Taika Waititi, Sterlin Harjo and Cast of “Reservation Dogs” Talk About the Importance of Indigenous Representation in Media

“I felt like the best involvement I could have was to help get the show made and to credit the idea with Sterlin [Harjo] and talk about what the show could be and what it would mean for me or for both of us,” Taika Waititi revealed at the TCA Summer Press Tour while promoting FX on Hulu’s new series, Reservation Dogs. With a story inspired by Co-Creator Sterlin Harjo’s own upbringing in rural Oklahoma, Waititi helped launch the show and served as Co-Creator, Executive Producer and Writer on the pilot. “We went straight to FX and said, ‘This is what the show will be.’ And they were like, ‘We've never seen anything like this…’ And within, like, three days, we basically had a deal.  And that's full credit to FX for wanting to do the show right from the start and supporting it the entire way.”

(FX on Hulu)

(FX on Hulu)

The friendship between Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo goes back several decades to when both of them were making independent films. Having lifted each other up through the years, it was important that they pay it forward, too. “It's important that we work as this community,” Harjo shared. “We brought in director friends of ours, we brought in writer friends of ours that came and helped us create this show, people that otherwise might not have an opportunity to do a show like this. And all they needed was that opportunity, and they proved it because they stepped up to the plate and directed or wrote episodes that I find to be really amazing, and we were able to show their talents like that. So that whole spirit is how this show was made.”

The idea for Reservation Dogs had been ruminating in the two creator’s minds since the early days of their friendship, swapping stories about their upbringing in Indigenous communities. Even though they were raised on different continents and in different cultures, there was a profound commonality. “All of the stories that we shared from when we were growing up, they seemed exactly the same,” Waititi explained. “We've all got similar uncles in that community and similar aunties, family members. We both grew up on a solid diet of pop culture mixed with our own culture.” Their own stories also different greatly from the typical Hollywood portrayal of Indigenous people suffering. “All of the stories that we would tell were funny,” Harjo added. “They were never sad and depressing, which is the only stories that ever get told about Native people. So when we were doing the show, from the beginning it was going to be a comedy because of that.”

Reservation Dogs is not a one-size-fits-all representation of Indigenous communities and even the show’s rural Oklahoma setting can’t share this exact experience. “A lot of people don't know about it, but there's an interesting history there,” Sterlin Harjo explained about his home state. “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. 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, and that led to this really cool upbringing… Growing up like that in rural Oklahoma, you have to create your own world, and that's what we are pulling from. In any small town, you have to create your own fun and actually have an imagination. So that's what this show is about.”

While the culture depicted in Reservation Dogs is specific, all of the young cast found their characters and this story easy to relate to. “We are from communities very far apart from each other, but yet we can relate to each other off the bat,” D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai shared, who plays Bear Smallhill. “We were connecting right out of the audition in the first few minutes we all met each other. So it's a community, right? It's very much a community.”

“We are all Indigenous, so it made it really easy to connect and have that chemistry with them,” Paulina Alexis revealed. “I feel like I've known them all my life. Everyone on set, you just feel like you are related to them.” Lane Factor agreed about the familial dynamic of the cast, adding “It was easy to get along with everyone because it just felt like we were one big, happy family. When I first met them, right off the bat, we all hit it off, and it just felt like you are talking to some cousins you haven't seen in a while.” And while Reservation Dogs is unquestionably a comedy, they all recognize the responsibility they share as a show that has the potential to open doors for other storytellers. “What we were all looking for was the reality of our communities and making sure that we were telling the truth in every scene that we made,” Devery Jacobs shared.

“I think there's a lot of movies and shows that try to attempt to show what reservation life is like; but the truth is it's all different, and every community is very different, and every reservation is very different,” Sterlin Harjo revealed when asked about any pressure he may have felt to make the experience more generic. “Not one experience can ever represent the whole experience, every one of them are so different. And I feel we are just focusing on this one place.  And, sure, we want to get the truth, but also we needed to entertain as well. And it's about making people laugh, and 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. And so, for me, that's 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, and I think it's important to see yourself reflected. It's going to be different, but there's a lot of universal truths that not just Native people can identify with in this show. But for us, 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.”

You can be entertained by this good story starting Monday, August 9th, when Reservation Dogs premieres on FX on Hulu.

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Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).