Because I grew up close to where Hulu’s “Reservation Dogs” has been filmed in Eastern Oklahoma, it’s been fun to watch the coming-of-age comedy and point out the church where my brother got married or the theater I’ve been to.
But the main joy has been seeing how co-creators Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, as well as an all-Native writers’ room, have managed to capture the atmosphere of the place as well as provide cultural context for the plotlines. And on the eve of the Season 3 premiere, it feels only right to revisit some examples of these authentically Native moments in the series so far.
Before launching into some of these, one obvious caveat: Just as “The Sopranos” should not be held up as representative of the Italian Experience In America, neither can “Rez Dogs” be said to speak for All The Indigenous. But some things, I suspect, may feel very familiar.
1. “I’m Not a Doctor”
Going to an Indian Health Service clinic is no longer, at least back home, a thing to be dreaded. But back in the day, IHS was known for low budgets, low morale and being the last-ditch place to go if you couldn’t afford to go to a doctor.
In Season 1’s second episode, “Rez Dogs” tackles this by having Bear, the leader of a teenage gang of smart-but-bored Native kids, meet Bev, the gum-smacking gatekeeper receptionist played with perfect pitch by Jana Schmieding.
When Bear asks Bev not to tell his mother he was in a fight because of “patient-doctor protocol or whatever it’s called,” she just stares at him.
“I’m not a doctor.”
“How long is the wait?”
“You’ve been here a thousand times. You should know.”
Bear sighs, says “Damn,” and turns to the waiting room, jammed with others ahead of him.
“Hate this place.”
We all did, or still do, dude.
2. “He’s my cousin/uncle.”
In the third episode when Elora Danan, the organized one in the group, takes Bear to see her Uncle Brownie, she describes him as “my cousin/uncle.”
“He grew up with my mom, like her cousins, but he was raised by my grandma for a while,” she says.
Brownie doesn’t remember her until she reminds him she’s the daughter of a woman he grew up with. “Oh! Nephew. Cousin. Niece,” he says. It’s a three-part formula that recurs throughout the series when characters greet each other but can’t recall their exact relationship.
Any Native who’s been at a Christmas party or stomp dance and had to be told “Oh, that’s your cousin’s wife’s daughter, whose kids go to school with...” will understand.
The exact relationship doesn’t matter, or even blood ties. All that matters, we’re reminded, is there is or was a connection, and that is all that’s required to be family.
3. “We don’t own land.”
Willie Jack, who is unofficially gender nonbinary and yet also the most traditional member of the group, goes deer hunting with her dad in the sixth episode.
While they wait, talk turns to the fact they’re poaching on land that used to belong to the family but now is owned by “Texas ranchers.”
“Don’t we own this land?” she asks.
“No. We’re Indian,” her dad laughs. “We don’t own land.”
The line is funny on its face — but also in a “because it’s true” sense. In Oklahoma, members of the Five Tribes removed from the Southeast were given land allotments. The idea was to turn them into farmers, whether they wanted to be or not. Of course, that land often ended back up in white hands through debt, trickery or other means.
While steps were taken to fix this, those steps also made it harder to sell land intentionally. So, through the years, smaller pieces of land kept being divided among more descendants, a process called fractionalization. A relative of mine “owns” a piece of land with close to 30 co-owners, for example.
“We’re Indians. We don’t own land,” indeed.
4. “Shouldn’t have to ask her.”
The series’ best episode is “Mabel,” the fourth episode in Season 2. As Elora Danan’s grandmother, who raised her, is dying, family and friends from all over the community come for the vigil.
The episode captures so much — the feel of the gathering, the foods cooked (sofkee, a corn mash drink — ugh), and the eternal “city” Natives vs “country” Natives rivalry.
One of the people to show up is Jackie, a girl from the rival gang who has become acquainted with Elora. Willie Jack asks Elora what Jackie’s doing there and why hasn’t she offered to help.
“Probably just needs to be invited,” Elora says hopefully.
“Shouldn’t have to ask her,” Willie Jack says bitterly.
“Make yourself useful” was a silent mantra growing up around my grandmother (who enjoyed sofkee, by the way), and it remains stuck in my head today. My 83-year-old mother, a survivor of Native boarding schools, automatically looks for things to fix or clean when visiting because, again, if you are somewhere, you should ensure you are helping.
For many of us, presence equals intentionality. “I am here and I choose to be here and I assume you will respect that choice.” But we will not say that aloud because to do so sounds entitled and runs afoul of another cardinal rule: Don’t make a fuss.
If you haven’t asked to help, you’re actively not helping.
5. “Also our reptilian relatives”
To be Native is to spend a not-small amount of time wondering if you are Native “enough.” Though not a unique problem among minority groups, the ways it manifests can be hilarious.
In the sixth episode of the second season, “Decolonativization,” the gang is forced to attend a “youth summit” at the IHS clinic, where they’re made to do cringey team-building exercises with two young facilitators, one of whom is a Native influencer named “Miss M8riarch” (“the other spelling was taken”), played by Amber Midthunder of last year’s “Prey” film.
She begins with a land acknowledgment of current and past tribes in the area. But then she keeps going back further into the past, acknowledging “our Neanderthal relatives.”
“And before that, even, the Dinosaur Nation, Dinosaur oyate, you know?” she says, using a word for “people” or “nation” as the kids stare quizzically. Then on to the “Star People” and, well, so on.
“Also, our reptilian relatives, above and below Earth,” she intones earnestly.
The Overly Native is someone we’re all familiar with: someone who thinks, as Miss M8riarch does, that in pre-contact life, “mostly we just made love, ate berries” and “sometimes the deer would even eat out of our palms.” Classic.
6. “They’re all around you, all the time.”
In the next-to-last episode of Season 2, “Offerings,” Willie Jack goes to visit Hokti, the mother of the gang’s friend Daniel, in prison. Hokti doesn’t want to talk at first.
But Willie Jack is persistent and asks Hokti to instruct her in “medicine,” a catch-all term that can mean anything from spiritual rituals to witchcraft. In an incredibly intense scene, Hokti, played by a luminous Lily Gladstone, prays with Willie Jack to remind her of who she is.
“Remember the stories I told you when you were growing up, about the people we come from,” Hokti says. “Generations of medicine people. Caretakers. These are the ones who held us together as we arrived from our homelands.”
As they pray, ghosts of Trail of Tears-era tribal members appear behind Willie Jack, and a Creek song — low, sonorous, and mournful — rises.
“You don’t need me. You have them,” Hokti says. “When you really pray, they’re all around you. All the time.”
This scene always puts a lump in my throat. As a Native person, it’s one thing to know, not just rationally but intuitively, that still being here with any degree of our culture surviving is itself a brazen act of historical defiance. But in the tradition of “don’t make a fuss,” it is not to be dwelt on.
But the scene brought the entire concept to life in a way I haven’t felt in a long time. “We are still here,” as the saying goes, yes, but we are here because some specific people, who looked like that, dressed like that, sang like that, are no longer here. And there are obligations resulting from that.
“Reservation Dogs” has been a great, bittersweet song to a place and people I grew up in and around and still love. But it’s also great because it succeeded in its very ambitious goal — to capture a slice of Native life, the good and bad, the petty and the mythic, the funny and the sad, and to gently lift the cover so others may see it.
Not to make a fuss, but I can’t wait for Season 3.
Jonathan Nicholson is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation who grew up south of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Dawes Committee rolls say he’s one-quarter Creek, but his mother says he’s half, and he’s pretty sure she’s right.