World

‘Reservation Dogs’ Created The Blueprint For Indigenous-Led Storytelling On TV

As a Cree woman from Northern Alberta, I was truly shook to witness “Reservation Dogs” bring our Native humor to the mainstream. Hearing our rezy-isms like “skoden” is a small but mighty win against America’s relentless attempt to erase our accents and colloquial slang. We’ve had to code-switch for our whole lives, but through the characters in this series, the phrases we spoke only to each other were exposed for the world to see. It’s a moment both vulnerable and empowering.

“Reservation Dogs” will end after only its third season, but the show has already been revolutionary for the culture — largely because it was written and led by actual Indigenous people, setting new precedents for Indigenous content moving forward. For years, we’ve had to endure violent stereotypes of Native people drawn crudely through a cloudy white lens. For so long, we were seen as a monolith of victimhood.

The “Rez Dog” writers dismantled all of that swiftly, portraying us as who we actually are: vibrant contemporary NDNs with all different skin tones, lengths of hair, and ways of being. And so the show is a legacy, and an eversick example of Natives thriving in all areas of television and filmmaking.

D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai, who plays Bear Smallhill in the series, pointed out that even before pen hit paper, there was intentionality to the show. “The casting directors are the biggest part of making sure our stories are told right,” he tells me. “If a non-Indigenous casting director is going to cast a major project and is not familiar at all with our communities or culture, they will resort to stereotypes.”

Stereotypes aren’t the only issue; we’re still combating a long history of non-Natives assuming a fake Indigenous identity for profit — when we have been here the whole time to fill those roles — or simply from a place of fetishizing our cultures. To be in a space where your cultural identity is protected, Woon-A-Tai says, is sacred. After working with an Indigenous-led team, he adds, “I will never do another project that’s not Indigenous-led that has as much Indigenous content that ‘Reservation Dogs’ has.” To provide a more intimate glimpse into how it all came together, photographer Jonathan Blaustein captured moments from behind the scenes of Season 3. Through this unique access granted to him, we’re able to see the authenticity behind the genius of the show.

After more poignant and challenging scenes (like when the characters discover their friend Daniel’s body) many members of the cast and writing team came together to heal, by smudging, praying and singing songs — ensuring the well-being of the cast during those triggering moments. All of the storylines in the series are based on events that have actually happened to cast members, and NDNs all over Turtle Island. The writing and dialogue on the show reflect these shared experiences.

“There was just such a shorthand and common understanding and collective experience that ties us all together,” Devery Jacobs, who plays Elora Danan, tells me. “There’s such an indescribable experience that roots you to your community and culture when we all come together.”

This connectedness that Jacobs describes has resulted in a series that educates the masses without being didactic, and reinforces the sanctity of cultures that have battled attempted erasure for centuries. We, as young Natives, no longer exist in the margin.

Below, see photos from the set and locations of “Reservations Dogs” by photographer Jonathan Blaustein.

A mural on the side of a building in downtown Okmulgee, Oklahoma, where much of Season 1 was shot. In the series, the town is fictionally known as Okern. Okmulgee is located on the Muscogee Nation, about 45 minutes south of Tulsa.
A mural on the side of a building in downtown Okmulgee, Oklahoma, where much of Season 1 was shot. In the series, the town is fictionally known as Okern. Okmulgee is located on the Muscogee Nation, about 45 minutes south of Tulsa.

Jonathan Blaustein for HuffPost

The Orpheum Theater, in downtown Okmulgee, was featured in Season 1, Episode 5, in which Cheese rides along with Lighthorse police officer Big (Zahn McClarnon), and they bump into Bucky (Wes Studi) outside the theater.
The Orpheum Theater, in downtown Okmulgee, was featured in Season 1, Episode 5, in which Cheese rides along with Lighthorse police officer Big (Zahn McClarnon), and they bump into Bucky (Wes Studi) outside the theater.

Jonathan Blaustein for HuffPost

A motorbike is suspended in the air as part of the sign for an auto-body shop on Oklahoma Avenue in Okmulgee.
A motorbike is suspended in the air as part of the sign for an auto-body shop on Oklahoma Avenue in Okmulgee.

Jonathan Blaustein for HuffPost

A Lighthorse police vehicle parked in downtown Okmulgee. “When I asked across the street, a barber told me the policemen were likely having lunch in Kirby’s Cafe,” Blaustein says.
A Lighthorse police vehicle parked in downtown Okmulgee. “When I asked across the street, a barber told me the policemen were likely having lunch in Kirby’s Cafe,” Blaustein says.

Jonathan Blaustein for HuffPost

Lane Factor and Elva Guerra goofing off for the camera, while Paulina Alexis looks on amused.
Lane Factor and Elva Guerra goofing off for the camera, while Paulina Alexis looks on amused.

Jonathan Blaustein for HuffPost

Migizi Pensoneau, co-executive producer of “Reservation Dogs” and one of its writers. He was also a founding member of the 1491s comedy group, with showrunner Sterlin Harjo and several of the other writers and actors.
Migizi Pensoneau, co-executive producer of “Reservation Dogs” and one of its writers. He was also a founding member of the 1491s comedy group, with showrunner Sterlin Harjo and several of the other writers and actors.

Jonathan Blaustein for HuffPost

A "Reservation Dogs" clapperboard sits on an apple box.
A “Reservation Dogs” clapperboard sits on an apple box.

Jonathan Blaustein for HuffPost

The young actors stand at the edge of the set for Leon’s office, lit from behind.
The young actors stand at the edge of the set for Leon’s office, lit from behind.

Jonathan Blaustein for HuffPost

Shane Brown, the official set photographer for “Reservation Dogs,” has worked on all three seasons of the show and has been blown away by the camaraderie among the cast and the crew. "It's just the kindness of the cast. Devery, D'Pharoah, Lane and Paulina — they're all just genuinely super kind people, and I feel like I capture a lot of that," he says. "They engage with the camera when they see me because they've gotten to know me over years."
Shane Brown, the official set photographer for “Reservation Dogs,” has worked on all three seasons of the show and has been blown away by the camaraderie among the cast and the crew. “It’s just the kindness of the cast. Devery, D’Pharoah, Lane and Paulina — they’re all just genuinely super kind people, and I feel like I capture a lot of that,” he says. “They engage with the camera when they see me because they’ve gotten to know me over years.”

Jonathan Blaustein for HuffPost

Brown taking photos during a brief scene break, while actor Jana Schmieding laughs at someone’s joke. "They don't need a lot of direction to make a great photo," Brown says of the cast members. "They just know how to do it by being themselves."
Brown taking photos during a brief scene break, while actor Jana Schmieding laughs at someone’s joke. “They don’t need a lot of direction to make a great photo,” Brown says of the cast members. “They just know how to do it by being themselves.”

Jonathan Blaustein for HuffPost

Tazbah Chavez was directing the day Blaustein visited the set. She’s also a writer for the show and previously directed two episodes in Season 2, including the classic “Wide Net,” which featured a hilarious fantasy dance sequence.
Tazbah Chavez was directing the day Blaustein visited the set. She’s also a writer for the show and previously directed two episodes in Season 2, including the classic “Wide Net,” which featured a hilarious fantasy dance sequence.

Jonathan Blaustein for HuffPost

The production team during a brief break before the cameras roll. Chavez is joined by Pensoneau and Harjo (right).
The production team during a brief break before the cameras roll. Chavez is joined by Pensoneau and Harjo (right).

Jonathan Blaustein for HuffPost

Tafv Sampson works as the set decorator, but is also an actor featured in Season 2’s haunting episode “Offerings.”
Tafv Sampson works as the set decorator, but is also an actor featured in Season 2’s haunting episode “Offerings.”

Jonathan Blaustein for HuffPost

Actor Jon Proudstar, who plays Leon, waiting for a scene to begin shooting.
Actor Jon Proudstar, who plays Leon, waiting for a scene to begin shooting.

Jonathan Blaustein for HuffPost

Devery Jacobs, an actor, writer and filmmaker, plays Elora Danan Postoak, one of the lead characters. She’s also a member of the writers room, having penned Season 2’s emotional episode “Mabel.”
Devery Jacobs, an actor, writer and filmmaker, plays Elora Danan Postoak, one of the lead characters. She’s also a member of the writers room, having penned Season 2’s emotional episode “Mabel.”

Jonathan Blaustein for HuffPost

Jacobs’ voice resonated both on-screen and behind the scenes. “When I’ve worked on any other projects in the industry, oftentimes I’m the only Native person — and I’m the only queer person,” she tells me. “It puts me in a situation where I have to educate a lot more, where I have to fight for storylines, or I have to fight to make sure it makes sense.” On “Reservation Dogs,” she had the opposite experience.

When Indigenous people get together, there is so much security in gathering together. “[This] kinship feels like family — we have this bond,” Jacobs says about her “Reservation Dogs” colleagues. “It’s wild to now be talking about this being the last season. Even though the show might be ending, our bonds are forever. I’ve been fighting for over a decade for more Native representation, fighting to have our stories heard and told. Same thing with everyone else on ‘Rez Dogs,’ all of our producers, writers, all of the directors — for us to be able to celebrate this together is just so meaningful.”

Lane Factor, from Oklahoma, plays scene-stealer Cheese, who is known for his honesty, positive energy and communication skills. In Season 2’s episode “Stay Gold Cheesy Boy,” Cheese’s brief interactions with other young men in a group home leave them better people than before they met him.
Lane Factor, from Oklahoma, plays scene-stealer Cheese, who is known for his honesty, positive energy and communication skills. In Season 2’s episode “Stay Gold Cheesy Boy,” Cheese’s brief interactions with other young men in a group home leave them better people than before they met him.

Jonathan Blaustein for HuffPost

Paulina Alexis, the Canadian actor who plays fan favorite Willie Jack, confirmed she is very much like her character IRL. (Her fellow cast members agreed.)
Paulina Alexis, the Canadian actor who plays fan favorite Willie Jack, confirmed she is very much like her character IRL. (Her fellow cast members agreed.)

Jonathan Blaustein for HuffPost

D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai, the actor who plays Bear Smallhill, was comfortable doing model poses for the camera, joking about how “Reservation Dogs” had introduced the world to the all-encompassing term “shitass.”
D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai, the actor who plays Bear Smallhill, was comfortable doing model poses for the camera, joking about how “Reservation Dogs” had introduced the world to the all-encompassing term “shitass.”

Jonathan Blaustein for HuffPost

“Everything either has happened to one of the cast members, one of the writers, directors — everything you see in that episode, Cheese being taken away into foster care, is true,” Woon-A-Tai says, referring to the Season 2 episode “Stay Gold Cheesy Boy.” “That happened to one of the writers. Everything in between, from suicide to the happy parts to the stealing — that’s all real. All these writers threw their real life situations into all of it.”

Elva Guerra's character Jackie has evolved the most over time. Jackie was the Rez Dogs’ main antagonist in Season 1 before becoming (almost) friends with the gang by the end of Season 2.
Elva Guerra’s character Jackie has evolved the most over time. Jackie was the Rez Dogs’ main antagonist in Season 1 before becoming (almost) friends with the gang by the end of Season 2.

Jonathan Blaustein for HuffPost

Photographer Shane Brown with primary cast members D'Pharoah Woon-A-Tai, Paulina Alexia, Devery Jacobs, Lane Factor and Elva Guerra.
Photographer Shane Brown with primary cast members D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai, Paulina Alexia, Devery Jacobs, Lane Factor and Elva Guerra.

Jonathan Blaustein for HuffPost



Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button