‘Reservation Dogs’ Boss on Combatting Indigenous Stereotypes, Embracing Gripes and That Emmy Snub

‘Reservation Dogs’ Boss on Combatting Indigenous Stereotypes, Embracing Gripes and That Emmy Snub

Sterlin Harjo is wrapping up edits on the final two episodes of Reservation Dogs‘ second season from his home in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In an era of remote working, that shouldn’t sound significant. And yet his FX comedy is the first TV series to film entirely in the state — one of several firsts, as it also marks the scripted serial debut from the prolific indie filmmaker and the first all-Indigenous writers room in TV history.

The show, a coming-of-age tale of four teens on a rural reservation co-created by Harjo and longtime friend (and Oscar winner) Taika Waititi, has been a watershed moment for Indigenous representation in front of and behind the camera. It’s also just a hit. Reservation Dogs‘ first season landed on dozens of critics’ “Best of 2021” lists, including that of THR‘s Daniel Fienberg, and the challenge of duplicating that success was not without its stresses. Harjo, who was photographed in his home by Indigenous artist Shane Brown, spoke over Zoom in early August about the pressures inherent to a sophomore run, giving white people permission to laugh, and those unfortunate Emmy snubs.

What did you learn from making season one that you applied to season two?

Making anything is an exercise in learning how to trust yourself and your instincts. The success of season one, and all the attention that came with it, taught me a lot. I learned to focus on the positive voices, to keep yourself in a good space as you continue writing. I can watch other season two openers, the new seasons that are coming out right now, and see when they just kind of took the first idea and said, “OK, let’s go.” They got lazy. I didn’t want season two of Reservation Dogs to feel that way. I wanted it to feel different from the first one but also just as exciting. I wanted it to even get weirder.

How do you avoid those mistakes?

By not taking the first idea in the writers room. We tried to push and pull at everyone’s strengths, to lay the foundation for all of us to do our best work. And a lot of times our best work is saying, “That’s a dumb idea,” or “What if we didn’t do that?” I feel the same going into season three. Showrunning is an insane job.

It’s essentially several jobs in one.

I don’t think it’s made for humans. I don’t think human beings should be doing this. The first two seasons, I needed to be involved in everything. I’m hoping in season three that I can let other people help take that load a little more.

What’s been the biggest “Oh, my life has changed” moment in the past year?

Seeing the season two billboard up above Pink’s Hot Dogs. (Laughs.) That was one of the first places I went the first time I went to L.A. I was staying in a hostel at, like, Hollywood and Vine. There have been so many moments, and it’s good. But, in the beginning, it was a wave of change. I had to grab a branch and hold on while it hit. Now that it’s settled down, I’m fine. But it was really intense.

What was your branch?

Oklahoma. It’s nice not being surrounded by an industry. I like being in a place that’s not all focused on my job. The crew here, they’re all my friends and family. That’s very grounding. Living in Oklahoma, I’m more involved with my culture and tribal activities. Everyone’s proud of the show here, but I’m not treated special.

From left: Other trophies on Harjo’s shelves include a THR “Raising Our Voices” Award for outstanding TV series and a Grand Prix Teueikan, an Indigenous film and video award, for his 2015 feature Mekko. They sit beside a Calumet Baking Powder tin. (The vintage pantry item is featured in the set design of The Shining.)

Photographed by Shane Brown

Didn’t FX initially want to shoot in New Mexico?

That was nerve-racking. I couldn’t have spent four years faking New Mexico for Oklahoma. I wouldn’t have been happy. I wouldn’t have been proud. It would’ve been false. I think that the authenticity that you feel in the show when you watch it comes from it being shot here. That is part of the tone. That specificity is the relationship to this place. And I couldn’t fake it anywhere else.

In highlighting an underrepresented community, you’re never going to represent all of it. Have there been gripes?

There are people that, if they don’t see their exact version of representation, that doesn’t sit well with them. I’m never going to be able to represent everybody in a way that is satisfying. We try to listen to people’s concerns. It’s a growing, ongoing, organic process to write a show. The best shows don’t push anyone’s concerns or voices to the side. You listen to them and embrace them and see what you can do, while still making the show that you’re making.

You’ve been extremely prolific, but this is your first experience working within the commercial Hollywood machine. How did it measure up to your expectations?

I have a skewed, not-so-typical experience with the Hollywood machine. Because I’m with FX, there’s no one that is telling me how to do this. It’s very much a conversation. It feels like I’m an independent filmmaker with a bigger budget. Someone in my position could easily be pushed around, because I was just so happy to have a show. It’s probably spoiled me. The Hollywood version of what a Native is has been very false. We perpetuated that ourselves, Native people, because that’s what was selling. That’s what made us who we were. We bought into it. And I just wanted to be able to tell a truthful story, because it’s actually much more interesting. It’s much more uplifting.

Speaking of Indigenous representation, have you watched Prey?

Yes, it’s great. Amber Midthunder, who I love, is also in the sixth episode of this season of Reservation Dogs. Her mom [Angelique Midthunder] is our casting director. We’re casting from a smaller pool, so we try to support each other. We’re all friends. The creators and actors in this community are very supportive right now. We’re in a time when people realize that the top-down hierarchy isn’t conducive to making good art.

From left: The beadwork portrait of Reservation Dogs character Willie Jack (actor Paulina Alexis) by artist Stevi Riley was a wrap gift from co-star Devery Jacobs; the sculptural piece “War Dance” came from well-known Lakota artist Cannupa Luger; Harjo won a Gotham Award for breakthrough series after season one premiered.

Photographed by Shane Brown

You’re in a comedy group, The 1491s, where you’ve said you learned how to make entertainment for white people. What did that process look like?

It wasn’t that I couldn’t make white people laugh. I needed them to be able to laugh at Native humor. But historically, there’s a lot of guilt in America and the world about how we were treated. You have to weigh that guilt coming into a scenario. Everyone, especially white people, are very nervous about laughing at first, because they don’t want to feel like they’re laughing at you. They play it safe and just listen. There’s this whole push to listen these days. They want to be a good ally and listen. And like, I want you to laugh.

How did you make that happen?

You have to really give them the permission to laugh. Sometimes we would even say in the introduction, “It’s OK to laugh. Laugh at us, with us, whatever!” And we made fun of ourselves with them right off the bat. It just kind of eased everyone into their seat. There’s a rhythm to it. Reservation Dogs has that rhythm.

There was certainly an expectation that Reservation Dogs would be a major player at the Emmys. What’s your take on the lack of nominations?

There’s racism out there. Right? There’s not another explanation for it. But, also, I don’t care. For me, the show is the award. Nominated or not, the success of the show is obvious. This is a first, a Native show like this, so I can’t fault them for not nominating us. They probably don’t know what to do with this. They know what to do with Martin Short and those guys. Ted Lasso is much easier to see on the Emmy stage. But Reservation Dogs … where does it fit? I wrote the writers room on a text thread, saying it would’ve been great to be nominated, but it’s OK. Don’t forget that we made the best show ever.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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