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Celebrating Representation – and greasy frybread

The weather here along the Columbia in unceded Chinook territory turned from perfect summer to fall overnight. It’s been a summer to follow the developments in the filming of Killers of the Flower Moon, to see the 1920s re-created in the Osage, photos of Osage actors, clothes and cars that echo family photos. In August, Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s FX series Reservation Dogs burst into Indian Country on Hulu.

Peacock’s new series Rutherford Falls is worth celebrating for giving us a beautiful, smart, and funny Native actress in a leading role. A storyline that centers on Natives challenging colonialism, strong Native writers and Native actors in supporting roles, but Reservation Dogs, filmed in Okmulgee, brings it all the way home. 

The coming of age story focuses on four Native teens who are collecting money to get out of Okern, Okla., any way they can. Activities range from selling meat pies to stealing a chip truck. Reservation Dogs was written by Harjo (Seminole/Creek) and Waititi (Maori) based on stories of their experiences growing up.

The program is beautifully filmed: the palette is rich. The trailer features a photograph of the actors in black and white suits, from their private memorial for their friend Daniel who has died, their impetus to leave Okern.

The actors are talented, realistic, and believable. D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai plays Bear, the ostensible leader of the pack, Paulina Alexis is Willie Jack (homage to Billy Jack, Harjo says), Lane Factor, who looks like he could be Osage, is Cheese, and Devery Jacobs, who reminds me of a Diné friend is Willow-inspired Elora Danan.

It’s a celebration to watch familiar characters in a series laced with true-to-life details. Shots of green hills and red brick ruins reinforce the frame of northeastern Oklahoma, while the few Native words wado, mvto have folks on social media guessing which tribe characters represent.

With some of the talent of the 1491s, the show is utterly engaging. Expect boy humor with growling stomachs, Zahn McClarnon is the policeman drinking an Energy Drink rather than the soda he calls “white man’s bullets,” and Dallas Goldtooth as an unreliable spirit guide, a warrior from Battle of the Little Big Horn, who appears to Bear during moments of stress. There’s also wry humor. When Uncle Brownie (veteran actor Gary Farmer) says he lives off the land, Willie Jack looks around his house and says, “And Sonic.”

In Rez Dogs, spirit life is manifested for all the characters. When the health clinic decides to invite hip-hop artist Punkin Lusty (Sten Joddi), Bear’s absent father, to perform, Bear’s mother leaves a meeting to compose herself. Two Ritas materialize behind her in the restroom mirror. One reminds her she doesn’t need a man and the other how long since she’s been with one. The two selves discuss whether she should “get all rugged,” which is the kind of detail that makes the show perfect.

The show represents the split-screen reality we all live. When Rita’s dream date (a rich doctor) shows his everyday anti-indigenous racism—he has a Confederate flag and feathers tattoo—figures from the past, the Creek people whose land the doctor’s ancestors stole appear in the room with Rita, servants on their own land. In the kind of positive role-modeling that the show offers, Rita gets her handbag and leaves. “Is it something I said—” the doctor asks, “was it the tattoo?”

The teen friend’s death brings gravity to the plot, as do the characters’ many missing mothers, fathers and grandmothers. The humor, like the roaringly inappropriate doctor at the clinic, is cut with pathos, as when Cheese takes a grandmother (Casey Camp-Horinek) who mistakes him for her grandson, out of her hospital bed to watch the sky outside. They sit before a cloudy afternoon sky underscoring the community connections the show celebrates.

The language is too rough for some. The hip hop/gang “bitch” vernacular carries problematic overtones, as does the association of Native youth with gangs.

Rez Dogs is one perspective on Native life, lovingly set in Oklahoma. I look forward to more films with more perspectives. For me halfway into the season, the chance to see us on the screen, to enter our world in Oklahoma and the belly laughs are worthwhile. And while we wait to see friends and family in Killers of the Flower Moon, Rez Dogs offers us a chance to see Warren Queton as clinic administrator and Dr. Moira Redcorn dancing solo to Greasy Frybread in her stunning ribbon skirt, and you can’t beat that.

Note: Moira Redcorn in Greasy Frybread   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlSfJ6ZBbI8