After decades of harmful and stereotypical depictions of Indigenous peoples in mainstream entertainment, FX on Hulu has finally released a project that is a first of its kind: Reservation Dogs, a coming-of-age comedy that is a breakthrough in Native representation both behind and in front of the camera.
Created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, the new series, which is set in rural Oklahoma, follows the exploits of four Indigenous teenagers — the self-proclaimed leader Bear Smallhill (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), the moral compass Elora Danan (Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs), the street-smart tough girl Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and the quiet but reliable Cheese (Lane Factor) — who steal, rob and save in order to get to the exotic, mysterious and faraway land of California. Every writer, director and series regular on the show is Indigenous.
In a recent phone interview with Observer, Jacobs — a Mohawk actor from Kahnawake, Quebec — speaks about the tight-knit Native film community, the importance of honoring the cultural specificity of Harjo’s upbringing in Oklahoma, and the critical success of Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls, which could signal the start of a new era for Indigenous representation.
This interview contains minor spoilers for Reservation Dogs.
Observer: When did you discover that Sterlin and Taika were casting for an all-Indigenous project, and what do you remember from the audition process?
Devery Jacobs: I remember originally receiving the casting breakdown like I would for any other casting notice for auditions, and I saw that it was Sterlin and Taika working on a project. The Native film industry is so small, so I had known of Sterlin for a couple of years and had a chance to meet him and become friends with him a year [before]. And also, I had been such a fan of Taika since his 2010 film Boy, which is one of my favorite films of all time. And reading the breakdown, it sounded like the Native American version of Boy, which was so exciting and something that I absolutely needed to be a part of.
I had actually reached out to Sterlin and let him know that: “I love the character of Elora, and just so you know, I’m going to be auditioning.” And he shrugged me off. He was like, “Actually, I don’t think you’re right for the role, but go ahead.” (Laughs.) And so I was like, “Alright, I’m gonna prove you wrong,” and that’s what I did.
I auditioned for it and ended up working my way up to the casting callbacks in Los Angeles in around February of 2020, because we were supposed to shoot in April of 2020. But that was where I got to meet all of my fellow castmates, who were part of the Rez Dogs but who are also in the Bad Guy gang and who build the world around the Reservation Dogs. We really formed a fast friendship there, but it was through shooting the pilot that we really formed a family.
How did you react when you got the call that you landed the role?
I have a tendency when I book projects to not believe them. I’ve had too many projects where I’ve either booked the role or signed the contract, and it’s fallen through, or had a project and they ended up going in a different direction, or got cut out of the project, or whatever it may be. So until I see the project coming out and I’m sitting in a theater with a room full of people and I’m actually able to see my work onscreen, that’s usually when I’ll hold off from fully celebrating. And I was able to do that with the premiere of Reservation Dogs, and it’s one of the projects that I’m most proud of in my career.
In your experience, does having such a strong, all-Native presence on both sides of the camera really change the energy of a production?
Absolutely. I’ve never been part of a project like Reservation Dogs before. I am used to being in spaces that either are non-Indigenous or are non-Indigenous [peoples] telling Indigenous storylines. And what that ends up doing, as an Indigenous actor who’s a collaborator and will help people tell their stories, is that we’ll oftentimes come out with an idea of what non-Native folks think an Indigenous person experiences, [instead of] drawing from our own lived experiences of what it means to be Indigenous.
One of the beautiful things about Reservation Dogs is we’re all from different nations and tribes, and we’re all coming together to help Sterlin tell the project based on his upbringing in the place of the world where he’s from. We just hope we were able to entertain and tell the truth and do that community justice.
Like you said, you got to shoot on location in Oklahoma, where Sterlin was born and raised. How did you immerse yourself in learning about the history of the Indigenous peoples in that area?
I painted Oklahoma with this one brush, especially coming from Canada. I had this idea of what that area was like. But when I arrived there, it was actually much more complex and different. There is such a dark history in Oklahoma, like many places in the U.S. and Canada. But Oklahoma, specifically, was a place of Black Wall Street, the Tulsa [Race] Massacre and the Osage murders that they’re exploring in Killers of the Flower Moon [directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio]. It was the ending point of the Trail of Tears as well. Sterlin is a descendant of the survivors of the Trail of Tears, and so were all of our characters in Reservation Dogs. Sterlin had us look into the history of that territory a little bit more to understand what his ancestors went through and how it would bleed into the history that our characters carry with them every day.
In the first few episodes, the four Reservation Dogs are still grieving the loss of their fifth member, and they want to honor his memory by moving to California. How would you describe the group’s relationship to their homeland and to this new place that could represent a fresh start?
I think that the Reservation Dogs have a skewed and strenuous relationship with the area that they’re from. Like many small towns, they don’t have a lot of things that they can do, so they end up getting into a lot of trouble and creating their own entertainment. I think that’s also a birthing place for a lot of creativity, being someone who comes from a small town.
But especially after the loss of the fifth member, Daniel, there is no way that they can stay in this area, and they want nothing more than to get out — especially my character, Elora. She is the brains behind the operation in organizing their departure for California and is the one who is kind of organizing the petty crimes that they do, and tallying and keeping track of the money. Because ultimately, it’s Elora’s dream to leave for California.
And we’re gonna find out why throughout the season as it rolls out, but I think it’s more this idea of wanting to escape and them being such fans of pop culture that they see California as this Garden of Eden or this safe haven where all this cool shit happens. (Laughs.) So they just want to get out of their place, but I don’t know if they really know what it looks like to move to California.
In episode four, Rita tells Elora that, as Indigenous women, they always “have to deal with reality” and they’re “the ones who have to make it work.” What scenes or storylines would you say have resonated the most with your own personal experiences?
I think the quote you mentioned, where Rita talks about being Indigenous women and having to be the ones to carry everything and make it work, is something that absolutely resonated in my culture, in my community, in my life. Being Mohawk and being raised in Kahnawà:ke, which is a Mohawk reservation that borders Montreal, the women are the center of our communities, are the center of a culture. My nation is matriarchal, and it’s really the women who hold it down and make sure that everyone is supported and will oftentimes put themselves last. I feel like that is a universality throughout Indigenous cultures, whether they were historically patriarchal or matriarchal, and I think that’s something that Elora is absolutely facing.
She’s forced to grow up a little bit faster, because she also wants and has to take care of her good friends, the fellow members of the Rez Dogs. I definitely feel like Elora is the big sister of the group. That, I think, is where I can connect with Elora. I think, for the most part, we’ve had very different experiences. People ask me, “Do you find you’re similar to your character?” And I would say, “Not at all. She’s a lot more badass than I am in my life.”
Being the first to do many things is very exciting, but there is also a responsibility to do it “right” because you certainly don’t want to be the last. Did you and the rest of the team feel a sense of pressure to capture the various experiences of your diverse communities?
I think it would be impossible for us to try and nail the feeling and energy of every space of every individual community. I believe, [through] the specificity of honoring Sterlin’s upbringing, we will be able to relate to Indigenous communities across Turtle Island, across the world, and with non-Indigenous communities as well. I know that some of my favorite projects are from cultures that I don’t share, but they’re so specific that I’m able to relate and find a way in. Projects like Pose or Atlanta or Moonlight or Minari — those are all projects that are so rooted in that specific culture, and that was what we were trying to accomplish with Reservation Dogs.
We can’t represent everybody, but by telling honest and funny depictions of Oklahoma and some nations — that’s all we could do. I remember watching Sterlin’s Four Sheets to the Wind and Taika’s Boy. Even though we have different languages and cultures in [different] geographical parts of the world, I remember watching them and thinking, This could be home. This could be my family, my uncle, my cousin. And the only difference was that one was set in Oklahoma with Southern accents, and the other was an entirely different type of Indigenous people in New Zealand who have Kiwi accents. I think, first and foremost, we focused on telling the truth and making sure it was funny.
With the critical success of Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs this year, it feels like we have truly reached an inflection point when it comes to more accurate depictions of Indigenous communities. Do you feel like a new day has come for Indigenous representation in mainstream media?
I hope that Reservation Dogs is a catalyst for a reckoning of many Indigenous stories, because we, Rutherford Falls or Reservation Dogs, can’t be the only ones out there. We have so many stories from our community, we have so many incredible storytellers who have been trying to break the door down for decades, and we have so many newcomers emerging in an industry that’s finally ready and welcoming.
I think one of the reasons why Reservation Dogs has received such critical success and also such love and support from all of our Indigenous communities is that because we had creative freedom to tell the story that we want to tell — [and] that’s largely attributed to FX and their approach in creating this project. They were like, “Yeah, we might give story notes, or we might make some structural suggestions.” But they had told Sterlin that if there was any way that they were interfering with anything cultural or specific to our communities, then they would back off.
So we really got to tell the project that we wanted to make, after decades of being told that Indigenous stories wouldn’t sell or Indigenous voices wouldn’t matter. I’ve experienced the change as an actor from my perspective. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been approached for auditioning for Pocahontas-type roles, Indian maidens, and all of the stereotypes of everything in between. And it honestly has been with Indigenous filmmakers and Indigenous crews that we’ve been able to properly tell our stories.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The first three episodes of Reservation Dogs are now available to stream on Hulu. A new episode will be released every Monday.