“My people are from Wisconsin,” late Iroquois comedian Charlie Hill’s signature joke begins. “We used to be from New York, but we had a little real estate problem.”
If tragedy plus time equals comedy, it took nearly 500 years for the colonization of America to become appropriate joke fodder. According to a recent book on the history of Native American comedy, though, when Hill made that joke during his 1977 TV debut on The Richard Pryor Show, it turned out to be a seismically influential event, activating generations of Native comedians. Nearly 45 years later, Reservation Dogs is poised to inspire its own wave of Indigenous TV comedy creators. Or, at least, the new FX series is funny and audacious enough to make viewers hope so.
Reservation Dogs—which premiered on August 9 and features an all-Indigenous team of writers, directors, and series regulars—is the more formally adventurous and experimental sibling of Rutherford Falls, the Peacock series starring Jana Schmieding and Ed Helms that debuted in April. Both shows share a lot of talent in front of and behind the camera, and both are worth watching in their own ways.
It’s the genre-fluid Reservation Dogs, though, that seems more likely to stretch the boundaries of what aspiring Native comedy creators know is possible.
Set in a small reservation community in rural Oklahoma, the series centers on four young friends, still grieving a recently departed fifth, as they perpetrate a petty crime spree in hopes of saving up enough money to flee to California. This ragtag group is comprised of soulful default leader Bear Smallhill (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai); sensible comrade Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), who is named after the baby in Willow, a running joke throughout the series; the tough-as-nails Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis); and dutiful sidekick Cheese (Lane Factor). Dubbed with the show’s titular nickname by a pair of wannabe-gangsta twins in the first episode, the crew spends their time indulging in delinquency, evading a rival gang, and doing general coming-of-age stuff.
Cocreator Sterlin Harjo developed the idea for the show with longtime friend Taika Waititi, the pair trading irreverent stories from their Indigenous youths. (Harjo hails from Okmulgee, Oklahoma, home of the Muscogee Nation, while New Zealand-born Waititi is a Māori descendent of the Ngāti Maru tribe.) After hammering out the themes and characters with Harjo, Waititi went off and pitched the show to FX, with whom the director already had a relationship through What We Do in the Shadows. Once the network gave a series order in 2020, Waititi would Zoom into writer’s room meetings, presumably from the set of Thor: Love and Thunder, while Harjo was in charge on the ground in Oklahoma, where the show was shot on location.
Harjo’s membership in the 1491s—a Native sketch troupe, their name a reference to the year before Columbus’s errant voyage—is apparent in the show’s tone. Absurdist flashbacks and movie homages abound, often with a sharp point behind their punch lines. One fantasy sequence deftly subverts familiar clichés about Crazy Horse-like Native warriors. An unconscious Bear visits with one who claims to have died while fighting General Custer, only for him to reveal sheepishly that he actually died when his horse hit a gopher hole and “squashed” him.
As silly as the proceedings can get, though, the show roots its semi-antiheroes in a mundane, modern context rarely depicted on-screen for Native Americans. Absent is the white guilt-fueled urge to reenact the original sin of land theft, or the Western motif that largely restricts Natives to cowboy target practice and worse. Rather, Reservation Dogs offers viewers a hip-hop-saturated landscape of bored teenage ennui, graced with unconventional settings and situations.
It also triumphantly avoids dumbing down the authenticity for non-Native viewers. Some of the terms thrown around (such as hoka hey, a Lakota phrase of urgency) may make sense in context; others will require some googling. It’s exciting how little the show is concerned with whether certain viewers understand things like why the eyes of an owl are blurred out in one episode. (It’s apparently because, for some tribespeople, owls hold an association with the dead, and the area around their eyes is said to be made from the fingernails of ghosts.)
One episode begins with an elderly white couple out for a drive through rural Oklahoma. The husband soon spies graffiti on a billboard that reads, in all caps, “LAND BACK, FUCKERZZ.” He is confounded by this mission statement from Indigenous country. “They mean the whole damn thing? They want the whole damn thing back?” he asks. “That’s just not possible. I could see some of it back.”
He goes on to suggest that having casinos should make up for the lost land, at which point his wife urges him to “quit being a shit-ass.”
After having spent some time in the show’s world, with its unique characters, viewers should feel jarred to once again see it and them from TV’s more traditional point of view. Thankfully, Reservation Dogs is a show made by and for people who are ready to take over more of Hollywood than Hollywood has ever been willing to let them have.
Hoka hey, indeed.