Reservation Dogs is a television series available on Hulu and FX that follows four Indigenous teenagers navigating reservation life in Indian Territory in the fictitious town of Okren, Oklahoma. Viewers meet the teens (Willie Jack, Cheese, Elora, and Bear) as they are attempting to save up enough money (sometimes through illegal activity) to leave the reservation and escape to California. The show was created by Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Muscogee Creek Nation) and Taika Waititi (Māori), and features an Indigenous group of directors, writers, and actors.
In two Introduction to Native American and Indigenous Studies classes (NAIS 400 at University of New Hampshire and AMST 248/ENG 240 at Keene State College), students were asked to review popular media and to contextualize and critically analyze the portrayals of Indigenous peoples. These are some collected thoughts from students on Reservation Dogs:
“Reservation Dogs is set on a reservation in Oklahoma, and it tells the story of a group of Indigenous teenagers who are coping with the loss of Daniel, a close friend. While the show is best described as a “comedy-drama,” it covers serious issues that are prevalent in Indigenous communities today, and addresses classic Indigenous stereotypes and the general attitudes that white people as a whole hold towards Indigenous communities. The show also demonstrates the complexities of reservation life, a concept which was discussed by David Treuer (Ojibwe) in his book Rez Life. As discussed in the book Rez Life, reservation life is often described as “harsh, violent, drug-infested, criminal, poor, and short” (Treuer 2012). Reservation Dogs does depict reservation life as being harsh and short, which was evident in Daniel’s suicide at a young age and the main characters’ assertion that “this place killed him and that they had to get out before it killed them too.” Daniel’s suicide, while not the main plot of the show, calls necessary attention to the issue of high suicide rates among Indigenous youth on reservations (MTV Rebel Music “Native America”).
In addition to showing that reservation life poses serious challenges for Indigenous youth, the show also draws attention to Indigenous stereotypes that permeate society and shape non-Native people’s views of Indigenous communities. For example, in Episode Two, “NDN Clinic,” an elderly couple is discussing the idea of giving land back to Indigenous communities and the husband says that Indigenous people don’t need all of it back because they have the casinos and “get paid $1,000 a month just for being an Indian.” His wife tells him to stop talking like that and then reminds him that she’s “part Indian.” This conversation shows that many non-Native people still believe that Indigenous people receive unwarranted special treatment from the federal government, and this also highlights the issue of non-Indigenous people claiming Indigenous heritage without evidence as part of a trend (Garroutte 2003).
In Episode Five, “Come and Get Your Love,” Bear’s mother spends the night with a white man she met at a bar, and he tells her at the breakfast table the next morning that he “loves Indians” and that he’s always been “most attracted to Native women.” This interaction, while it does not show a distinct stereotype, demonstrates that Indigenous women have been and continue to be fetishized by white people as a result of harmful stereotypes that overtly sexualize them.”Kari Plumridge UNH ‘22, Zoology major
“The main focus of Episode Two, “NDN Clinic,” is the experience of Elora, Cheese, and Bear at the local Indian Health Clinic. Bear had been beaten up and thought he had a broken nose, Elora had intense stomach pains, and Cheese needed to have his eyes checked. Bear, with a swollen and bloody nose, experienced a preposterous wait time. Elora was seen first, even though Bear arrived before her and had more critical symptoms. This demonstrates how unorganized Indian Health Clinics can be. It is clear that the staff were overworked; the same doctor, Dr. Kang visited all three of the teens even though they were all in need of different services. Dr. Kang said “I’m the everything doctor” when Bear asked him if he was the eye doctor. This quote may be alarming to viewers, as nobody would want to be treated by someone who is spread too thin to excel at their job.
The show did a great job representing how under-resourced the Indian Health Service is. In an article from 2016, an IHS facility in South Dakota was found to have doctors without proper credentials (similar to Dr. Kang, who had to cover many areas that he may not have had the credentials for) and dangerous conditions overall as drugs and syringes were left unsecured (Medical Daily). Native Americans have a lifespan that is 5.5 years shorter than those of other Americans (IHS). They are also at higher risk for certain conditions including diabetes mellitus, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis (IHS). Native Americans’ shorter lifespan and disproportionate risk of certain diseases may be caused in part by the poor health services they receive.
Reservation Dogs is a trailblazer for Indigenous television. The creator and director, Sterlin Harjo, had been turned down by Hollywood on several occasions because “Native films don’t make money” (KCRW). Nonetheless, this series has experienced success and popularity since its release in August 2021, and will hopefully inspire more Indigenous artists to stay true to their values and stories. Although the show focuses on Indigenous people, the intended audience is not just those with Native heritage. The creators of Reservation Dogs did not exclude viewers without Indigenous heritage, as Indigenous heritage is not the sole focus of the show. People who like the genres of drama and comedy would enjoy this show regardless of their background. Non-Native people will also benefit from the exposure to what Native life is like, as I did during the “NDN Clinic” episode. This show may inspire people to start educating themselves about the issues Native Americans face, and maybe someday positive change will be enacted. Native people will benefit from finally being able to watch a show that they can relate to on a personal level. Reservation Dogs is a work of art that deserves all of the success and attention it has received.”Elizabeth Breton KSC ‘25, Secondary Education major
“This show does a great job weaving multiple pieces of the lives of modern Native Americans together. The show includes comedy, mixed with Native storytelling (like the Deer Lady who appears in Episode Five), and the everyday struggles faced by Native people on the reservation. They touch on current event issues, like the event for diabetes awareness at which Bear’s Dad, a rapper, is supposed to perform. This show does a great job in highlighting the stereotypes that Native people still have to deal with everyday, like the doctor explaining how he loves all things “Indian,” without thinking how wrong that sounds or how it may affect his listener. Reservation Dogs also is a great show to provide Native American youth with representation in a TV show. Most popular shows have an all or mostly white cast, so for a big platform like Hulu to air this show, shows that we are moving in the right direction. Overall, this show provides a look into the daily lives and culture of Indigenous people that most non-Native people never think about. This would be a great show to recommend to someone who wants to learn more about Indigenous people today.”Maggie Danehy UNH ‘23, Environmental Engineering major
“This series being so well-rounded allows for it to be able to be enjoyed by all different demographics. Indigenous youth will be able to relate to the series and have proper representation in mainstream media, while non-Native people have the opportunity to learn about Indigenous culture accurately through an overall enjoyable series. The show is completely immersed in the Indigenous experience but also teaches important life lessons that people from any and all cultural backgrounds would benefit from. Popular media created by Indigenous citizens ensures that non-Indingenous communities are properly introduced to the culture and corrects any previously gathered misinformation. If you enjoy a laid back TV series that spearheads real world issues but is still able to make you think and also laugh, I highly recommend watching Reservation Dogs.”Caitlin Borges UNH ‘22, Zoology major
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Masters, Kim. “Director and Writer Sterlin Harjo Almost Quit the Industry Entirely. Then Came ‘Reservation Dogs’.” KCRW, KCRW, 12 Sept. 2021. https://www.kcrw.com/culture/shows/the-business/reservation-dogs-fx/sterlin-harjo
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Thorne, Will. “Taika Waititi, Sterlin Harjo-Produced Comedy ‘Reservation Dogs’ Scores Series Order at FX.” Variety, Variety, 22 Dec. 2020. https://variety.com/2020/tv/news/taika-waititi-sterlin-harjo-comedy-reservation-dogs-fx-series-order-1234871747/
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Waititi, Taika, and Sterlin Harjo. Reservation Dogs, Season 1, FX On Hulu, 9 Aug. 2021.