ICT | By Sandra Hale Schulman
All good things must come to an end, but an audible groan was heard across Indian Country when “Reservation Dogs” creators Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi announced that Season 3, which starts Aug. 2 on Hulu, would be the last.
The show has been showered with awards — the 2022 American Film Institute Awards, a Peabody, a Gotham Award and two Independent Spirit Awards, despite the veritable snub from the Emmy Awards this year.
The last season had already been written and shot when the Screen Writers Guild went on strike in the spring, so the third and final season has faced no delays from the combined writers and actors strikes.
Harjo, Seminole and Muscogee Creek of Oklahoma, took to Instagram with a statement about the show’s final season, promising more things to come.
“When we came up with the idea for ‘Reservation Dogs,’ I didn’t think the show would ever get made, but thankfully it did,” Harjo said on Instagram. “The first and most basic idea for us as Native people, was to show the world that Native humor and Natives are funny. Almost all television and film depictions about Native people are mostly inaccurate. And most of them have been untruthful.
“It has been a gift to us to show the world a different perspective of Indigenous people and our culture,” he continued. “Most important of all, it has been a dream to collaborate and make a show that is entirely written by, directed by, and stars Native people. These are our stories, and they represent our people. We know it’s an enormous responsibility and we never took that lightly.”
The show was filmed in Oklahoma, where its characters are based, and Harjo thanked the people of Okmulgee, Tulsa and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. He also praised the cast, including Devery Jacobs, D‘Pharaoh Woon-a-tai, Paulina Alexis and Lane Factor.
“You are the Rez Dogs, and this show wouldn’t have been the same without you,” Harjo said. “Although it’s the end of this story, it’s likely you will see Elora Danan, Bear Smallhill, Willie Jack, Cheese Williams and other characters in the Rez Dogs universe show up in other stories to come. Until then, Mvto. Love you, bitch.”
A look at the new trailer shows an all-star cast of both new and established talent showing up for the final season. At the end of Season 2, the young dogs — Willie Jack (Alexis), Elora Danan (Jacobs), Bear Smallhill (Woon-A-Tai), and Cheese (Land Factor) — had left Oklahoma to make their way to California so they could fulfill their late friend Daniel’s wish to see the Pacific Ocean.
A tearjerker seaside scene closed out Season 2, and showed the group standing in awe at the waves and hugging in heartbreaking joy as Daniel shows up in spirit.
Now it looks as though the dogs are making their way back to the rez by bus, as their car had been stolen with all their savings in it. On the bus, Bear is seen arguing with Spirit (Dallas Goldtooth) over potato chips, and gets off the bus for an undisclosed reason. Later, he is seen wandering the desert and then at a diner with the bohemian slayer Deer Woman (Kaniehttio Horn) – who may or may not be real.
The rest of the group is back home greeted with hugs and then threats of being grounded and made to do chores.
Special guest stars return – Gary Farmer, as the pot-smoking, rain-dancing Uncle Brownie; actor Graham Greene sporting a salt-and-pepper mohawk as a conspiracy theorist named Maximus; Jana Schmeiding as the smart-talking receptionist Bev; and Sarah Podemski as Rita Smallhill, Bear’s concerned mom.
FX, too, had high praise for the show.
“People throw around the words historic and groundbreaking far too often and without merit: Reservation Dogs is worthy of those superlatives,” according to a statement from FX. “Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi created one of the most important TV shows ever made. They gave the world a wholly unique, original, and honest portrayal of Native people — one that has never before been seen in television or film.
“We, along with our partners at Hulu, are forever grateful to the producers, writers, directors, cast, crew and the Native land and communities in eastern Oklahoma who collaborated to make this masterpiece. While we’re sad to see the show come to an end, we’re excited for Sterlin, Taika and Garrett Basch to continue to tell stories for FX.”
Zahn Tokiya-ku McClarnon, Hunkpapa Lakota, plays Officer Big and has had some wild adventures on the rez. He also plays Detective Joe Leaphorn on “Dark Winds.”
As for the third season of “Reservation Dogs,” he told the ICT broadcast, “You get close to the people you work with and you develop relationships. I think ‘Reservation Dogs’ as well as ‘Dark Winds’ has broken down a few doors, cracked that door up a little bit more for Native representation, and not just for actors but people behind the scenes — crew, producers, writers, directors. On both shows we've established some new talent.”
McClarnon has been in other major shows, including HBO’s “Westworld” and Jason Momoa’s “The Last Manhunt.”
“I pinch myself once in a while; I do,” he said. “I feel very, very fortunate to be in this time period of representation for Native people. I'm extremely fortunate to be here doing what I'm doing. Looking back at when roles and shows like this weren't around, what made me want to stick through it is I just loved acting, I love the craft of acting.
“I loved going to class and studying and refining that craft and being the best possible actor that I could be. I enjoyed that for a long time, I enjoyed the grind of it. I enjoyed going to auditions and being in Los Angeles and pursuing something that I wanted to do. I had goals and I've been very fortunate to meet a lot of those goals.”
Going out on top
Show writer Bobby Wilson, Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota, who came from the comedy troupe 1491s and has also appeared on “Rutherford Falls,” told ICT that he drew from his own life in crafting a storyline in Season 2 where Cheese is sent to a home after his Uncle Charley is arrested for selling weed.
“I grew up in Minneapolis’ east side when I was a teenager,” Wilson said. “The boys home that I was sentenced to, that I wrote about for ‘Res Dogs,’ was in the east side right next to the police station. Cheese, he was doing a brilliant job, but he was so young he's the only one who doesn't get much of a backstory, except that he's the youngest member of the crew. And so when it came around to Season Two, I know all of the writers thought, ‘What's his deal? Can he do something this season? He's grown a lot. He's really taken his acting seriously. Why have we never seen his parents or his house?’”
That’s when Wilson pitched his story.
“I was pretty nervous because I didn't want it to be a sad Cheese storyline, and I was so happy and eternally grateful to Sterlin for approving it,” Wilson said. “He's in the boys home, what if he doesn't have his parents? That happens to a bunch of Native kids. That happened to me. I didn't know where the hell my parents were for most of my teen years, yo.”
The story resonated with many viewers, he said.
“We try our best to represent, and I was so freaking touched, man,” he said. “I got like a bunch of messages afterwards from people who had grown up in the institutionalized systems, for one reason or the other.”
As for the show ending with the third season, Wilson says it was a choice.
“It was such a success in its first season, then critics and audiences loved its second season, and for our third season to come through as the final one, it's 100 percent a creative choice,” he said. “I'm not trying to talk out of turn on it, because it's not my decision. The showrunner, our guy who led the whole thing, Sterlin Harjo, it's his creative choice, and it makes sense.”
He said Harjo broke the news to the cast and crew.
“He called everybody and talked to us all about it,” Wilson said. “I'm not going to spoil anything about the season, but to just keep going, we don't want to lose the magic and the beauty of that — let it play out the way that it naturally was. That's mostly what we do in the writer's room — we're drawing logical conclusions to stories. We're moving this thing along and its different lines and all the different arcs and we don't want to keep rebooting.”
But the message will endure, he said.
“I think about the future and … the message that Sterlin first posted,” he said. “It had an open-ended vibe to it. Like he's considering building a larger universe that all of these characters are a part of. I mean, maybe that's wishful thinking, but that's what I saw when the announcement first came out.
“This show was amazing. They're going out on top. They did all the dope stuff.”
Sandra Hale Schulman, Cherokee Nation descent, has been writing about Native issues since 1994. The recipient of a Woody Guthrie Fellowship, she is the author of four books, has contributed to shows at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, The Grammy Museum, The Museum of Modern Art NYC, and has produced four films on Native musicians.
ICT, formerly Indian Country Today, is a nonprofit news organization that covers the Indigenous world with a daily digital platform and weekday broadcast with international viewership.