​'Reservation Dogs' Continues to Break Ground — Even When the Cameras Aren't Rolling

"Kids are growing up and seeing this as normal," says D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai
​'Reservation Dogs' Continues to Break Ground — Even When the Cameras Aren't Rolling
Photo courtesy of Disney
Reservation Dogs is billed as a comedy, but the pivotal scene of Season 1 was a moment of intense tragedy: in the penultimate episode of the 2021 season, Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs) is shown in a flashback as she discovers the body of her friend Daniel (Dalton Cramer), and it's revealed that his long-alluded-to death was a suicide.

"When you finally see Daniel's death and Elora finds him, that whole area was blessed," explains Toronto-born actor D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, who plays Bear Smallhill, the self-proclaimed leader of the show's titular gang. "They did a ceremony to cleanse that whole area before and after we filmed in that set. Both Devery Jacobs and Dalton Cramer were blessed. They were smudged down with sage, sweetgrass, all different types of medicines, prayers blessed on them to make sure that the energy that they pick up while they're filming doesn't continue with them — that they leave that bad energy in that room."

Speaking with Exclaim! over the phone from California, Woon-A-Tai tells me this so as to stress the importance of community — not only as the guiding theme within the latest season of the FX-produced show (which premieres on Disney+ in Canada on September 7), but also to demonstrate how Reservation Dogs is able to exist due to the communicative environment built by literally everyone involved in creating the show.

The show follows four teenagers — Bear, Elora, Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and Cheese (Lane Factor) — as they work to scrounge up enough money to make their way away from their Oklahoma reservation to California, where Daniel wanted to escape to before his suicide. It's a breakthrough for mainstream television: not only does Reservation Dogs feature an all-Indigenous cast, but it also has Indigenous people involved as writers, directors, and at every level of production. In other words, the community we see on screen every week extends off screen as well. 

"I would be lying if I said that we tackled this by ourselves," Woon-A-Tai says in response to my question about how he approaches the show's traumatic scenes. "It took a community to tackle these issues. None of us tackled it by ourselves behind the camera or anything. Sadly, a lot of people in Indian country and on set have dealt with that, have dealt with someone who is not here anymore who should have been, or who lost their life way too young, or committed suicide."

He adds, "Even in the beginning, in the first episode from the memorial scene — a lot of credit is due to amazing acting, don't get me wrong, but there's a lot of realness there because a lot of the Res Dogs had faced that before."

Woon-A-Tai says the filming of the memorial scene in the first episode could have been completed fairly quickly, except that he initially felt something was off and wasn't emotionally ready to carry out the scene. "So I asked Sterlin [Harjo, the show's co-creator alongside Taika Waititi] if we [Woon-A-Tai, Jacobs, Factor and Alexis] could take a few minutes just to talk with each other. And I wasn't expecting all of us to rant to me, tell me everything, but we created such community so quickly. That time we spent with ourselves, we just exchanged stories, we exchanged loved ones that were lost too soon, and that really set the tone for all of us."

While the four of them were in a corner "bawling our eyes out," as Woon-A-Tai describes it, Harjo walked up to them and told them the true story that inspired the character of Daniel: "Sterlin comes up and says, 'I know what could help you guys,' and he explained that Daniel's character is based off a real guy." Harjo told the group that the show is about Daniel's death, and how each character is able to cope with his loss through meaningful support from one another. "And that really was kind of the nail in the coffin for us to get to that point, to that emotion," Woon-A-Tai says.

The sense of community that infuses Reservation Dogs begins with doing what feels right for the actors. Jacobs echoes Woon-A-Tai's sentiments about the communal ethos of the show, explaining that, while the first season looks at the aftermath of Daniel's death, the second season focuses on healing for the Dogs — and this comes in the form of acknowledging their togetherness.

"In Episode 4, [Elora Danan] gets to experience and witness a passing of someone she loves in the right way, in the way that it's meant to happen," Jacobs tells Exclaim! over the phone from Georgia. 

Jacobs, who is Mohawk and hails from Kahnawake in the area referred to as Quebec, is alluding to an episode titled "Mabel," which examines what healing looks like for Elora. For the first time in her life, she sees how a person ought to die according to tradition, and how their life ought to be mourned. "[She sees] the way that our communities come together and celebrate," Jacobs says. "And we also see healing for the rest of the Res Dogs, and the rest of the community as well, through the season."

Jacobs formally joined the writers' room for the second season, and she co-wrote "Mabel" alongside Harjo. "It was a very personal one for both of us," Jacobs says. "For Sterlin, [he was] drawing inspiration from the passing of his grandmother, and then [I was drawing from] my experience in my community with funerals and wakes. I think, in the writers' room, I was so adamant and so passionate about us showing the passing of somebody, how our communities do it — I was just so passionate about ['Mabel'] that Sterlin ended up giving me the episode as he was divvying them out. He asked that I write that one with him, and I immediately got nervous."

Jacobs didn't intend to write her own character, more focused on every one but her own. Nevertheless, she wonderfully guides the episode, giving Elora the room she needs to process her grief.

Jacobs says, "We were worried. We were like, 'Oh my god, how much loss is this person going to take?' But death in the right way — when I say 'the right way,' I mean, in the way that we all aim to pass, which is surrounded by community, surrounded by loved ones when it's time for [us] to go. And so for Elora to witness that … is a healing experience in and of itself."

Woon-A-Tai praises this scene for how it celebrates life rather than simply grieving death. He tells me about when a family member passed away, and says he mourned according to the procedures depicted on screen. "That helped me cope," he says. "The way we did our traditions helped me cope with my loss, and I know that it helped Elora cope, as you see inside the show."

The show's authenticity is the result of a writers' room that, according to Jacobs, is unlike any other.

"We are a bunch of nerdy res kids and film nerds," Jacobs says of the team behind Reservation Dogs. "We just kind of would pop on Zoom, and there were a lot of jokes, and there was a lot of hanging out and shooting the shit. But, through that, ideas would come up and we would really get into it and see through ideas and follow them down a line to see where they bring us. And sometimes they would work, and sometimes Sterlin would show up in the morning and say, 'Okay, we're blowing everything up and we're starting anew.'"

The second season is about healing for the Dogs, and for Woon-A-Tai's Bear, this means teasing out an identity for himself after Daniel, understanding what it looks like to be a man, and determining whether he can be a good man in the absence of a father. 

"The only people he can learn from, because he doesn't have a father figure, are the uncles around him, who can try to teach him to be a man," Woon-A-Tai says. "And you can see that in the third episode a lot." In this episode, Bear takes a roofing job in order to earn money for the California trip — which means working with Daniel's dad Danny (Michael Spears), whom Bear initially resents for his perceived role in Daniel's death. Through Danny's love and guidance, Bear learns to put aside his teenage bullheadedness and be vulnerable when sharing memories of Daniel.

Reservation Dogs relishes its many surreal and supernatural aspects — like Kaniehtiio Horn's beguiling Deer Woman, Dallas Goldtooth's irreverent Spirit, and the mysterious catfish rain that beleaguers Zahn McClarnon's Officer Big. But, as Woon-A-Tai and Jacobs point out, truth is also baked into every aspect. Actors approach scenes with an understanding of what their characters are going through, and, as Jacobs describes, tradition informs scenes focused on healing the damage caused by colonialism.

"You say 'cut,' and it's not like everyone disappears on set," Woon-A-Tai says, speaking specifically about a scene at a memorial. "That house was crowded with people: everyone is still vibing, everyone is still acting like they are on camera. On set, you had that energy of, 'This is real.' Devery Jacobs did such an amazing job, her being from Kahnawake in Quebec, and she wrote what we do."

Just like in real life, moments of tragedy bump up against moments of humour, bringing belly laughs in spite of sorrow. A key aspect of the show is how it addresses harrowing events through jokes. 

"It comes from, like, 500 years of trauma," Woon-A-Tai tells me when I ask him about the show's tongue-in-cheek sense of humour. "What Paulina Alexis says in an interview that's said a lot all throughout Indian country is: laughter is medicine. She didn't come up with that quote herself. She was taught that quote. That quote was probably passed down from generation to generation."

Woon-A-Tai adds, "I've been in bad situations where you had uncles, aunties, cousins who would crack jokes and make me laugh and make the tension a lot easier to go through."

It's an experience that viewers of all backgrounds can easily connect with.

"I just hope that people really resonate with our characters and resonate with the community that we've showcased and built, and that audiences are able to get swept away with the story without necessarily always thinking of this as representative of Native storytelling," Jacobs says. "I just, first and foremost, want us to create a great story."

Co-creator Taika Waititi similarly stressed the importance of authentic storytelling in an interview with Entertainment Weekly in 2021. "What white culture wants from us is what crippled a lot of our storytelling in the past," he said, adding, "We're going to really twist and fuck up what your expectations are."

Indeed, it shouldn't have to be the case that Reservation Dogs serves as the singular representation for a mode as vast, multifaceted, diverse and layered as Indigenous storytelling. That the series has found such success among audiences makes a strong case for Hollywood to support many more Indigenous-led shows and movies.

This isn't just up to producers and writers. Woon-A-Tai emphasizes that the way to ensure more Indigenous stories are created is for the whole industry to be on board — including those working behind the scenes.

"The casting director, I want to stress, is really important," he says. "If the [casting director] is not educated enough on the topic, if they're not Native American, and they're casting Native American roles, who are they gonna look to? We were never really in pop culture. The only time you did see us in pop culture was getting shot off a horse by John Wayne, so that's where they're gonna go for their research. If they're lazy and not willing to go and actually learn from an actual Indigenous community, they're just gonna go watch films. And, all throughout films, you're gonna see that stereotype of long hair, dark skin. [But] we come in literally every single shade of colour."

When making the show, Woon-A-Tai didn't realize Reservation Dogs was doing anything game-changing. It wasn't until post-production that he realized the impact it had already made.

"Ryan Redcorn, who takes all the photos behind-the-scenes, he was really the first person to open my eyes to see the difference we made," Woon-A-Tai reflects. "He told me that his kids are growing up and seeing this as normal." (Disney)