The indigenous experience is not a monolith, but “Reservation Dogs” co-creators Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, who grew up in Oklahoma and New Zealand, respectively, still found a lot of commonality that they wanted to infuse into their new show.
“I think one of the similarities in all those communities — indigenous communities — is humor,” Harjo said during a Television Critics Assn. press tour panel for the show on Wednesday. “All the stories that we’d 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.”
Following a group of teenagers (played by D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs, Paulina Alexis and Lane Factor) living on a reservation in Oklahoma, “Reservation Dogs” is a coming-of-age tale that Harjo said is partially inspired by some of his favorite coming-of-age stories from his childhood, from “The Goonies” to “Stand By Me,” and includes references to movies he laughed that “no one will know,” such as “Willow.”
Setting it in Oklahoma was a way for Harjo to showcase the diversity he grew up around.
“I mythologize that place and I have this nostalgia for where I grew up,” he admitted about Holdenville, Okla. “Oklahoma, doesn’t get a lot of love…but there’s an interesting history there. It was at one time Indian territory; there’s 38 tribes there. So, if you’re in the Indigenous community there…you can drive 30 minutes to an hour down the road and you’re in a whole new tribal territory with new languages, new customs, new ceremonial practices. And that led to this really, I think, cool upbringing.
“Growing up in rural Oklahoma, you have to create your own world, and that’s what we’re pulling from. You have to create your own fun and and actually have an imagination, so that’s what this show is about,” he continued.
The characters in the show dream of getting off their reservation and out of their small town, specifically traveling to California. They are pooling their money to do so, and they spend quite a few moments in the episodes discussing the timing of their departure based on how much they have saved.
“Woody Guthrie says that California is like the garden of Eden, and that perfectly, in my mind, symbolized [it] for them,” said Woon-A-Tai. “This is like salvation for them — they think that their problems will get solved if they leave this area, which is not true at all.”
Some of those problems include gang violence, unsatisfactory healthcare access and the recent death of a friend.
“There’s a lot of bad shit that happened to us at the hands of the U.S. government and other governments, but we survived — I think partially because of our humor — and for me that’s the important part of the show,” said Harjo.
One character also sees a vision of a Native ancestor on a horse in early scenes, which, Harjo pointed out, is one-part welcoming non-Native audiences into the show because that might be the first image that comes to many of their minds when they think of a Native person, based on past projects’ stereotypes. The other part of this piece of the story, though, is honoring ancestors because that is from where they came, he said.
Harjo and Waititi put together a writers’ room that consisted solely of Indigenous writers, which added to the nuance of characters they created and stories they were able to tell.
“There is the strength in those numbers,” Harjo said. “It helped us not be afraid to go hard and tell the truth and also to be funny and push the envelope. [Also] there was a shorthand between all the writers, and we were able to just go and write and try to make it the funniest and make it real.
“One of the best parts of this was like everyday getting on a zoom with the writers…and just spilling our stories,” he added. “One of us would have a reference, we’d be telling one part of the story, and then somebody would have something else and it was just pulling from that. And it was really inspiring to see all of that — pulling from each other’s lives.”
Harjo and Waititi have known each other for about two decades. It used to be that they’d “flip coins to sleep on our friend’s couch” and share hotel rooms, all the while dreaming about the projects they’d be able to make someday. Coming together for “Reservation Dogs,” Waititi noted that he believes “people need to tell their own stories, especially from what area they’re from.” So it wouldn’t have been “appropriate” if he tried to influence or change Harjo’s vision for this show, but the passion he felt for the idea was deep enough that he wanted to add it to his already very full plate.
“I’m doing something that I care about and I only do things I care about,” he explained. “A lot of people [say], ‘Do one for them, one for you.’ I do it all for me. It’s all mine now. I’m taking all of the American dollars I can get.”
“Reservation Dogs” premieres Aug. 9 on FX on Hulu.