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'Reservation Dogs' co-creator says the show gives audiences permission to laugh

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. "Reservation Dogs," the critically acclaimed hit TV series set on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma, has returned for a third season. We're going to listen to an interview Terry recorded last year before the writers' and actors' strike with Sterlin Harjo, the co-creator and writer and director on the series. He co-created the show with New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi.

The series is part comedy and part drama, about teenagers wanting to break away from the reservation while also finding reasons to stay. The characters face generational differences on the reservation and the confusion of growing up caught between traditional culture and pop culture, as well as the spirit world and rap music. The series shows the importance of native traditions while also mocking how tradition can be turned into sanctimonious pop culture cliches. Harjo is Native American and has made independent films and documentaries about Native Americans in Oklahoma, where he grew up and continues to live. "Reservation Dogs" is the first and only TV series where every writer, director and series regular is Indigenous. Season 3 of the show is now streaming on Hulu.

When Terry spoke with Harjo last year, they began with a scene from the first season. One of the teenagers, named Bear, has been planning to leave the reservation with his friends and start a new life in California. He's been knocked down after being hit with paintballs by a rival group of teens. And when he opens his eyes, he sees an Indian warrior from the spirit world mounted on a horse and dressed in the kind of traditional warrior clothes you'd expect to see in a Western. It's a funny scene, but the advice the spirit gives at the end is pretty good advice. Bear is played by D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, and the spirit is played by Dallas Goldtooth.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RESERVATION DOGS")

DALLAS GOLDTOOTH: (As William "Spirit" Knifeman) Aho, young warrior. Looks as though you've tasted the white man's lead.

D'PHARAOH WOON-A-TAI: (As Bear Smallhill) It's only paintballs.

GOLDTOOTH: (As William "Spirit" Knifeman) I have had many brothers and sisters meet the same fate in my time.

WOON-A-TAI: (As Bear Smallhill) Are you Crazy Horse, or Sitting...

GOLDTOOTH: (As William "Spirit" Knifeman) No, no, no. I'm not one of those awesome guys. No, I'm more of your unknown warrior. Yeah. You know my name? William Knifeman (vocalizing). I was at the Battle of Little Bighorn. That's right. I didn't kill anybody, but I fought bravely. Well, I didn't actually fight. I actually didn't even get into the fight itself. I came over that hill real rugged, like (vocalizing). I saw Custer like that. That yellow hair - he was sitting there. Son of the morning star, that guy right there - I really hated him. So I went after him. But then the damn horse hit a gopher hole, rolled over and squashed me. I died there. This horse, actually - little [expletive]. And now I'm meant to travel the spirit world, find lost souls like you. The spirit world - it's cold. My nipples are always hard. I'm always hungry.

WOON-A-TAI: (As Bear Smallhill) Got it.

GOLDTOOTH: (As William "Spirit" Knifeman) Being a warrior - it's not always easy. You and your thuggy-ass friends - what are you doing for your people? It's easy to be bad, but it's hard to be a warrior with dignity. Remember that. In my time, we gave everything. We died for our people. We died for our land. What are you going to do? What are you going to fight for? (Vocalizing). Nah, I'm just [expletive] with you. But for real, though, listen to what I said. Marinate on that. Aho.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: I love that scene so much. And I love the series. Sterlin Harjo, welcome to FRESH AIR, and thank you for "Reservation Dogs." Can you...

STERLIN HARJO: Thank you.

GROSS: ...Talk a little bit about coming up with a way to both satirize pop culture images of Indians and also just, like, come up with really comedic Indian characters, but also to create a sense of understanding of the importance of traditions? It's a lot to do all at once.

HARJO: Yeah. Real quick, Terry - so I'm a big fan. I remember being in college, driving around listening to your show, and I was like - I think I'd made - or I was, like, attempting to write a film, I believe. And I remember thinking to myself, I'll know I made it when I get on FRESH AIR with Terry Gross (laughter). So thanks for making my dreams come true today.

GROSS: Oh, thank you so much for that. You've made my day.

HARJO: (Laughter) Yeah. But yeah, you know, I think that that character in that scene is crucial. And I think, you know, most of the time people are very precious with Native people and, like, you know, you don't - this is no laughing matter. And, you know, this is very serious and stoic. And that's kind of how, you know, the world is trained to view us. And we realized, like, we need to bake in in this show, like, permission to laugh with us.

And I think that that spirit character - he comes in at this moment in the pilot. And it's like, if I asked most people in the world, draw a Native American, that's what they would draw. They would draw an Indian that was dressed in buckskins from the 1800s. They wouldn't draw me. They wouldn't draw any of the characters on the show.

So it was almost like giving people some familiar territory and then turning it on its head. And it allows the audience to say, OK, isn't this funny? Like, we still think that Native people are like this. And, yeah, in history, you know, some of us were like that. But isn't it ridiculous that we still think that they are? And so it gives people permission to laugh. I think it sort of welcomes them into Native humor and allows you to kind of get your footing as you watch the rest of the show.

GROSS: While we're on the subject of permission...

HARJO: Yeah.

GROSS: ...I had asked you before we started, like, what word you like to use. Do you like to use Indian, Native American, Indigenous? And the term that you don't want to use is Native American. But some people say that, you know, as a white person - like, white people shouldn't use the word Indian. So before everybody kind of gets annoyed with me, or I get annoyed...

HARJO: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...With myself, or you get...

HARJO: Right, right.

GROSS: ...Annoyed with me, just help me out here. Like, what works?

HARJO: For me - I mean, look. I grew up - my grandma said Indian. So I'm not here to change what my grandma said. And it's what I know. I'm sorry that Christopher Columbus got it wrong, but...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HARJO: ...That's what we call ourselves, you know? And, like, we also - I also say Native, and I say Indigenous. Just depending on where I'm at and who I'm talking to, I will - those are all interchangeable to me.

GROSS: So...

HARJO: And Native American's just a mouthful. You know, I don't have to sit around and - it's just - you know, it wastes time.

GROSS: All right. So the series is called "Reservation Dogs," an homage to "Reservoir Dogs," Quentin Tarantino's film. What did that film mean to you, and the sensibility that he created in it, which was really something new?

HARJO: So it came out when I was in college, and it was right as I discovered that I could be a filmmaker. And, you know, there's something about Tarantino's love for cinema. It's like, that's the same thing as growing up as a Native kid in rural Oklahoma. I - you know, my father had a friend who worked for the cable company, and that's the only way that we got cable. So I was able to watch movies for free because his friend hooked us up with a cable box that allowed us to watch HBO and Showtime. So I was a - you know, I just became immersed in, like - in movies and pop culture. MTV was out at the time. And I don't know - like, I think that when you're from a rural community, you know, that's kind of how you live your life. You almost, like, live your life through movies and through pop culture. And it just felt like the right - I mean, first of all, it's a catchy title. I'm not going to lie. Taika and I came up with that.

GROSS: Absolutely. Yeah.

HARJO: But like - and then it was, well, if we're going to have this show where these kids are living through and constantly referencing pop culture, like, we have to tip our hat to the master of that.

GROSS: When you were growing up, were you growing up, like, on the reservation or near the reservation?

HARJO: Yeah, well, right now there are - there's the - like, right now I live on the Muskogee Reservation, which is part of Tulsa. Through a lot of complicated government policy and interactions with tribal governments that I can't go into because it'd be another show, it was not identified as a reservation before, but it is now. But if you look at Oklahoma, it used to be Indian Territory, which was essentially one big reservation. It was - you know, and then, of course, oil and the land run and other things disrupted that. But that's - this is where the Trail of Tears ended. This is where all of the tribes that were forcibly removed by the U.S. government - we were brought to Indian Territory, which is Oklahoma. And I think there's something like 38 tribes here.

So you grow up different when you're in Oklahoma as a Native kid. You know, like, I didn't feel different, actually. Like, I - like, people know Native culture. People know who Native people are. And it's a very diverse state. I mean, I think that not a lot of people know about Oklahoma and the diversity here. And I don't know - it was something that I wanted to celebrate in this show, you know, growing up in Indian Territory, Oklahoma.

GROSS: You know, in talking about the influence of pop culture on the characters, on the young characters in your show, and some of the older characters too, the younger characters are so influenced by Black pop culture, by rap, their style of speaking. I found that very interesting. And I'm wondering if there were many Black people where you were growing up.

HARJO: Yeah, for sure. I mean, it was, you know, mainly made up of white, Native and Black people. And all of those cultures mix and collide and, you know, come together. You know, the people in the show - they're not acting those accents, you know. That's where they come from, and that's how they talk. And, you know, as far as, like, rap being an influence on the culture - I don't know. I think, like, coming of age as rap was, you know, reaching the height of popularity in rural Oklahoma and being a Native kid - we gravitated towards it. It gave Native kids a culture and an identity that they could grab a hold of. At a time where our own identity was a bit lost, and our own identity was less celebrated, we could grab a hold of hip-hop, and that became something that we could identify with.

MOSLEY: Sterlin Harjo is co-creator as well as writer and director of the series "Reservation Dogs." This interview was recorded last year. Season 3 is now streaming on Hulu. More after the break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATO WAYUHI'S "REZ DOGS THEME")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview, recorded last year, with Sterlin Harjo, the co-creator as well as writer and director of the series "Reservation Dogs."

GROSS: So in this series, you know, dead loved ones return as ghosts. What are your experiences with keeping up a relationship with, you know, family, friends who have died and you want to keep in your life? Were you brought up with the idea that they are still spirits or ghosts?

HARJO: You know, I think that part of growing up in - with Muscogee and Seminole culture is death is such a part of our experience. You know, it's a - it's very community-driven. You know, your cousins are like your brothers and sisters. Your aunts are your extended parents. And, you know, you're close to your elders, and everyone's, you know, a part of this tight community.

And I was constantly at funerals. Someone was always passing away. And that is the big mystery and the big confusion I think for most people. It's like, wow, like, they're gone, you know? But I just grew up with this sense of magic, and there's this sense of, like, we can communicate. We can reach people in other places. And there's ceremonies for it. And there's different things.

But I don't know - it's this - it's something that I'm fascinated with, and I explore it as much as I can through my work. I mean, all of my films deal with death in some way. And if you look at Season 2, I mean, there's an episode that aired called "Mabel" that is about the character Elora Danan's grandmother passing away. And it's a whole episode about her dying. And I wrote it with the actress who plays Elora Danan, Devery Jacobs, and it's based on my grandma - my grandma passing away.

And, like, the whole community came together. We were all there. The family was there every night. And we were with her, and people would come in and sing songs, and funny things were happening outside and sad things and all - everything. Life was happening in this one house. And that's what I try to show in this episode.

GROSS: In the episode where Elora's grandmother is dying - and the grandmother raised Elora after Elora's mother died - Elora asked one of the characters, Cheese, who's 15 years old - a boy named Cheese, who's 15 years old and who's part of this group of friends - she asks him to say a prayer, a blessing, before the meal. And I want to play that scene. So we'll hear Devery Jacobs as Elora and Cheese as played by Lane Factor.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RESERVATION DOGS")

DEVERY JACOBS: (As Elora Danan Postoak) Hey, everybody. I think we should say a prayer before we eat. Cheese, did you want to say the blessing?

LANE FACTOR: (As Chester "Cheese" Williams) Yeah. Yeah, I'll say it. Would everyone please stand? OK, bow your heads. OK, saying a prayer. Lord the Creator - he, she, they, whatever your pronouns may be - we ask you to bless this food and the people that cooked it. We know our friend Elora here is having a hard time right now as her grandma transcends into that place in the great beyond...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters) Amen.

FACTOR: (As Chester "Cheese" Williams) ...In a galaxy far, far away. In our grief, we come to you in your name. Amen.

JACOBS: (As Elora Danan Postoak) OK, everybody. (Speaking Muskogee).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, speaking Muskogee).

GROSS: That's a scene from "Reservation Dogs." I love the way like, you know, "Star Wars" - or no, it's not "Star Wars"; it's "Star Trek" - kind of, like, seamlessly blends into this prayer. It's all like one thing to this 15-year-old. They're all part of his belief system. And I love this character, this character of 15-year-old Cheese. And just as he said, Lord, you know, he, she, they, whatever pronouns they use - when he introduces himself to people, it's always, and I use the pronouns he/him/his.

HARJO: Right, right.

GROSS: And, like, when he says that to people, they mostly have no idea what he's talking about. And I just think that's - you know, it's just really, really funny. Can you talk to me a little bit about that, about having him say that and why you did that?

HARJO: Yeah, I mean, I think it's, like - you know, it's an endearing quality. It's, like, I think that there's such a debate over, do we say this or don't we in this country and world? And here you have this really kind human who says, you know, just to make things smooth and easy, kind of showing you how easy it is, you know, if you want to. And I just think that he kind of represents some of the younger generation of us. You know, like, he - it's not a big deal to him. It's not a political issue for him. He's just considerate. He's also a very well-read and very educated, you know, kind of stays up with pop culture but also, like, loves old movies, has, like, all of the old, you know, references and movies and things like that. He reminds me of people that I know. But, I mean, you know, just to say something about Lane Factor, he never acted before.

GROSS: And he's so good. And I love his voice.

HARJO: Right. He's great. And he - you know, he never had acted. And he had been playing too much video games, and his mom had made him take an acting class. And so he begrudgingly took this acting class and then, you know, found out about this audition. And his mom had to bribe him with some meal to go and audition. He didn't even want to do that, you know?

GROSS: Can you tell us something about your parents?

HARJO: Yeah, my parents - my dad roofed houses when I was young.

GROSS: Oh, 'cause one of your main characters learns to be a roofer and then bonds with one of the people teaching him how.

HARJO: Right. And I've never seen that on TV, you know, or movies, something that took place on a roof like that. And, like, it was such a part of - my uncles were roofers, my dad. My dad also taught martial arts since I was 5.

GROSS: Did you learn how to fight?

HARJO: I did. I was a competitive fighter growing up from the age of 4. I think there's video of my first fight. My dad still teaches martial arts to this day in rural Oklahoma. And my mom worked for the tribe when I was young, for the Seminole Nation and then worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

GROSS: Doing what?

HARJO: When she worked, she was a secretary for the chief of the Seminole Nation when I was young. You know, now what she does with the Bureau of Indian Affairs is she kind of oversees, like - there was so much, like, crookedness done towards Native people and land ownership and mineral right ownership. There's all of this record and things that have gone on since then. And my mom works in helping people kind of trying to figure out if there's land that they own that they didn't know they owned or mineral rights.

GROSS: Is she still alive?

HARJO: She is.

GROSS: She must be so proud of you.

HARJO: Oh, man. My parents are so overjoyed about the show. My dad said something to me the other day after the first season came out. And I was like, I can't - you know, it doesn't matter that we didn't get nominated for an Emmy. It doesn't matter that, like, what critic likes it or whatever. But, you know, what does matter - my dad. I mean, it does matter if we have critics like us, obviously. But, like, what I'm trying to say is, you know, this beats all of that. My dad one day said to me - he said, you know, you gave Native people a reason to hold their head up. He's like, this show has given people, Native people, a reason to hold their head up a little higher. And, I mean, like, you know, to hear my dad say that, it's like, that's better than any Emmy that I could get.

And just to also see the amount of people that love this show, especially in my community because that's who I made it for. You know, I'm glad everyone loves it, but I made it for my community, Native people. And, you know, every year at Halloween, there's people that dress up in these like, fake dime store Indian clothing. And they are, quote-unquote, "Indian" for Halloween. And we've all seen that growing up. We've all seen it. And my kids are going to have to see it. But all of a sudden, after season one, people, kids, started dressing up as the reservation dogs. So many pictures flooded in on social media of them dressed as the reservation dogs.

GROSS: It's something you didn't have when you were growing up.

HARJO: Right. I didn't have that, you know? And it might have made some sort of difference if I had. I didn't have that. You know, but I did - what I did have was the best storytellers in the world sitting in my grandma's kitchen, telling me stories about these amazing characters that were real and/or not. And I just try to transfer that to the show and to all my work.

GROSS: Sterlin Harjo, it's really just been great to talk with you. Thank you...

HARJO: Thank you, Terry. It's been great.

GROSS: ...For this interview. Thank you for the series. I really love it. And I hope there's a season three.

HARJO: Awesome. Thank you so much.

MOSLEY: Sterlin Harjo, co-creator and showrunner, as well as writer and director, of the FX series "Reservation Dogs." This interview was recorded last year before the writers and actors strike. Season three is currently streaming on Hulu. After the break, we remember filmmaker William Friedkin, who's best known for films like "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist." I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY CLARK'S "SOME CLARK BARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.