Black Natives Want to See Themselves in ‘Reservation Dogs,’ Too

With a long-awaited Indigenous renaissance happening in Hollywood, Taika Waititi's “Reservation Dogs" has occupied the spotlight and raised crucial questions within Native communities.
With a long-awaited Indigenous renaissance happening in Hollywood, Taika Waititi’s “Reservation Dogs” has occupied the spotlight and raised crucial questions within Native communities.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: FX/Hulu

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.

A year after their friend's death, four Native teens — Bear (D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Cheese (Lane Factor) and Willie (Paulina Alexis) — embark on a series of hijacks and hoodwinks to raise money to leave their reservation.
A year after their friend’s death, four Native teens — Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Cheese (Lane Factor) and Willie (Paulina Alexis) — embark on a series of hijacks and hoodwinks to raise money to leave their reservation.
Shane Brown FX on Hulu

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.”

The stars of "Reservation Dogs" include (from left) actors Devery Jacobs, D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor and Paulina Alexis.
The stars of “Reservation Dogs” include (from left) actors Devery Jacobs, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor and Paulina Alexis.
VALERIE MACON via Getty Images

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.

“I understand the impact of urbanization, AAVE and Black culture. I understand it leaking into literally every culture everywhere, but it’s the way it’s portrayed,” Bragg-Brock said. “It is definitely more appropriation because they’re not framing it in a way to celebrate it or appreciate it.”

In 1980s and ’90s hip-hop, the sociopolitical themes discussed through the genre — poverty, white supremacy, police brutality, etc — were facets of life that Indigenous folks could connect to, Steele said. However, Steele clarified that one cannot usurp Black culture unless they are Black, no matter how theoretically similar one’s lived experiences may be.

On Twitter, Melanie Stormm, a 41-year-old Black Saponi and Cherokee writer, shared a thread expanding upon the rap conversation. They told HuffPost that the frybread rap was to point out a “certain and salient part of Native culture,” and that one of the issues is it’s being seen without appropriate context.

“That song actually is part of a long tradition of frybread songs that are always comedic. If you go into urban Native communities, that is what you will see,” said Stormm, referencing Lil’ Mike and FunnyBone’s “blaccents” and Joddi being adorned with gold chains, a grill and tattoos. “Urban Native and Black cultures, where they geographically occur, are absolutely interwoven. A lot of times, in some urban areas, where you have Native communities that aren’t very big, they’ll be adopted by a Black community.”

However, Stormm agrees that the episode crossed a line and that “the joke was not Black culture. The joke was Native people.” As a multiracial Indigenous woman, they believe conversation and dialogue is integral to addressing issues of Black Native representation.

“Being within the entertainment industry, I know how people have treated me. I know how Native people are, and I know how Hollywood is,” Stormm said. “I would be a little bit more surprised if Hollywood was going to have Black Native representation. ​​Right now. I think myself and my family, we’re all just really, really, really excited that ‘Rez Dogs’ exists.”

Kellen Trenal understands that one show cannot cover every aspect of Native identity, but Trenal also acknowledges that erasure of Black Natives in Hollywood is aligned with broader themes within Indigenous communities around what it means to be “Native enough.”

Based in the Spokane Valley area of Washington, they are a member of the Nez Perce Tribe and co-host of a podcast called “Quantum Theory.” Blood quantum is a system that the federal government imposed upon Native American tribes to limit their citizenship. It’s a measurement of the quantity of “Indian blood” one has; many tribes utilize it today for citizenship requirements.

“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. What happens is we’re regarded as mythical figures and people don’t know we exist.”

– Taylor Bragg-Brock on Black Native identity

“We discuss the issues of blood quantum as well as the ‘one drop’ rule and how they affect us as Black Native people today,” the 34-year-old said. Trenal said America’s approach to Indigenous people is to “erase us and to make us invisible” — and that has only continued in Hollywood.

“A lot of these projects don’t tend to show us,” they continued. “There’s a standard of it where one doesn’t expect to see themselves portrayed on the screen.”

Blood quantum often precludes those with mixed ancestry, such as Black Natives, from equal treatment on reservations and securing citizenship within their tribe, resulting in attempts to invalidate their Indigeneity.

Raised in Pembroke, North Carolina, Ghaffar said that the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina is often discredited by tribes in the West or within the state for not being considered “real.” Due to a history of interracial marriages, the tribe does not “fit neatly into any specific racial categories.” The Lumbee Act of 1956 recognizes the tribe as Indian, but does not grant members federal services. Legislation to federally recognize the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina has been introduced in Congress 29 times, as recently as April.

“This whole idea of blood quantum is inherently colonial. That wasn’t our way,” Ghaffar said. “We were always kinship based. Even if someone didn’t have a drop of blood, if they were included in ceremonies or tribal activities, they were part of that nation.”

Be it connection to land, culture or physical proximity, Trenal acknowledged that there are many different variables that pinpoint how expansive Indigeneity is. As a Black Native, they want people to understand that there is not one way to “look Native” and Black Natives have always been here and still exist.

With Season 2 of "Reservation Dogs" on the way, many Black Natives are hoping to see their lives accurately represented on-screen and their voices heard in the writers’ room.
With Season 2 of “Reservation Dogs” on the way, many Black Natives are hoping to see their lives accurately represented on-screen and their voices heard in the writers’ room.
Shane Brown FX on Hulu

“What I love about being both Black and Native is the amount of respect and reverence that I have for my two different cultures,” Trenal said. “What I love about my Black Native self is coming from two very distinct and very rich cultures that really make up the fiber of what people call America and in an inextricable way.”

Trenal hopes the conversation around “Reservation Dogs” will continue to evolve into action.

“This is a starting point. Hopefully continuing forward, these different shows that are coming out can pay attention to these conversations and start to put in the work now,” Trenal said.