Chicago — FX’s “Reservation Dogs,” breathes new life into the typical coming-of-age story with an often-overlooked point of view. The comedy tells the story of four Native American teenagers committing crimes to fund their new life in California.
Historically, the portrayal of contemporary Indigenous adolescents has been all but absent from American TV. The first project to come close was director Chris Eyre’s 1998 film “Smoke Signals” with an entirely Indigenous American cast, featuring actors Adam Beach and Evan Adams.
While it may seem that the show’s characters: Bear, Willie Jack, Cheese and Elora Dannan are negative portrayals given that they are thieves, the show does not perpetuate the stereotypes of poverty on an Oklahoma reservation stricken with teenage pregnancies, alcoholism, and suicide. Instead, the characters are working toward a better life out west, which challenges the old Western trope of Manifest Destiny and the dangerous “Indians” threatening the settlers.
Yes, according to a report done by American Addiction Centers, 10% of Native Americans have a substance abuse disorder due to historical trauma, violence and other factors. But "Reservation Dogs" does not darken the mood by displaying these social ills directly, instead, it is implied by the fact that the reservation’s employment rate is so low that the protagonists must make earnings by theft.
The show is an offbeat comedy. It isn’t a saddening and sobering look at the consequences of the Removal and Reform Acts. The characters do face the universal angst of loss, family dysfunction and bullies but still, make the most of their lives while aspiring for the better. They are stuck between childhood and adulthood just as their people are stuck between rural land and run-down neighborhoods.
The show isn’t about educating the audience on the various Indigenous tribes nor a sermon about the federal neglect shown to reservations. It is a commentary on the experiences of marginalized people who all want a part of the American dream and the self-preservation of a culture’s youth.