Reservation Dogs

Reservation Dogs (2021)

Reservation Dogs first published by Sight & Sound, Dec 2021

[review based on Series 1, Episodes 1-4]

Synopsis: Okern, Oklahoma, the present. Four adolescent Native Americans commit crimes and come of age in a damaged community, hoping to raise enough money to leave. They evade Officer Big and a rival gang of teens, and have various encounters with their close or distant relatives, and with the ghosts of the past. 

Review: Episode One of Reservation Dogs opens with a radio DJ (heard, but not seen) greeting his audience “in Indian territory, Oklahama”, and spinning what he suggests “sounds like a shapeshifter song to me”, The Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog. To its punk strains, four teenagers – Bear Smallhill (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora Danan Postoak (Devery Jacobs), Cheese (Lane Factor) and Willie Jack (Pauline Alexis) – steal a food delivery truck, and sell it on to the older ‘Methhead Gang’ who run the local junkyard. Another gang, the ‘NDN Mafia’, run by recently returned Jackie (Elva Guerra), circles menacingly, looking to move in on Bear and his friends’ action – although their drive-by shootings are conducted with paint guns, much as Bear and Elora, having made off with the truck, argue over whether to wear seatbelts or not (“I’m just saying,” Elora protests to the safety-conscious Bear, “it doesn’t scream badass if you have to fucking buckle up before jacking a car.”). This is a world of uneasy transition, where young people, though taking their first drive down the road of adult criminality, are still very much adolescents.

Bear and his friends are planning to put enough money together to get them to California (where Bear’s estranged father lives), and more importantly to get them out of the (fictitious) rural town of Okern, a ‘dump’ which they believe killed their friend Daniel a year earlier – even if Bear is conflicted, wishing as much to stay where his roots are as to head to pastures new. So they carry out an escalating series of crimes, and just as these four are going through rites of passage to build their identity in part on their history and traditions, and in part on their vision of a brighter future, they are also forming into a defined gang in need of a name. Twins Mose (Lil Mike) and Mekko (Funny Bone) have dubbed them ‘Reservation Bandits’, but the name does not quite stick. By the end of the episode, that opening Iggy Pop song has resolved into the gang becoming the ‘Reservation Dogs’ of the series’ title. They are certainly dressed for the part, strutting about in the iconic black suits and ties from Quentin Tarantino’s similarly titled 1992 breakout feature. This is a reference that the teens themselves recognise, leading Cheese to ask self-consciously, “Can I be Mr Camouflage?”. Yet unlike in Reservoir Dogs (1992), the reason that these wannabe criminals are dressed this way is that they are attending a funerary memorial for Daniel. This show may essentially be a comedy, but it turns on a dime into more serious matters, its vibrant lust for life always tinged with death, and its grounded naturalism often intruded upon by local mysticism, folklore and ghosts.

Chief among these revenants is William Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth), an ‘unknown warrior’ and casualty of Little Big Horn who regularly appears to Bear as a guiding spirit – although his foul-mouthed language and questionable heroism serve not only to suggest that he may be a mere projection of ‘lost soul’ Bear’s confused psychology (much as Bear’s mother Rita habitually converses at mirrors with her own angelic and demonic images), but also to subvert the clichés of Native-American representation. This latter point is important – for the writers and directors of Reservation Dogs are all Indigenous, and so too is the vast majority of its cast and crew. 

It is also the first series to have been shot entirely in Oklahoma (in Muscogee Nation Territory). The ‘Dogs’ like to paint their tag “Landback” all over town, in what is not only an illicit expression of teen rebellion, but also a political statement – and immediately identified as such by a bewildered elderly white couple who see, and argue about, the graffito at the beginning of Episode Three. With this tag, the teens are inscribing their own message on a region already etched and scarred by colonial rapine and past injustice – and that sense of abiding trauma haunts these different stories of feckless fathers, drug abuse, suicide, dispossession, abandonment and despair. As these young characters come of age, they are also having to negotiate their place in a disrupted, damaged community where family ties, though running deep, are also frayed. It is nothing short of a miracle that series creators Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi manage to weave all this dark material through their narrative while still somehow keeping the tone broadly light. 

strap: Sterlin Harjo & Taika Waititi’s TV series follows young would-be criminals coming of age in their Oklahoman Native-American community

Anton Bitel