Seminole / Muscogee Creek filmmaker – and now showrunner – Sterlin Harjo called me from the cab of his pickup truck while he was shopping around Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s a city he loves in a state he loves, the place where he made most of his films. And the feeling is mutual; it now has a spot on the Oklahoma Walk of Fame, directly across from the city’s local arthouse theater, Circle Cinema. It wasn’t that long ago that I could have texted her and scheduled a quick interview. (Full disclosure: Harjo and I are friends.) But now, given his busy schedule, I had to go through his assistant to schedule a meeting. Due to a time error on my end – he was in Oklahoma; I was in New Mexico – Harjo zoomed in on me from his phone. While he was driving, we talked about his exciting new coming-of-age project for FX Networks: Dogs Reservation. He was in no rush to get home: “I have a plumber at my house, so this is the perfect timing.
He was busy editing the last episodes for Dogs Reservation, which recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Harjo directed three episodes, Navajo filmmakers Sydney Freeland and Blackhorse Lowe each directed two episodes, while Bishop Paiute citizen Tazbah Chavez directed one. In fact, all of the directors and screenwriters are indigenous, and indigenous peoples are involved at all levels of production. It is a truly unique breakthrough.
The idea for the show originated when Harjo and his good friend, the multi-talented Maori creative force Taika Waititi, realized that they both had interesting scripts that shared similar themes. Waititi proposed an idea for a series to FX. Harjo expected to hear from him in about a year, assuming he was lucky, but his agents contacted him three days later with an offer.
Dogs Reservation is a comedy about four native Oklahoma teenagers and the misdeeds of the small town / reservation they find themselves in. It’s based on the kind of stories Harjo and Waititi often shared. “We’ve always told each other from the house and laughing, and they’re always funny stories and never depressing shit. We wanted to reflect that and make a show that was comedy. There are real issues they deal with, but they deal with them with humor. The four main actors, aged 14 to 17, are all Native Americans: D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai (Ojibwe), Devery Jacobs (Kanien’kehá: ka Mohawk), Paulina Alexis (Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation), and the lane factor (Caddo and Seminole Creek).
Selling the project turned out to be easier than expected, and Waititi had to turn the pilot, but COVID-19 hit and everyone had to be sent home. “Of course an indigenous show is happening and a global pandemic has shut us down,” Harjo said wryly. But FX got involved, and after a hiatus, production resumed. However, due to the break and schedule change, Waititi was no longer available to lead, so Harjo stepped in and took over the pilot. When bringing in other directors, he looked no further than established filmmakers he already trusted. Just as Waititi had opened doors in Harjo, Harjo wanted to do the same for his fellow native filmmakers. “Sydney is almost a TV director now, so I wanted her to be there to help set the tone. I wanted Blackhorse and Tazbah to follow along and see Sydney direct the first few episodes. But in reality, it just opened the door for them. And try to get them to televised production. It’s a tough racket to tackle.
Blackhorse Lowe is a Tulsa Scholar. His feature debut, 5th World, premiered at Sundance in 2005, but Dogs Reservation is his first foray into directing for television. I spoke to him after he finished filming in Tulsa and was preparing to travel to New Mexico to scout locations for his next feature film. Lowe summed up his experience in a series of long, excited sentences that hinted at his broader feelings. “There are no words for me right now, but really positive and excited and I can’t wait for the show to come out and people to see and receive it in a positive way and see something that never has. been seen before. ” He recognizes how special the moment is. Both episodes he directed feature two well-known Indigenous actors, Gary Farmer and Wes Studi, and comedian Bill Burr, of whom Lowe is a fan, makes an appearance later in the season. “There are a lot of cool people on the show.”
“They deal with real issues, but they deal with them with humor.”
Production for television is faster than film production; Lowe’s episodes of the 30-minute show were to be completed in four days. “Nine pages a day,” Lowe said, adding that “with the COVID restrictions, you are only allowed 10 hours on set.” The schedule was quick, but Lowe had a bigger budget than he was used to working with. Independent films, by comparison, are often a rush: “We’ve always been limited by funds, time, people’s availability,” Lowe said, “whereas with television you have all the toys to play with. and professionals. So there was really nothing in my path other than myself; The sky was the limit. “
Lowe generally likes to keep things close to the waistcoat, but his enthusiasm boiled over when he spoke about the series. “Everything was magic,” he told me. “Productions like this don’t come together like magic, but in this case it does, and everyone was just awesome, which is very unique. You don’t get that on most film sets – there’s always something going on – but everyone was just awesome. “
Dogs Reservation and the new TV series Peacock Rutherford Falls marks a new era of Indigenous performance, in which Indigenous people are in the writers’ room telling the story as well as behind the camera, directing the action. Both series are comedies, but Dogs Reservation is the more obviously cinematic of the two. “I think it’s important to have both shows,” Harjo said. “It’s cool that they have that kind of different vibe.”
There is a fair amount of cross pollination between the two emissions. Devery Jacobs appears in both, while Migizi Pensoneau (Ponca / Ojibwe) has a role in Rutherford Falls and also writes for Dogs Reservation. Writer Tazbah Chavez works on both shows, as does Bobby Wilson (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota), who performs and writes.
“It was crazy that FX let us do this,” Harjo thought to himself in his truck as he drove home for his date with the plumber. “It was just kind of a dream come true.”
And it’s not over yet, not by far. This is just the start of a new era of Indigenous representation, Harjo believes. “It’s an exciting time right now,” he said. “There are all these shows coming out. There are going to be a lot of shows, and all of them are different. That’s what’s cool, and I think that’s what’s going to solidify our place on TV. Hollywood and the public will see that there is no end to the stories we have.
Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee Creek writer and director (and occasional actor) based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. E-mail High Country News at [email protected] or send a letter to the editor.
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