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Reservation Dogs and Native Representation in Hollywood

Updated: Sep 19, 2021

By: Melissa del Carmen Gomez

Image retrieved from Shane Brown/FX

Within pop culture, film, and television, Indigenous roles tend to be stereotypical. Hollywood usually casts Native men as ‘vicious warriors’ in cowboy movies, Native elders as the depiction of tribes that conjure ‘magic,' and Native women as ‘promiscuous and willing to befriend the white man.’ I remember the first time I ever saw a Native character on television was in Disney’s Peter Pan with the character Tiger Lily. I watched her dance on the screen while Peter Pan danced alongside her. I didn’t think much of the scene, granted I was a child. As I grew older, I realized that the whole scene itself, and the portrayal of Tiger Lily and her tribe was racially insensitive.

I never really saw much Native representation growing up. Now, as an adult, I continue to search for shows with Native characters or actors. Recently, while I was browsing for a new show to watch, I came across the show Reservation Dogs and my search came to an end. The comedy is about four Indigenous teenagers living in Oklahoma who are trying to move to California. The show’s cast, writers, and directors are all Native. This is a huge step for Native representation in Hollywood. “Even two and a half years ago, to be a Native writer or have any Native characters on any show was a big deal. We went from feeling blessed then, to now being on these shows where you have half or full Native writers’ rooms, Native directors, full casts of Native actors. Part of that has to do with the way that we all function as a community,” Tazbah Chavez who is a Nüümü, Diné and San Carlos Apache director tells the New York Times.

The show, created by Seminole and Muscogee director Sterling Harjo and Maori director Taiki Waititi, showcases what it’s like to grow up on a reservation. Harjo told TV Line, “All of the stories [Taika and I] would tell were funny. They were never sad and depressing, which are the only stories that ever get told about Native people. So, when we were doing the show, it, from the beginning, was going to be a comedy.”

Devery Jacobs, a Mohawk actress who plays Elora Postaok in Reservation Dogs, also discusses with ABC 7 how refreshing it is to be part of an all-Indigenous cast. “On a lot of projects, I was the only Indigenous person for miles. Stepping on the set of 'Reservation Dogs' and seeing my community around me, a community of fellow Indigenous folks from different backgrounds, it was truly being welcomed home. I'd never experienced it before, and it just meant so much to me, and I know it's going to mean so much to audiences across Turtle Island and beyond.”

Image via Shane Brown/FX on Hulu

It’s refreshing to see Native stories being told in a more realistic way. It breaks away from the stereotypical stories that Hollywood portrays when it comes to Indigenous roles. “There's been 130-something years of cinema and we're finally showing ourselves as human beings, which shouldn't be radical, but it is pretty radical today,” Harjo explains. In Hollywood, there is an erasure of Indigenous people and the only roles that come about are usually written by non-Native writers. This show is filled with Indigenous cultural references; for instance, in one scene, an owl’s eyes get blurred out as the main characters subvert and cover their eyes to not meet the owl’s gaze. To non-Natives, this could be confusing, however, it is a nod to Native culture. The scene is portrayed this way due to owls being an unlucky omen and signifying death.

It’s about time Indigenous stories are told and represented within pop culture and media. Native representation has the potential to empower Indigenous youth who will see themselves on the screen. It’s an exciting change that steers away from stereotypes, showing what Native writers, creators, and talent can bring to Hollywood. “That’s what’s cool,” Sterling Harjo tells Smithsonian Magazine, “I think that’s what’s going to solidify our place in TV. Hollywood and the public is going to see there’s no end to the stories that we have.”

If interested, Reservation Dogs is available on Hulu.

Written by writer Melissa del Carmen Gomez

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