Reservation Dogs

Photo and beadwork by Ameyalli Mañon-Ferguson, aka boujee.indigenous. Used with permission.

“What do you suppose that means?” asks the older white man, driving his leather-interior sedan down a rainy road somewhere in Oklahoma. The radio softly plays in the background.

“What, honey?” responds his wife, sitting in the passenger seat.

“You see the graffiti on that sign back there?” The camera cuts to a spray-painted billboard on the side of the road.

“Oh yeah, yeah,” she replies, “I think it said, ‘Land Back,’ didn’t it?”

“Well, what do you suppose it means?” he asks.

“Well, I reckon the Indians did it,” she replies.

“Well, sure they did,” he says. After a beat, he adds, “But I don’t understand.”


“They mean the whole damn thing? They want the whole damn thing back?”

“Well, I suppose so,” she says.

“That’s just not possible,” he replies quickly. “I could see some of it back. You reckon that’s what they mean? Some of it back? Or all the damn thing?”

She looks at her husband briefly. “I mean, the whites did kill an awful lot of them and took the land. So, America ought to be ashamed of itself.”

“Well, they got the casinos,” he replies. “I hear they get paid a thousand dollars a month just to be an Indian.”

“Will you quit being a shit-ass?” she says.

The scene continues with the woman saying through gritted teeth, “You know I am part Indian,” her husband responding with a scoff.

“Let’s not get into a political discussion,” he says then, “let’s just enjoy the Sunday drive.” The scene concludes with the couple hitting a deer standing in the middle of the road.

This is just one example of how the new FX series Reservation Dogs by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi brilliantly captures parts of contemporary political discourse and issues of identity and belonging for America’s Native peoples. Without directly addressing either the “land back” discourse or the complexities of this woman’s claim to Indian identity, this scene (and the husband’s commentary) beautifully captures the skepticism, apathy, and fundamental misunderstanding that the vast majority of white America continues to perpetuate in its relationship to Native people. In less than two minutes, you see how easily we’re not taken seriously.

It also introduces us to an excellent swear phrase that had my mother and I rolling with laughter. She and I watched the first few episodes of Reservation Dogs together during her recent visit from Colorado to Oregon. In episode three, “Uncle Brownie,” which opens with the above dialogue, our intrepid group of Native youth later encounter the felled deer, stuffing it into the trunk of their car to make backstrap. The character “Cheese,” played by Lane Factor (Creek-Seminole and Caddo) spends this episode in the IHS clinic with an elder who mistakes him for her grandson. He doesn’t correct the mistake, and so they share stories and he later wheels her out to enjoy the sun. Meanwhile, the other kids, Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Bear Smallhill (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), drive Uncle Brownie around town trying to sell a bag of 30-year-old weed in a town that now has legal medicinal marijuana shops aplenty.

As the kids grapple with questions about family, the ethics of their money-making schemes, and the grief over losing their friend Daniel, it is impossible not to love them. And I can’t remember when I’ve ever seen something that so wonderfully captures Native humor. In the first episode, we meet William Knifeman, played by Dallas Goldtooth (Mdewakanton Dakota & Dińe), a returning spirit who persistently annoys Bear. His story of not-quite-making-it to the Battle of Little Bighorn after being trampled by his horse is just…funny. Like so many Native people I know, the show likes to poke at stereotypes, pulling apart “noble warrior” tropes, and making jokes before someone else can.

Even with these and other hilarious moments (the scary auntie opening the door brandishing a box cutter, the exploding deer, the phallic beadwork, the meat pies), the story lines are beautifully complex. In another episode, Bear’s mother meets a handsome and rich doctor, only to discover that he, like so many men, fetishizes Native women. She flees without bothering to explain, but we all feel how icky the experience is for her. We get to see as Uncle Brownie comes out of hiding and reconciles with his old drinking buddies, finally sharing a little bit about his memories of Elora’s mother, who died when she was small. We see folks who remind us of ourselves.

I have quite a few episodes to catch up on. But I’m savoring them, laughing at them long after I’ve watched them, and excited for where the show’s creators will take us. We talk a lot about the resilience of Native people, and we should. But it’s also time for us to enjoy and appreciate the creativity and humor of Native people, too. It’s about time that contemporary entertainment is getting on board.

More about Land Back:

From the Land Back movement website: “LANDBACK is a movement that has existed for generations with a long legacy of organizing and sacrifice to get Indigenous Lands back into Indigenous hands. Currently, there are LANDBACK battles being fought all across Turtle Island, to the north and the South.” Visit their site to learn more and get involved.

Culture Strike is a project of The Center for Cultural Power. They featured Indigenous artist Ameyalli Mañon-Ferguson, aka boujee.indigenous, as part of the Climate Woke Week of Action. Her beadwork (pictured above) focuses on the importance of the Land Back movement in climate justice. Specifically, her piece is focused on tribal sovereignty, land stewardship and Afro-Indigenous leadership. As she so eloquently states: “We cannot combat climate change without centering Indigenous people.”

Mickki Garrity (Bodewadmi) is an enrolled in the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a Cobell Scholar, a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar, and is pursuing a BS in Native environmental science at Northwest Indian College.

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