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“This is like my dream show,” Harjo said in a panel discussion following a screening of the Reservation Dogs pilot at the 2021 Tribeca Festival.
And Harjo credits his longtime friend, and fellow Reservation Dogs executive producer, Taika Waititi for helping him make it a reality. “The only reason I get to make this show is because of Taika Waititi, and it’s like the best gift a friend could give someone,” Harjo said. “He walked this into FX and then let me take off and make this show. … I don’t think any other show that I would make would be as important as this is to me.”
The show, which follows four Indigenous teenagers in rural Oklahoma as they steal, rob and save to get to California, features multiple autobiographical elements, Harjo, who grew up in Oklahoma, said, but perhaps the most authentic and “radical” part of the series is its full portrayal of Native Americans.
“As far as showing what Native people are like, we’re funny, we’re sad, we’re depressing, we’re interesting, we’re quirky, we’re everything. That shouldn’t be a radical thing that they’re showing us as human beings but it’s very radical and it’s about time in 2021,” Harjo said during the panel with Reservation Dogs‘ core cast. “We’ve been a part of cinema from the very beginning, and we’ve never been portrayed in a realistic way. And it’s happening now and it’s … beautiful.”
He later added that while he feels the weight of the series, which features all-Indigenous writers, directors and series regulars, he’s ready for it because he knows he’s telling the truth about his community.
“It’s really amazing to just let us be funny, that’s who we are,” Harjo said. “Telling this story for me is something that is so easy and needed. I’m not worried about what happens because all you can do is tell the truth. If you’re telling the truth from your communities, it’s OK. I learned early on that people are offended when you don’t tell the truth. If you’re trying to lie, they get offended, but if you just tell the truth, they can not like it, but there’s no getting offended by the truth. That was always the beacon and what we were trying to go for with this — just tell the truth from our community in a comedic way.”
Series stars D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs, Paulina Alexis and Lane Factor joined Harjo on the panel moderated by journalist Shea Vassar.
The show, which Harjo said frequently references the movie Friday, being a comedy seems natural to Jacobs.
“It makes sense that this is a comedy because Native people are funny, and tell me one Native person who doesn’t use humor to cope with all of the shit that we deal with,” she said. “The show demonstrates that sense of humor that we have that’s like making fun of each other, that’s like a smart-ass type of humor, that’s also mourning and celebrating and healing all in one.”
And in making the series, Jacobs said, the abundance of Indigenous people in “nearly every department,” something she had “never encountered” on a set before, created a strong sense of community.
“It was the first time I had ever experienced the feeling of home on set and community and the fact that it was our space that we were walking into,” Jacobs said. “This one was by far the most…Indigenous set I’d ever been a part of.”
Harjo echoed those thoughts about the familial approach to making the series, and both he and Jacobs, who’s also worked as a writer and director on other projects, hope to use the series to help others.
“There is a hierarchy in this industry and there’s doors that are really hard to crack open, and it’s only because people aren’t opening those doors for people and people on top were trying to keep people out, and all I did was give people their opportunity to shine,” Harjo said. “One of the joys was that I gave people the opportunity to write and direct their first episodes. To me that’s the most important thing that I’ve done with this show.”
Jacobs, meanwhile, said she hoped they could open the door so wide that they could push through as many people as possible.
“I think it’s important that we prove to people that this isn’t a fad of hiring diversity and by hiring different people, it’s an important time for us to speak up and showcase our voices and showcase our stories,” she said. “I want to see as many Indigenous stories out there as there are storytellers.”
Reservation Dogs is set to debut on FX on Hulu on Monday, Aug. 9.
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