Two Indigenous filmmakers are challenging the stereotypes and caricatures of Native Americans. Native Americans have been depicted as either supporting characters or bloodthirsty killers in films and TV since before the advent of film and television.
Sterlin Harjo is a Seminole, Muscogee filmmaker hailing from Oklahoma. Taika Waititi, an Maori director from New Zealand joined the team to create “Reservation Dogs,” which premieres Monday on FX. The series features four teenagers who fight, steal, and cuss their way to adulthood in rural Oklahoma. The half-hour comedy was filmed entirely on the Muscogee Reservation in eastern Oklahoma. According to the network, it is the first cable TV show in which all of the regular characters, writers and directors are Indigenous.
“To be in a position to tell a true story about real people through comedy is about time,” Harjo said at the premiere of the series, which was held this week in Tulsa. “We’ve been watching cinema for 130 years and now we’re showing ourselves as human beings. This shouldn’t seem radical but it is.
Devery Jacobs, a Mohawk actor who hails from Quebec, Canada, says that working with Indigenous actors and crew was refreshing.
Jacobs stated that she was the only Indigenous person on a number of projects. It was truly a welcome home to see my Indigenous community, which included people from many backgrounds, as I walked on the set of “Reservation Dogs” and saw them around me.
She said that she had never seen it before and it was something that meant so much to her. This term is used by many Indigenous people in the northeastern region of North America to describe the continent.
Longtime friends Harjo and Waititi collaborated for the first time. They said that the series was born out of discussions about what kind of show they wanted to see. Waititi, an Oscar-winning writer and director of Jojo Rabbit, recalled Waititi. His credits include “Thor: Ragnarok,” and “What We Do In the Shadows.”
“We didn’t know where it would go, but then it struck us that it would be great to put it here.”
The show was filmed mostly in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, where the Muscogee Nation headquarters is located. Waititi and Harjo stated that the show’s young, restless characters are well-known beyond small towns and Indigenous communities.
Waititi stated that the idea of wandering about a suburb or small community without anything to do and wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life is what Waititi described. “That’s what drives these children… many teenagers around the world feel like that.
The characters are not identified as Native American tribe members, but the Muscogee Nation was involved in helping to locate locations. A public premiere at the River Spirit Resort in Tulsa drew nearly 2,000 people.
Jason Salsman, spokesperson for the Muscogee Nation, stated that “the real value in this show is its authenticity.” “There have been many years and numerous instances of mischaracterization, invisibility and misappropriation Native culture in film or movies.
He said, “This is a welcome shift.”
Like many of the 39 federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma, the Muscogee Nation has been diversifying its economy with the help of an infusion of cash from tribal gambling approved by voters in 2004. The U.S. Supreme Court also upheld the boundaries of the Nation’s reservation — 3 million acres (12,100 square kilometers), including most of the city of Tulsa — in a landmark decision last year on tribal sovereignty.
Oklahoma’s film and television industries are booming at the time the show’s production is taking place. According to the Oklahoma Film and Music Office, the direct fiscal impact of 33 television and film productions (including “Reservation Dogs”) that were eligible for a rebate from the state on qualifying expenditures during the past year was more than $161million. Martin Scorsese’s film “Killers of the Flower Moon” and “Stillwater,” starring Matt Damon, were also shot in Oklahoma. This year’s Academy Award-winning film was “Minari.”
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, himself a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, signed into law earlier this year a bill that increases the cap on the film rebate from $8 million to $30 million annually, which is expected to draw more productions, diversify the state’s workforce and beef up its film infrastructure.
Oklahomans working in the film industry will be happy to hear this, according to Shane Brown, a freelance photographer and videographer from Tulsa, who was hired to work as a videographer on “Reservation Dogs.” Brown said that he is so busy that he turned down offers to work on other films.
Brown stated, “Everybody’s busy.” Brown said that everyone seems to be working, regardless of whether they are in independent or freelance roles.