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'Reservation Dogs' Creator Talks New FX Series

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

And finally today, we're taking a trip to rural Oklahoma, more specifically to Okmulgee, Okla., home of the Muskogee Nation. That's the setting of the new FX comedy "Reservation Dogs." The much-anticipated series follows the exploits of a group of Native American teens who hang out, crack jokes and occasionally get into some trouble with the law, all in the name of scraping together enough cash to make their way to California. The show is a breakthrough in Native American representation in television, both on screen and behind the camera. Every writer, director and series regular on the show is Indigenous.

Seminole and Muskogee filmmaker Sterlin Harjo created the show along with Oscar-winning director Taika Waititi. I spoke with Harjo about the show, and he said the show came together after realizing they both shared similar experiences as Indigenous people from two different countries.

STERLIN HARJO: Yeah. I mean, you know, Taika grew up in New Zealand. I grew up in rural Oklahoma in a town called Holdenville, about 5,000 people. And, you know, there's a lot of differences, obviously, between New Zealand and rural Oklahoma, but a lot of similarities as well. And, you know, over the years, I'd tell Taika stories from home. And he'd tell me stories from home. And, you know, it just became a shorthand.

And, you know, one of the things that became clear is all the stories that we tell were always funny. And Native people, like, represented in Hollywood, you know, you never get to see that humor. You never - it's always so earnest and so sad or depressing. And, you know, we were like, well, let's make this funny. Let's make a comedy because that's how our - that's really reflective of our communities. They're hilarious. And we're survivors. And a lot of the reasons we survived is because of our humor.

MCCAMMON: I want to talk a little bit more about the show in particular. It centers on this group of teens who are trying to get to California. They're hoping to escape what they see as a dead-end life on the reservation. But at one point, the main character, Bear, meets with the spirit guide in a dream. And the spirit guide tries to persuade Bear not to leave.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RESERVATION DOGS")

D'PHARAOH WOON-A-TAI: (As Bear) I'm not going to be here forever, so...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The moment we're born, we're going to die.

WOON-A-TAI: (As Bear) No, I mean California.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) California. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. That's where you're going to go? You're going to run away, head off West, dreaming big. They all just want to run away. We are all just running away.

WOON-A-TAI: (As Bear) I'm not running away.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) OK, well, meantime, better go to the clinic. That nose looks [expletive].

MCCAMMON: What are you trying to get out with the scene?

HARJO: I mean, I think that character in general, you know, it obviously plays into stereotypes about what I think most non-Natives think about us because of the portrayal of Native people in cinema throughout the years. I mean, we were the zombies, right? We were the walking dead. We were the faceless, sort of soulless beings that John Wayne and all the other cowboys had to get rid of in the name of Western expansion. We were the obstacle in the way of progress. And it was obviously, like, not accurate to who we really are.

But we have this image of who we are that's been presented over and over and over throughout history. And so, you know, a lot of times it's, I think, hard for people to swallow that that might not be accurate. So that character, I think, represents that. It also lets the non-Native audience into the joke with us. It's saying like, look, I know this is what you think we are, but we're going to bring you in, and we're going to make fun of it together. And also we're going to talk about the truths that are also wrapped up in that stereotype because some of it is truthful.

But in the end, we're going to, like, let you in on the joke. And we're going to laugh at it together. And I think that that character really represents that and kind of helps the audience sort of, like, wrap their head around this contemporary world because it is giving them something that they're more familiar with, even as ridiculous as that is, they're more familiar with that image of who we are.

MCCAMMON: So every writer, director and series regular on the show is Native American. Why was that important to you? And was it hard to make that happen?

HARJO: It was not hard because FX is really great. You know, there's a - I think the - "Atlanta" had an all-Black writer's room. I'm - you know, whenever I said I wanted all-Native writers room, they, you know, didn't bat an eye. It wasn't even a question. And the amazing thing about having an all-Native writer's room is we weren't afraid. I think if we would have had a 50-50 room or something, like, the non-Natives would have been afraid to go where we went. But because we have this authorship and because we have this lived experience, we weren't afraid to go places. And we weren't afraid to push the humor. And we were - and there was a shorthand in that humor and in the storytelling, you know, that we didn't have to sit around and explain to people like what we're talking about, you know.

Like, it makes the show that much better. And I think that people identify with that. I think that non-Indigenous people will watch it and they will feel that authenticity. And they will feel the details and the nuance of this world. And it only like - and I think that gives an audience permission to give themselves over to the story. And then you can immerse yourself in the story, the drama and the comedy. And I think that's a real key element to this show.

MCCAMMON: I mean, I feel like in any community where you have communities within communities, that thing happens where you get in the room with other people like you and, like, there's a shared language like you're talking about. But there's also, like, everyone's different, right?

HARJO: Yeah.

MCCAMMON: Was there anything that really surprised you? Or did you feel like - were there moments that you were like, oh, I didn't know that other tribes did that or that like - did you just have weird moments of insight or surprise or hilarity?

HARJO: Well, I think the surprise was how similar are our communities are. You know, like people that grew up in reservation in California or New Mexico, like, our experiences are so similar. You know, it's kind of surprising how similar we are in this shared sort of experience through being tribal people and also the history of what happened. I think that was the most surprising thing is that we're so similar, just like the differences were small in comparison, I think.

MCCAMMON: Even if you're in, like, different parts of the country and...

HARJO: Exactly. Different backgrounds, I mean, different customs, different everything, different languages. But we all have this shared experience.

MCCAMMON: Must kind of feel like a family reunion almost.

HARJO: Yeah. It was really interesting, Like, but, I mean, also, like, I love that we had all these Native writers. I mean, like I was saying, I was like, I think that people would have been afraid, you know. There would have been a bit more sort of like policing of what we're saying, I think. And I think that this...

MCCAMMON: And, like, not wanting to offend, right?

HARJO: Exactly, right, like a PC side of it, you know.

MCCAMMON: 'Cause like there's that thing that you can - within the group, you can say what you want to say. Yeah. Yeah.

HARJO: Exactly. And people aren't, like, tiptoeing around things. Like, we just get right to it. And it gave us the freedom to really go hard, you know. And I think that that's what this show needed. It needed that. It needed that freedom.

MCCAMMON: So for people who are less familiar with this world, what do you want them to take away from the show?

HARJO: I want them to see that Native people - I mean, it's easy. It's we're human. And we're funny. And we're a lot more alike with non-Natives than they imagine. And they're going to feel the things that we feel. And they're going to feel the shared human experience told through this story. I want them to recognize the hope that runs throughout the whole series. And also, you know, that we're beautiful. We're dark. We're funny. We're sad. We're all of these things that make up being a human being. And I think it's as simple as that. Like, I just want them to see us as humans and enjoy the ride with us as well.

MCCAMMON: That's Sterlin Harjo, creator and executive producer of the new series "Reservation Dogs," which premieres on FX on Monday. Sterlin Harjo, thank you so much for being with us.

HARJO: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.