Sterlin Harjo on Ending ‘Reservation Dogs’ in That Good Way

“All this, this is how the community works,” Hokti (Lily Gladstone) tells her grieving niece, Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), in the series finale of FX’s “Reservation Dogs.” Sitting inside a prison visiting room and pointing to a circle made of candy bars, Cheez-Its and Flaming Flamers — ad hoc symbols of their loved ones, courtesy of a vending machine — Hokti continues: “It is sprawling. It spreads. What do you think they came for when they tried to get rid of us? Our community. You break that, and you break the individual.”

“That’s the thing about community,” she adds. “You have to take care of it. You have to play your part.”

This scene, appearing early in the episode, which bowed on Wednesday, was a full-circle moment of another sort. When “Reservation Dogs” premiered on Hulu in 2021, it appeared to be about four teenagers — Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Cheese (Lane Factor) and Willie Jack — trying to leave the Okern, a fictional town in rural Oklahoma, for California, after their best friend, Daniel (Dalton Cramer), dies by suicide.

But over the course of three seasons, it quickly became obvious that the creators, Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, had far greater and bolder ambitions than making just another adolescent comedy. (Harjo is also the series’s showrunner.) Not only was “Reservation Dogs” the first and only TV series in which every writer, director and series regular was Indigenous, but each episode was also constantly experimenting with form, style and history.

As a result, critics consistently named “Reservation Dogs” one of the best TV shows of the year while it ran; it easily topped my own 2022 list of entertainment, a much-needed escape from last year’s political tumult. As important, the show introduced a new generation of Native actors, like Woon-A-Tai, Jacobs, Factor and Alexis, while also showcasing the remarkable comedic range of the great Zahn McClarnon, who was described in a New York Times profile last year as otherwise “playing some pretty tough characters.”

But its ensemble was both an achievement and a symbol. “Reservation Dogs” was always an intergenerational narrative about loss, land and healing. And it accomplished that by striking a balance between irreverence and recognizing the past. This season, for example, dove headfirst into the racial horror of Native American boarding schools while also reveling in the lightheartedness of a fake heist.

For Harjo, who grew up in Holdenville, Okla. (the town on which Okern is based), it was also an opportunity “to show the beauty that I see in rural America” and his love of “Native people and everything that I came from.” At a restaurant outdoors last week in Brooklyn, Harjo discussed why he chose to end the show after only three seasons, the power of an all-Indigenous writers’ room, that Emmy snub and what he hopes the show’s legacy will be. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Why did you end now, after three seasons?

It was my decision. I didn’t know it would be three seasons, but I knew this was the arc it would take. I couldn’t imagine dragging it out. It would feel cheap. So I feel good about it, to be honest. It’s a coming-of-age story, and you can’t keep coming of age. This is a transitional moment in these characters’ lives, and if they keep going through this transition, it doesn’t feel genuine. It’s like, “At some point, I’ve got to figure something out.”

From left, the actors Lane Factor (Cheese), Devery Jacobs (Elora), D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai (Bear) and Paulina Alexis (Willie Jack) played four teenage friends in rural Oklahoma, part of an all-Native ensemble cast.Credit…Shane Brown/FX

Do you feel like you said everything you wanted to say?

I remember Jim Jarmusch, who I’m a big fan of, said something like this: “Most movies and filmmakers are concerned with characters getting to the bus, and then taking the bus from A to B. But I’m more concerned with what happens at the bus stop while they’re waiting on the bus.” And I think “Reservations Dogs” chose moments like that. Not that I couldn’t follow people to college, but how the story’s told and what we chose to tell is very magical. And some of that magic is lost once you follow characters to college and deal with real-world [expletive]. Even love stories — I don’t deal with love stories in the show. It’s bigger than that. This is about life and death. Love is happening, and it’s happening in between episodes, which you see by the end. But it’s not something that I want to sit around and talk about.

Speaking of magic, “Reservation Dogs” is a spiritual show. How did you approach this aspect of this show?

That’s one thing Taika and I discussed right at the beginning. We were like, “We want this, all mythological beings, to be a matter of fact.” Because that’s the way these stories are told in our community. I think a lot of Native spiritualism in Hollywood movies seems so hokey. It’s like, “Oh, now it’s time to sit around the fire and play a flute, and now I’m going to tell you this spiritual story.” And that’s for white people. And it gives this false identity to our spiritualism and who we are. There are medicine men, but they’re in jeans, sports hats and T-shirts. They’re not floating down from the mountains. And I wanted to lift the veil and show that there are people who can touch and see things we can’t see, but they look like Willie Jack. Or they look like Bear.

At the same time, the show is really experimental and a bit surrealistic. What inspired its aesthetic?

There’s a writer named Louise Erdrich, who wrote “Love Medicine” — I love her writing, but it’s not surrealism. I don’t think our show is surrealistic either because a lot of the storytelling is so natural to our communities. I also took so much from “Atlanta.” That show gave me permission to do “Reservation Dogs” in this way. There was just such a rebellion in that storytelling. And it’s like, Donald and Stephen Glover were in this place that people like us usually don’t get let in. And it’s like: What are you going to do with that? Are you going just to do what they want us to do? Or are you going to do something interesting?

Woon-A-Tai and Dallas Goldtooth. “I think a lot of Native spiritualism in Hollywood movies seems so hokey,” Harjo said. He added: “There are medicine men, but they’re in jeans, sports hats and T-shirts.”Credit…Shane Brown/FX

What was the impact of having a team of all-Native directors and writers?

It just made sense. There was no hand-holding. There were places where we went that, if I had non-Natives in the writer’s room, we might not want to go or might be a little afraid to go. We lifted each other up and gave each other the power to go, “We’re going to make fun of the land acknowledgment.” Or like having Dallas [Goldtooth’s] spirit character, William Knifeman, come right out and just say: “Oh, I’m not as cool as Crazy Horse or Sitting Bull. I’m not one of those cool guys.”

Having him say at the top that he died before the battle even started is so disarming. We’re so used to these warriors having to be very macho and heroic. But that’s a mythological look at who we were. We were living, breathing human beings. Crazy Horse was stressed out and, I’m sure, filled with self-doubt and woke up in the morning yawning. It’s just humanizing history.

And revealing grief, loss and healing. The show starts with the four kids mourning their best friend’s death, but by the end, their healing becomes the catalyst for the healing of so many other generations in their community. Was that always the goal?

Yeah. I thought their healing should not be selfish, but about what they bring to their community because the show is about community. And to exist in a community, I think that you have to give to it. And so, to watch them, it had to be them coming back and giving to their community what they’d learned. I didn’t want another season of them dealing with the grief of Daniel. I wanted them to have learned something about dealing with that pain and inadvertently share it with their elders.

Credit…Ashley Markle for The New York Times

You recently said, “If we would’ve been an all-white cast, we would’ve been nominated for an Emmy after getting called the best show of 2022.” What did you mean by that?

I don’t think “Reservation Dogs” is that easy. “Atlanta” is not that easy. I wasn’t surprised that we never got nominated. I know without a doubt we were the best show last year. I bet there were Emmy voters who were afraid to watch “Atlanta” and “Reservation Dogs” because they’re just like, “I just want to be entertained.” And what they don’t realize is we’re also entertaining, but we actually have a bigger palette to use, and we have a bigger canvas to paint on because we have all of this history and all of this lack of real representation.

That’s one thing that I wanted to do with the show. Every episode, for me, showed a love of storytelling and cinema. And all of them feel slightly different. You have horror, the ’70s, broad comedy and family drama. There was something loose about the show that I loved, and we weren’t locked into anything. It felt very loose and free, and each episode could be something new. I like that.

What do you hope is the legacy of this show?

I have a lot of other things to say, but this show was the perfect way to talk about the importance of community to me. The Reservation Dogs aren’t four kids. It’s a whole community of people that are part of this world that I created. And it was reflecting on the magic that I grew up with. I grew up with all of that.

I don’t think it’ll be the best thing that I make, but it will be the most important. It was a show about community, and I needed all of my community to make it. The whole show is my family and my friends. My friends are directors on it. It was such a family experience. It’s not like you have to have a beautiful experience to make something good, but for this show, it was good because everyone put so much love into it. Everyone cared so much about what they were doing. It was really beautiful to see.

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