‘Reservation Dogs’ is a coming-of-age sitcom that centers around 4 Native American teenagers in rural Oklahoma. The show gives us a slice-of-life perspective of the young teens, who are up to all manners of mischief as they bide their time in their quiet hometown. Much of what drives them is their desire for excitement, which seems especially hard to come by where they live. However, as the show progresses, we can see that they create plenty of interesting situations to keep themselves occupied. A story that resonates with audiences on many levels as well as offers a not-so-often seen perspective into the daily lives of Native American youths, can ‘Reservation Dogs’ be based on real people and situations? Let’s find out.
Is Reservation Dogs a True Story?
‘Reservation Dogs’ is partly based on a true story. The sitcom is the brainchild of show co-creators Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, who took inspiration from their own lives to create the script. Though the characters and specific storylines are not necessarily based on reality, both Harjo and Waititi have based much of the show’s tone on their past. The former spent his younger years in Holdenville, Oklahoma, which is reflected in the show being set and filmed in the state. Waititi, on the other hand, took inspiration from life in his native New Zealand for the script. The two have known each other for well over a decade and have traveled extensively around the world. According to Harjo, the two have also road-tripped across New Zealand together.
The show came about quite informally when Waititi mentioned to Harjo that he had a deal with FX and that they could create something together for the network if the latter had any ideas. Soon, an idea began to take shape that eventually evolved into what would become ‘Reservation Dogs.’ Reportedly, the process happened quite fast, and within a week, they had a deal for a pilot. Despite filming for the pilot episode getting interrupted by the covid 19 pandemic, the two continued working on the script for the show, and the pilot was soon shot, which led to the rest of the show being made.
Despite the story being set in a fictional town, Harjo claims to have taken inspiration from the city from his younger days, Holdenville, as well as the city of Wewoka in Oklahoma. Much of the story is seeded in Harjo’s Native American culture, which he represents through Oklahoma. The state has a deep history with Native Americans, and large tracts of it are considered reservation land.
The authentic representation of indigenous characters, like the 4 leads as well as multiple supporting characters on the show, is a special point of focus for Harjo, who is also the show’s director. The turbulent history and painful circumstances that have partly shaped modern-day Indians are hinted at in the show. Effects like losing their native language, though not explicitly explored, are folded into the show’s narrative. There are also aspects that are quintessentially Native American, like their specific brand of humor, that other filmmakers cannot capture and require a director from the “inside” to help depict.
According to the director, Native Americans are generally depicted as the “others,” with roles that are more reactive to the central characters as opposed to Native Americans playing the central role themselves. Depictions of them, even by well-meaning filmmakers, generally delve into historical aspects and fail to represent the everyday lives of Native Americans. For Harjo, it is a matter of “let us tell our story.”
Hence, ‘Reservation Dogs’ is a fictional story that nonetheless attempts to accurately depict the everyday lives of modern-day Native Americans in a way that hasn’t been brought to screen before. In the process, the show blends realistic situations from its creators’ own lives, as well as from the collective experiences of the indigenous people, especially those in Oklahoma. Focussing on the lives of Native American teenagers, the show is possibly best described by Harjo when he says it is “about seeing people that you have never seen come of age, come of age.”
Read More: Where is Reservation Dogs Filmed?