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New comedy 'Reservation Dogs' brings Indigenous youth to the forefront

Star Devery Jacobs talks to TMRW about the trailblazing show, which features an all-Indigenous cast.
From left to right, actors Paulina Alexis, Devery Jacobs, D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai and Lane Factor star in a new comedy on FX on Hulu called "Reservation Dogs."
From left to right, actors Paulina Alexis, Devery Jacobs, D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai and Lane Factor star in a new comedy on FX on Hulu called "Reservation Dogs."Shane Brown / FX
/ Source: TMRW

“I’d never seen anything like that.”

That may be one of the lines in the trailer for “Reservation Dogs,” but it’s also what viewers might think when they tune in to the new comedy, premiering on FX on Hulu Aug. 9. The FX production, from co-creators and executive producers Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, who directed Marvel’s “Thor: Ragnarok,” is poised to break barriers.

The series features a slice of life not often seen in mainstream media with an all-Indigenous cast finding their way around rural Oklahoma. Just 0.5% of Hollywood film roles went to Native actors in 2019 and of that tiny fraction, Native women were even more underrepresented, according to a 2020 UCLA report.

Shot in Tulsa and Okmulgee, the show follows four Indigenous teens trying to escape their hometown for the greener pastures of California. It’s an unexpectedly funny, heartfelt and meaningful show, a deep look into a vibrant culture and society that has adapted and prevailed amid centuries of colonization and poverty.

TMRW spoke to star Devery Jacobs, who opened up about the show’s impact and what she hopes audiences will take away from the groundbreaking series.

Jacobs plays Elora Danan, “the moral center” of her friend group — the Reservation Dogs from the title — who, if you believe the rumors, is the main gang in town. She’s joined by their conflicted leader Bear Smallhill, played by D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai (of Oji-Cree First Nation), the small but fearless Willie Jack, portrayed by Paulina Jewel Alexis (a Stoney tribe member of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation), and the quiet but reliable Cheese, brought to life by Lane Factor (who is Creek-Seminole and Caddo).

Fueled by the dream of their friend Daniel, the Reservation Dogs hatch plans to make their way from Oklahoma to California.
Fueled by the dream of their friend Daniel, the Reservation Dogs hatch plans to make their way from Oklahoma to California.Shane Brown / FX

Jacobs, who is a Mohawk actor and an outspoken advocate for Indigenous issues, said acting on “Reservation Dogs” was a turning point for her. “I spent so much of my career being the only Indigenous person, let alone Indigenous, queer person, and as proud as I was of the projects that I was doing, I think I was feeling a little bit isolated and frustrated and very alone,” she told TMRW.

“It was when I stepped onto set with ‘Reservation Dogs’ during the pilot that I was reminded of why I'm an actor, filmmaker and storyteller. ... We had so many Indigenous folks, not only in key creative positions, but in crew positions as well, and that was the first time that it felt like non-Indigenous crew members were being welcomed into our space and it was really empowering."

Much of “Reservation Dogs” is inspired by showrunner Harjo, who grew up in Muscogee and Seminole territory in Oklahoma. (The Muscogee Nation is one of the largest tribes in the U.S. with more than 87,000 citizens, according to the Associated Press.) The show makes a conscious decision to center Indigenous communities but does so effortlessly and tells the story in a universal way. “It's a show by Indigenous folks for Indigenous folks that I think will be able to resonate with all audiences,” Jacobs said.

Devery Jacobs (left) as Elora Danan Postoak and Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack in a still from the second episode of "Reservation Dogs."
Devery Jacobs (left) as Elora Danan Postoak and Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack in a still from the second episode of "Reservation Dogs."Shane Brown / FX

She welcomes the spotlight on Indigenous stories and characters. “I feel like it's about damn time. I feel like it’s overdue that we have been afforded the opportunity to showcase our stories like this. I hope that it shows people that we are full humans, that we still exist and we’re thriving and struggling and getting into trouble and making money and telling jokes and everything in between.

“I feel like there's been so little representation in the past where people have (this) idea, which is that Indigenous folks are, like, a thing of the past or if you meet an Indigenous person, like you wouldn't even realize that they are," she continued. "You might think that they're Latinx or, I don't know, like mixed race, but we are still here and we have such incredible stories from our community and we're only scratching the surface.”

Jacobs also pointed out that “Reservation Dogs” is just one unique angle on Indigenous life and there are many other stories to be told. “For example, ‘Rutherford Falls’ (that airs on NBC’s Peacock), which had the first Indigenous showrunner who led a show and it was like half of the writers room were Indigenous folks, while that’s a comedy and ‘Reservation Dogs’ is a comedy, both are stylistically, tonally different. And I think that's important for people to see, that just because something’s an Indigenous project, doesn't mean that it's going to represent all Indigenous people. Like everyone else, we have storytellers who have unique perspectives and tastes.”

“Reservation Dogs” immediately draws viewers in by opening with a heist scene featured prominently in the trailer. The series highlights the ups and downs of the teenagers’ lives without sugarcoating or glossing over the very real issues that affect Indigenous youth and their families and friends today. “So many of us in our communities are all affected by loss and similar situations to what the character Daniel had faced, which we’ll learn throughout the season,” Jacobs said. “It was that moment where we (the cast) had formed a fast family, because we all brought elements of ourselves and our communities with us to the scene. And it was also the first time we were afforded the space to mourn collectively but also laugh and celebrate and feel. ... We shared so much of ourselves as actors and characters but also as Indigenous people from our different communities.”

Jacobs hopes “Reservation Dogs” can serve as an inspiration for more projects centering Indigenous characters and said she would’ve been a fan of the show as a young teen. “I think the biggest thing for me is imagining myself when I was younger on my res with my family, how much different my life could have looked. … It means so much to me now … validating that our story is more worthy and important and can be relatable to audiences from different Indigenous nations, global Indigenous people, but also non-Indigenous people alike. We've been forced to empathize with white protagonists since the beginning of film and so I'm grateful that now it's going to be flipped where non-Indigenous folks are going to have a glimpse into our experiences and empathize with us.”

She added, “Finally, audiences get to see just how ... funny indigenous people are and that's what I hope is the biggest takeaway for non-indigenous audiences.”