A long-awaited modern Indigenous renaissance is happening in Hollywood. Peacock’s “Rutherford Falls” began streaming in the spring. Netflix’s “Rez Ball” and NBC series “Sovereign” are set to debut soon.
One comedy, co-written by Academy Award winner Taika Waititi, has largely occupied the limelight since its summer premiere: “Reservation Dogs.” Directed by transgender Native filmmaker Sydney Freeland and written by Sterlin Harjo and Waititi, “Reservation Dogs” follows four teenagers on a mission to leave their reservation in rural eastern Oklahoma after a friend dies by suicide. The teens embark on a series of hijacks and hoodwinks in an effort to raise money for their exodus to California.
“Reservation Dogs” is a much-needed departure from the deeply colonial, racist caricatures of Native Americans in entertainment. The series balances depicting the realities and implications of “rez life” with reveling in the joys and humor of Indigenous adolescence. Season 1 was entirely filmed on the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation, home to the sovereign Native tribe located in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.
FX on Hulu regarded “Reservation Dogs” as “the first show on cable television in which all the writers, directors and regular characters on the series are Indigenous.” However, Black Native viewers felt excluded from the series, spurring conversation across social media regarding anti-Blackness in Native American communities and the complexity of Indigenous identity. With Season 2 on the way, many Black Natives are hoping to see their lives accurately represented on-screen and their voices heard in the writers room.
When Aminah Ghaffar, a 26-year-old member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, first learned about “Reservation Dogs,” she was instantly excited. A huge fan of Waititi’s “Thor: Ragnarok,” Ghaffar looked forward to watching a series created by an Indigenous person for Indigenous communities.
“The representation that we do see for Indigenous people in Hollywood has generally been created by white directors, and it just completely misses the mark on how we would want to present ourselves,” Ghaffar said. “The reason why I liked ‘Rez Dogs’ so much is because they did such a good job of using humor to talk about very difficult issues. We’re talking about things like colonization, genocide, suicide.”
Only after watching did it become evident to her and her peers that Black Natives had been omitted from the narrative. Ghaffar, whose father is Black and mother is Lumbee, is Afro-Indigenous; amid the discourse, she tweeted that the lack of Black Native representation in “Reservation Dogs” was upsetting, but she worries that inclusion now may err on the side of tokenization. To remedy that, she believes non-Black Native writers should pass the pen in the writers room.
HuffPost reached out to FX Networks for interviews with writers and casting directors of “Reservation Dogs,” and a representative said they “are not able to facilitate the interview.”
“It is inappropriate to have just a Native person that’s not Black writing Black Native characters. That’s still an issue to me,” Ghaffar said. “I’m a Black Native; I’m entitled to my Black Native perspective. I don’t need somebody who’s not a Black Native to tell me how I should think about it. I don’t want to be presented by somebody who’s not a Black Native.”
Taylor Bragg-Brock, 25, said that Native folks raced to stream and finish the series. Yet the “naive, optimistic feeling” that Bragg-Brock, who is Choctaw and Jamaican, once felt toward the show was subtly overshadowed by disappointment. However, the feeling was not novel to Bragg-Brock; she can’t recall ever feeling fully represented on-screen in her identity as a queer Black Native woman.
“I’m not saying those of us who had valid criticisms aren’t excited. I’m still excited, but I think we just identified certain problems with the show. There was a ‘stay in your place’ kind of thing,” said Bragg-Brock, referring to the exchanges between Native viewers online. “They were saying, ‘We finally got a show that represents us — then, of course, some people don’t like it.’ Come on, if you don’t cater to the minority, you’re not catering to everyone. Until all of us are represented, then we’re not winning.”
Though D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, who plays Bear, is of Oji-Cree and Guyanese descent, Bragg-Brock noted that there was no storyline in “Reservation Dogs” that leaned into his Guyanese identity or featured Black Native relatives.
“We exist in this unique intersection of identities that are both minorities, and both histories are not even taught to the full extent in our education,” Bragg-Brock said. “What happens is we’re regarded as mythical figures and people don’t know we exist. I know that there are certain Black Native actors or Freedmen actors, but I’ve never seen them in a role where they get to embrace that. They’re either playing a Black character or a Native character.”
Bragg-Brock said the outrage partially stemmed from the fact that the series is based in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, which has a substantial population of Black Creek individuals and descendants of Freedmen (i.e., formerly enslaved persons owned by the tribes), but episodes did not touch on said history. For decades, Black Native American descendants have been fighting for recognition within Muscogee Nation following a 1979 constitution that unenrolled individuals of Creek Freedmen ancestry.
“Historically, our plights went hand in hand. It’s important to see the influence that the enslaved people had on the Native peoples,” Bragg-Brock said. “When we think of the Trail of Tears, we think of the Natives being removed forcibly, but also not many people remember or think that actually included Black folks as well.”
“When you think about it, the southeastern tribes — the ‘Five Civilized Tribes’ — were the ones that owned slaves,” Bragg-Brock continued. Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole nations were referred to as the “Five Civilized Tribes” because they adopted and assimilated to white European colonial norms, such as owning slaves, practicing Christianity and more. “They were the ones that had to be removed and went to Oklahoma, so a lot of our Freedmen and Black Natives are in Oklahoma. One of the main things is you’re not even representing the nation that you’re trying to portray.”
Echoing those sentiments, Shanese Steele tweeted, “I need y’all to help me understand how @TaikaWatiti had Black folks in Asgard. ASGARD. But we can’t get Black-Natives in Reservation Dogs, which is based on a real community with real Black Natives.”
Steele, 29, is Nipissing Métis, and lives between Toronto, Canada, and Decatur, Illinois. She equates the pushback against the criticism of “Reservation Dogs” to anti-Blackness within Native communities and an inability to see how structures of white supremacy position groups against one another. (On social media, some users argued that Black Natives should be content with Black American representation on BET, ultimately disregarding their belonging and experiences in the Native community.)
“It’s anti-Blackness at its finest. Aside from the fact that you’re removing Black folks from the conversation of Indigeneity, on top of that, you’re removing folks who actually have ties to your community,” Steele said. “Native folks can be really white-looking or they can be really brown — closer to that Pocahontas stereotype — but it’s the second you get, like, one shade darker, all of a sudden it doesn’t make sense.”
Steele and Bragg-Brock were disappointed by the use of “blaccents” and African American Vernacular English (AAVE) by characters Mose and Meeko (Lil Mike and FunnyBone) — and the depiction of rapper Punkin Lusty (Sten Joddi) in Episode 4. (Amid the online debates, Twitter users took screenshots of now-deleted tweets from rapper Sten Joddi, who is white and Native, using the n-word.) They both believe that the “Greasy Frybread” performance and caricature crossed a line, considering it to be appropriation of Black culture.