in New York to celebrate the show’s release, continuously emphasized how much the all-Indigenous production felt like a family gathering.

“It was the first time I had ever experienced the feeling of home on set and community,” Jacobs said.

This family reunion atmosphere seemed to extend out into the audience as well. Many viewers at the premiere were Indigenous, hailing from various Native nations across the country but now living in New York City. They had eagerly signed up for a ticket when they heard that “Reservation Dogs” would be premiering at Tribeca.

Devery Jacobs talks with Indian Country Today at the premiere of Reservation Dogs on June 15, 2021. (Video courtesy of Carina Dominguez, Indian Country Today)

“It’s really cool to see an all-Native crew and cast, especially living here but being from Oklahoma,” said two audience members who were Muscogee (Creek), “we’d been hearing about this project for the last year, so it's one of those things where we’d follow any updates that came out.”

One attendee, Patricia Tarrant, Mandan Hidatsa Arikara, was especially looking forward to the comedic aspects of the show.

“We use humour as a coping mechanism — through trauma, intergenerational trauma, we use humour to help us recover from it and move on,” she said.

Jacobs echoed this sentiment.

“It makes sense that this is a comedy because Native people are funny, and tell me one Native person who doesn’t use humor to cope with all of the shit that we deal with,” said Jacobs in a post screening panel. “The show demonstrates that sense of humor that we have that’s like making fun of each other, that’s like a smart-ass type of humor, that’s also mourning and celebrating and healing all in one.”

Harjo said it was a chance for non-Native audiences to be invited into the type of teasing, humor, and community that Indigenous people know so well.

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“I’m excited for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous audience members to watch Reservation Dogs, and to see Indigenous stories at the helm,” Jacobs said.

Excitement about the show and the potential for future Indigenous-led projects was apparent in the engaged audience, as well as in the cast’s behind-the-scenes comments. All four lead actors had similar advice for the next generation of Indigenous actors, writers, and directors.

“Have a vision, stick to it, and put action into that — it's not a dream without action,” Alexis said.

Factor agreed. “Just keep going — work hard towards your goal, and everything will be alright,” he said.

“This is our time. This is our show. We’re going to do a lot of stuff, as a whole community -- not just me and not just the people on this set, so keep writing,” Woon-A-Tai said.

Next generation

One wouldn’t have to look far to find the next generation of Indigenous storytellers in the film industry. A few days after “Reservation Dogs” premiered, a 15-minute drama, “Burros,” made its debut at Tribeca as well. The short film stars 6-year-old Amaya Juan, Tohono O’odham, in her first ever acting role.

“Burros,” which is set on the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona near the U.S.-Mexico border, follows a young Indigenous girl who befriends a Hispanic migrant her age who has become separated from her family during their journey to the United States.

Amaya Juan, Tohono O'odham, with her parents and the director, Jefferson Stein, before the Burros screening at Tribeca Festival on June 18, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Carina Dominguez, Indian Country Today)

It was directed by Texas local Jefferson Stein, and co-produced by Larry “Bear” Wilson, Tohono O’odham, who acted as a liaison between his community and the filmmakers.

“A lot of people don’t know what's going on out there,” Wilson said. “We were there before that border was. Our people are on both sides of it — in fact, I have family in Mexico.”

Increased militarization on the U.S.-Mexico border has recently made it harder for the separated Tohono O’odham communities to stay connected. “Burros” subtly showcases this by contrasting an elder generation able to speak Spanish, Tohono O’odham, and English, with the younger generation which knows less Tohono O’odham and no Spanish.

Stein had connected to this situation from his family’s own story of language loss — his grandparents, who immigrated to the United States, spoke Yiddish and Hebrew. By the time his dad was born, no one in the family spoke these languages anymore.

As for being a non-Native director telling a Native story, Stein said he was conscious of the dynamic, and spent two years working with Tohono O’odham Nation in an effort to portray the subject matter correctly.

“Awareness is the first thing.. There were hundreds of stories that I heard while I was there that inspired moments of this project,” he said.

Tribeca Festival Screening on June 15, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Meghan Sullivan, Indian Country Today)

Part of this approach was casting people from the area, which was how Juan became involved with the production. The 6-year-old had never acted before — she was chosen for the movie after Stein visited her kindergarten class. But as the lead role in the film, her performance clearly drives the story forward.

In post-premiere interviews, she emphasized her gratitude to the film team, as well as members of the Tohono O’odham community, who had created a fundraiser so that her and her parents could attend the movie’s premiere in New York City.

“I’m going to cry now. Thank you to the community for helping us, and for the donations to come out here. And just to let you know, you’re the best!” she said.

While Indigenous stories shone brightly at this year’s festival, attendees are hopeful that next year there will be even more.

“I want to see as many Indigenous stories out there as there are storytellers,” Jacobs said. “I hope this opens the door for a whole industry of Indigenous creatives, for us to look around and see all of our storytellers showing different types of projects — showing dramas, showing comedies, showing scary stories and all of that.”

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