First off, none of us live in the village of the happy people. Secondly, if there was such a story, no one would read nor watch it. Because it’d be a bunch of BS. One of the many pleasures of engaging with art, whether it be film, literature, or the various branches of studio arts, is the freedom we have to think critically about what we consume. When I heard about the series, Reservation Dogs, coming from FX and Hulu, I was excited to watch. I’m always pleased to see Native faces and Native communities in popular culture–especially when it showcases our resilience. We’re a beautiful people with unique experiences to share.
I didn’t get an opportunity to watch the first two episodes until several days after its initial release. I got caught up in the hype and heard a ton of positive comments. Natives were excited to watch. Finally, a popular representation of ourselves in media.
Then I started to hear the initial criticisms, like Natives being depicted as criminals and a disparaging outlook on community. Furthermore, is this misery porn for audiences who want to see Natives attack other Natives? Folks were also wondering about the sense of community pride and the representation of strong family networks. Moreover, where was the saving grace of cultural participation? There were also criticisms about how the characters don’t have Oklahoman accents, which is very distinct.
I don’t want to devalue these observations. I think Natives are making some valid points.
There are a few things to keep in mind. Firstly, this series is just starting. It can take several episodes to get into the depth of the storyline. Truly, there is plenty of time for the familial elements to develop. Similarly, hyperlocal Muscogee culture will likely rise to the top as the series continues. It’s too early to say what is missing overall. It’s like reading the first chapter of a novel and then criticizing the entire book without reading to the end. We, as an audience, don’t know yet what will play out as the season moves forward.
When it comes to the criticism about depicting Natives as criminals, I think the show does attempt to show the characters’ humanity. Their intent isn’t malicious. These are not vicious criminals. Moreover, the creators are touching on an aspect that does exist in our communities. Especially when it comes to violence between youth. We can all attest to gang related activities in our Native communities. Being a published writer myself, I also understand the method of structuring a story with characters at either a low point or a high point. If you start the story with a high point, then you can only spiral downwards. I think starting Reservation Dogs at a low point is a good sign. Now if the characters stay at that low point, then that’s a different situation altogether. But like I mention above, the series is still too early in episodes to make that criticism.
I want to take care of this whole “misery porn” BS now and forever. We, as artists, are ascribed to capture life as we’ve experienced it and transform it–not only as entertainment but as an opportunity for audiences to self-reflect. Like I started this post, none of us live in the village of the happy people. We, as artists, don’t have control over an audience’s reasons to engage. We have control over how we engage our communities for critical thought and discussion. If people want to make a “misery porn” criticism, then that should be directed at consumers–not creators–to think about how and why they engage with Native art. All in all, it’s a great opportunity to have a thoughtful discourse and grow.
Lastly, I’d like to take on the issue with the Oklahoman accent. True, the characters don’t have the distinct accent we from Oklahoma expected. I live, work, and love in Oklahoma so I get it. But what we need to keep in mind is that this series isn’t “only” for Oklahoma Natives. I’d describe the Native accents used in this series as a “non-regional NATIVE” accent. It’s more of a universal Native accent. We do hear it in Oklahoma, like other parts of the United States, but ours is spiced up with a lovable Okie twang. I think the creators did the right thing. The non-regional Native accent makes the show more appealing across the board. It also shows the commonality we have with a shared colonial history, while still accessing a beautiful and unique hyperlocal Muscogee reality. I say well-played to Sterling Harjo and Taika Waititi.
I’d like to leave folks with this: we’re early in the show and it’s important to support Native arts. We complain about not having representation in popular media, and then when it gets here we bash it. I say let’s give Reservation Dogs its due justice and support the show as it continues the season. For myself, I’m excited to see what Bear, Elora, Jackie, and Cheese encounter next–especially as the quirky side cast weaves in and out of their lives.