Native American filmmaker Sterlin Harjo has seen countless TV shows and movies that have tried to depict life on the reservation. He saw them fail because they missed one important point.
“The truth is it’s all different. Every community is very different and every reservation is very different. So not one experience can ever represent the whole experience,” Harjo says.
Harjo avoided the approach of generalizing in regards to life on the reservation with his new FX on Hulu series “Reservation Dogs.” He opted with the half-hour comedy to focus on one specific place and one specific group of friends.
The series follows four Indigenous teenagers in rural Oklahoma who steal, rob and save in order to get to the exotic, mysterious and faraway land of California. It debuts on Aug 9 as part of the FX on Hulu offerings.
“We want to get the truth, but, also, we need to entertain as well. And it’s about making people laugh,” Harjo says. “For me, it’s also about kids from other reservation communities, Native kids being able to watch this show and identify and see themselves reflected on the screen, something that none of us grew up having.
“The most important thing is Native and indigenous kids from different communities being able to see themselves reflected on screen. I think that’s really important. I think it’s important to feel seen. I think it’s important to see yourself reflected.”
The characters Harjo elected to tell his stories include Bear Smallhill (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), a young man 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. Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs) may be the true leader of the group but she’s so focused on getting to California that she’s oblivious to her own power.
Street-smart tough girl Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) is the heart of the group while 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.
It took some work but Harjo was able to find actors to star in his series. He just had to move his search outside Hollywood and go to communities where the indigenous actors were working.
Harjo’s characters are known for their ability to steal almost anything. Despite having his core cast be thieves, neither Harjo nor his co-creator Taika Waititi (“What We Do in the Shadows”) got any pushback for depicting the indigenous teens that way.
“It’s sort of based on experiences that Taika and I both had growing up. You know, crime can be funny. And I consider this a comedy with some dramatic elements to it,” Harjo says. “We are all Indigenous in the writers’ room, and that’s never been done before.
“The strength in those numbers and having an all‑Indigenous room helped us not be afraid to go hard and tell the truth and also to be funny and, sort of, push the envelope.”
Every writer, director and series regular on the show is indigenous. Harjo expanded his push to be authentic by filming the series on location in Okmulgee, OK.
Harjo knows the area because he was born and raised in Holdenville, OK. His characters in “Reservation Dogs” are trying to put together enough money to get to California because they see it as a magical place because of the entertainment world.
That idea comes from Harjo’s own life as he thought about getting to California and making films when he was young. He got to make the trip but never forgot his roots. All three feature films and the documentary he has made were all set in Oklahoma.
“Oklahoma doesn’t get a lot of love. It was at one time Indian territory. There’s 38 tribes there. So if you are of the indigenous community there, you know how unique and special it is,” Harjo says. “You can drive 30 minutes to an hour down the road, and you are in a whole new tribal territory with new languages, new customs, new ceremonial practices.”
“Reservation Dogs” looks at the life of four ingenious teens living on a reservation. Harjo is certain that despite the specific storylines and setting, the show will have a broad appeal.
“It’s going to be different, but there’s a lot of, I think, universal truths that not just Native people can identify with in this show,” Harjo says. “But for us, I think as kids that grew up without seeing ourselves reflected on screen ‑ and if it was reflected on screen, it was all wrong ‑ and trying to explain who the Native people were, that’s not what we are trying to do.
“We are just trying to entertain you and tell a good story.”