“Native American humor can be dark and raunchy, and it’s weird,” says Tazbah Chavez, writer, producer and director of “Reservation Dogs,” the eccentric show that follows Native American teens navigating their community in rural Oklahoma.
The quirky, often bittersweet series is both silly and sublime, and the comedy-drama’s first season has already garnered two Independent Spirit Awards, a Peabody Award, a Gotham Award™, an American Film Institute® Award and a Television Academy Award. Honors®. Created by writer-director Sterlin Harjo, a Seminole and Muscogee Creek filmmaker from Oklahoma, and New Zealand-born filmmaker Taika Waititi, the pair of friends share an interest in exploring their respective indigenous cultures in search of funny and heartwarming stories. .
Executive producer Garrett Basch well understood the dynamics of their friendship and their nuanced cultural backgrounds, playing a pivotal role in the development of the series and encouraging the co-creators to take “Reservation Dogs” where they felt it needed to go.
“The reason the show is successful is that they trusted us and allowed us to go as far and as hard as we needed to,” says Harjo. “The industry’s description of our people has been a big lie from the beginning. To make up for that, we had to be blatantly honest. FX let us do that. A big part of that honesty is our humor.”
Waititi agrees, explaining how crucial it was to honor their disparate yet often related experiences in his approach to storytelling.
“Although we were born and raised in completely different parts of the world, the cultures and small towns we grew up in mean we have a very similar perspective and sensibility,” says Waititi. “We are aligned in the sense that we want to tell stories about marginalized people who live on the fringes of society.”
The series is based on Harjo’s personal experiences growing up in Holdenville, Oklahoma. “He knows that world much better than I do,” says Waititi. “I couldn’t hope to go in there and tell the Native American story myself, and I wouldn’t want to either, it’s just not appropriate. I knew he could help as I’m a good storyteller and could help turn this into something that I felt was very Taika and very Sterlin.”
Infused with Waititi’s brand of humor, the show is balanced with deep emotionalism.
“Taika does this thing where he’s able to make you feel joy at the same time you feel pain, and then he takes you out of it,” says Chavez. “Sterlin’s style by himself is very close to that, so I think he was a very good meeting of minds.”
“There was no one else to tell this story except Sterlin,” says Devery Jacobs, who plays teenager Elora Danan, a character who dreams of escaping her world and heading to California after her friend’s death. Jacobs is also part of the show’s writing staff; all of the fellow writers, directors, and main cast members, as well as much of the crew, are indigenous.
“I have never seen someone honor the customs of their community while operating in the industry,” says Jacobs. “Ultimately, that’s what this show is all about: community. It is a story that follows many people and also a world in which we live. I think it’s his experience and love for the community that has really been the anchor of this show.”
Chavez says Harjo’s experience resonated with the cast and crew. “BBecause we were all from native communities and culturally connected, it wasn’t hard for us to understand Sterlin’s upbringing, because it’s the same upbringing we had,” he says. “Each of us has family and community members who are just like the people he experienced: each of us had our own version of an Uncle Brownie at home, or we all know a Willie Jack.”
Every aspect of the native experience was ripe for laughter and pathos. “There was no idea that it was too big or too wild for the room,” says Chavez. “Some of our best ideas came when someone said, ‘Okay, this may be crazy, but my aunt once said this to me…’ Sterlin really breeds a culture where no idea is too simple, too crazy, or too stupid. it’s too cheesy. That’s the beautiful part of this show: all those things are intertwined.”
Jacobs suggests that it is the specificity of these stories that gives them universal appeal. “Some of my favorite stories are the ones that come from cultures that are completely different from my own,” she explains. “I think of ‘Minari’ or ‘Moonlight’, so many projects that focus on really specific stories of these experiences of people from different cultures. It seems to me that it is almost a major entry point. Just being so specific in your cultural and human experience ends up becoming more universal.”
Then there’s Waititi’s distinctive comedic flavor. “The treatment of indigenous peoples in the media has always been very serious, and there has been a lack of harsh comedy, which is ironic and sad because our peoples are so funny,” he notes.
“’Reservation Dogs’ has a very native humor: it’s very dry, very witty,” agrees Lane Factor, who plays Cheese, the mischievous youngest member of the group. “He is a deadpan character. It’s not like he’s just actively trying to tell jokes and make light of every situation, but along with a lot of our native characters, his humor is just what they are. It is a good way in which many indigenous peoples deal with problems.”
That quirk also helps offset the darker aspects the show explores.
“[We’re] keeping the stories light-hearted, until you have a heavier message to deliver,” says Waititi. “I always find that comedy is a great way to get the audience to let their guard down, and to me it’s a better way to draw them in and engage them in the story.”
The show’s widespread appeal “means everything,” says Jacobs. “It means that we can be seen in the way that we are determining, as opposed to what Hollywood and Western society have considered us.