Reservation Dogs is a first on many fronts.
It’s the first American TV show with an all-Native American cast, it’s the first to be filmed entirely in the US state of Oklahoma and it’s the first where all of its writers and directors are Indigenous peoples, including co-creators Sterlin Harjo, who is of Seminole-Muscogee heritage, and Taika Waititi, who is Maori.
It’s still the case that in 2021, TV shows and movies that are “firsts” will be judged with an extra eye, burdened they are with having to “prove” the commercial viability and creative value of anything that’s not whitebread.
A show like Reservation Dogs, streaming now on Binge*, is significant to the marginalised community it represents, but it’s also a boon to all audiences, who are gifted stories they’ve never seen or heard before.
Why would you want to keep watching the same story over and over again? That’s madness.
Reservation Dogs is a quietly and darkly funny series about four teenagers on an Oklahoma reservation – Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and Cheese (Lane Factor).
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When we first meet them, the four of them are heisting a truck transporting a shipment of potato chips, the trolley ramp still attached and sparking along the ground as they make their frenzied getaway.
They on-sell the truck to some local criminals for what looks to be a pretty thin stack of cash and buy back the potato chips, which the enterprising teens then offload for 50c a pack to townspeople.
It’s a gutsy move to introduce your young protagonists in not-so-petty crime but the series is quick to contextualise the reason. They’re not misbehaving for kicks. The friends are saving up to get out of town – the sunny climes and promises of California awaits.
There’s also the case of their friend Daniel, who died the previous year. No one says how but it’s said, “this place killed him”.
It’s rare to see a story set wholly within a Native American community without the lens of outsiders. Even the recent – and very excellent – series Rutherford Falls splits its focus between Native characters and white characters (Rutherford Falls lead Jana Schmieding has a supporting role in the second episode).
Reservation Dogs uses humour to explore the many facets of being Indigenous in America, throwing out jokes about George Custer or Andrew Jackson, while Bear sometimes hallucinates a ghost warrior who jibes him about his burdens as a Native man.