'Reservation Dogs' co-creator says the show gives audiences permission to laugh
Reservation Dogs is the first and only TV series where every writer, director and series regular is Indigenous. Part comedy and part drama, the FX series streaming on Hulu follows four teenagers who long to escape the dead ends they face living on a reservation.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. If you haven't seen the hit TV series "Reservation Dogs," the title should give you a sense of it. Set on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma, it's about a group of teenagers and the people surrounding them. The quirky way some of the characters constantly quote pop culture and use it as reference points seems to owe a debt to Quentin Tarantino films. The series is part-comedy and part-drama about teenagers wanting to break away from the reservation and all the seeming dead ends it represents 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, 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.
My guest, Sterlin Harjo, is the showrunner and a writer and director on the series, which he co-created with Taika Waititi. Harjo belongs to the Seminole and Muscogee Nations. He's made independent films and documentaries about Indians in Oklahoma where he grew up and continues to live. He also co-founded the Indigenous comedy group called The 1491s, a reference to the year before Christopher Columbus landed in what is now America. "Reservation Dogs" is the first and only TV series where every writer, director and series regular is Indigenous. The second season of the FX show is now streaming on Hulu.
Let's start 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 just been knocked down after being hit with paintballs by a rival group of teens. When he opens his eyes, he sees an Indian warrior from the spirit world mounted on his 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 Spirit) 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 Spirit) 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 Spirit) 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 Knife-Man. (Vocalizing). I was at the Battle of Little Bighorn. That's right. Now, 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. But I came over that hill real ruggedlike. (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 Spirit) Being a warrior, it's not always easy. You and your thuggy-ass (ph) 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). I'm just [expletive] with you. But for real though, listen to what I said. Marinate on it. Aho.
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 talk a little bit about...
STERLIN HARJO: Thank you.
GROSS: ...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 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 made my day.
HARJO: 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 ask 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, yeah, 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...
GROSS: I had asked you before we started, like, what word do 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 with myself or you get annoyed with me...
HARJO: Right. Right.
GROSS: 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.
HARJO: But 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.
HARJO: And Native American is just a mouthful. You know, I don't want to have to sit around and - it 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 'cause 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, but Taika and I came up with that. But, like...
GROSS: Absolutely, yeah.
HARJO: 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: Another thing that got me, like, right from the start is the series opens in Episode 1 with an older DJ, a Native DJ, who I think is on the reservation radio station, introducing the Iggy and the Stooges classic punk rock recording, "I Wanna Be Your Dog". And that was just - between the title of "Reservation Dogs" and Iggy and the Stooges, I thought, yeah, I'm going to watch this (laughter). Why did you want to start with that song?
HARJO: Yeah, you know, like - well, first of all, it references dogs. But second, I wanted it - by the way, that's my voice. I'm the radio DJ.
GROSS: Oh, no, I didn't realize that.
HARJO: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: Oh, that's great (laughter).
HARJO: Yeah, but - you know, I - it references dogs, but also, what it really references to me is this is shaking everything up. You hadn't seen a Native story on TV like this. And this is going to be punk rock. You know, get ready. It's going to have this energy. We're going to - it's unapologetic, and we're going to drop you into it. I think that - it tells people right off the bat, like, this is not what you're - this is not what you thought you were going to see.
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'm - live on the Muscogee 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 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 now.
So essentially, it was one giant reservation. And, you know, you go an hour in any direction in Oklahoma - or 30 minutes in any direction in Oklahoma, you're going to be in a new tribal territory with different tribal languages on the stop signs and on signage in the town, different culture, different customs. 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 the 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, on 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 ahold of hip-hop, and that became something that we could identify with.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sterlin Harjo, the co-creator, as well as a writer and director of the series "Reservation Dogs". Season 2 is streaming on FX on Hulu. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE STOOGES SONG, "I WANNA BE YOUR DOG")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Sterlin Harjo, the co-creator, as well as a writer and director of the series "Reservation Dogs". It's part-comedy, part-drama about teenagers growing up on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma, wanting to escape the dead-ends they face on the reservation. It's an FX series. Season 2 is now streaming on Hulu.
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 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 is, like, wow, like, they're gone, you know? And in the culture, you know, you're taught that they're not gone and that you can still speak to them and talk to them. And, you know, there's ghost stories and things like that.
But I just grew up with this sense of magic. And there's a 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 they're all at the house. And I wrote it with the actress who plays Elora Danan, Devery Jacobs. And it's based on my grandma passing away. And, like, the whole community came together. We were all there. The family was there every day, every night. We were with her. And people would come in and sing songs. And funny things were happening outside and sad things and everything. Life was happening in this one house. And that's what I try to show in this episode.
GROSS: In one of the episodes, Bear is learning how to be a roofer and isn't doing very well at it at the moment. And he's kind of brooding in a Johnny-on-the-spot or an outhouse, whatever you want to say it is.
HARJO: Port-a-potty (laughter).
GROSS: Port-a-potty. Yeah, exactly. And the Indian spirit warrior takes the outhouse adjoining it and starts talking to Bear. And it's a really funny scene. But it has some really beautiful moments, too, because toward the end of that scene, the Indian spirit says, you know, we do so many things to tell the people we've lost that we love them, you know? We cut our hair. We put their faces and names on our T-shirts. And we want to tell them we'll miss them, but we'll be OK without them. And I thought, that's really - that's actually very beautiful in the middle of this pretty funny scene.
HARJO: (Laughter) Right. Yeah, like, the sort of confessional scene. Like, it feels like a Catholic confession, but they're in this port-a-potty.
GROSS: Oh, God. I hadn't thought of that. That's true.
GROSS: They're both in these little booths, except that they're toilets.
HARJO: (Laughter) Right. Yeah. I mean, I think that it was - kind of goes to what I was speaking about. I mean, I think that in our communities, you face death head-on. And it's only when you're avoiding the fact that someone you love has passed away, that's where trouble comes. And that's where it boils up inside you. And that's where you bury it. And it comes out in some other negative way. And I think that we encourage and we are encouraged to face it. And part of that is, it's OK to hurt. Like, no one's saying, like, you have to be tough, you know? And part of what he's saying to Bear is, you know, it's OK. Like, because Bear tells him - he's like, he feels like he's kind of getting over it. And it's like, you don't get over it. You never get over it. Like, you go through it. Like, you have to go through it. You have to feel this pain or you can't do anything with it, or it gets trapped somewhere. And so I think that that's wise words from a silly spirit inside of a port-a-potty. It's like, you have to go through it. And you have to feel this pain. So you come out on the other side. And you feel better. And you feel more whole.
GROSS: You know, we were talking about how many funerals you attended growing up on a reservation. I'm wondering about suicide, you know? One of the pivotal parts of the story in "Reservation Dogs" is one of the teenagers - one of this group of teenagers' dear friends, you know, died by suicide. And they're all totally shaken by it. And it disrupts - it just changes their thinking about everything. Did you know - and I know that there is a pretty high suicide rate in the Native population, in part, I think, because of poverty and of all of the, you know, generations of oppression. So I'm wondering if you had to deal with a lot of suicide and how that was different from dealing with other forms of death.
HARJO: Yeah. I mean, I think that, you know, in our community, sometimes suicide can be very taboo. And it's - you know, like in a lot of communities, I think that, you know, it's sort of not talked about as much. But the rates are very high within Native communities. And I think that with this show, you know, we took a lot of care in how we talked about it. But in the show, it's kind of like, you know, not talking about it is not working. Like, we need to talk about it. And we need to find the right way to talk about it. And so in this show, you know, I made sure that it wasn't sort of shock factor I wanted to unfold what happened to him very slowly in the episode so people were prepared for it when it happened.
And, yeah, I mean, I've dealt with it personally, you know? I've known friends and people in the community that have committed suicide. And most Native people do, you know? I mean, we were doing this scene in the first - in the pilot where all the kids were having a memorial, a sort of a makeshift memorial for their friend who had died. And before we did that scene, I had all of the actors just with me. I cleared the set. And we were all talking. And we talked about the real people that we had lost. And almost every one of the writers and directors and the actors, all of us have a Daniel who where that has happened to, you know?
GROSS: Daniel is the teenager in the series who dies by suicide.
HARJO: Right. And, like, we all have one or two or three. And so when I brought those kids together, the actors together, and we were talking, we told stories about the real people that we'd all lost just to kind of put us back to, where are we? What are we trying to do? Yeah, this is a comedy. But it's also - we're talking about something that is very heavy and very dramatic. And the comedy is how we can talk about it and how people will enjoy watching this show. But we are talking about something serious that affects our communities.
GROSS: Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sterlin Harjo, the co-creator, as well as a writer and director, of the series "Reservation Dogs." Season 2 of this FX series is streaming on Hulu. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TORNADO'S COMING")
MATO WAYUHI: (Singing) Asking me for favors - I don't know. I don't know. Asking me for favors - I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. I don't know.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Sterlin Harjo, the co-creator as well as a writer and director of the series "Reservation Dogs." It's part-comedy, part-drama about teenagers growing up on a Native reservation in Oklahoma wanting to escape the dead ends they face on the reservation. They're frustrated and alienated and caught between what's left of traditional Native culture on the reservation and pop culture. "Reservation Dogs" has an all-Indigenous team of writers, directors and leading actors.
When we left off, we were talking about the traditions surrounding death and mourning on the reservation where Harjo grew up. One of the episodes takes place as Elora, one of the teenaged main characters, is at home where the community has crowded together. Everyone has come to say goodbye to Elora's grandmother, who raised her and is on her deathbed. As everyone says their goodbyes to the dying elder, they sing, tell stories, cook and eat together. In this scene, Elora asks her friend Cheese, another one of the teenaged main characters, to say a prayer before they start their meal. Cheese is played by Lane Factor. Elora is played by Devery Jacobs.
(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 Cheese) Yeah. Yeah, I'll say it. Will everyone please stand? OK. Bow your heads. OK, saying a prayer. Oh, 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 Cheese) ...In a galaxy far, far away. And in our grief, we come to you. In your name, Amen.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, speaking Muskogee).
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.
GROSS: They're all (laughter)...
GROSS: 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...
GROSS: 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, he's 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 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 in 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 had never acted before.
GROSS: And he's so good, and I love his voice. I listen to voices a lot. He's got a great 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? And then, of course, he ends up getting cast as the - one of the main characters in the show. And then, he was cast for that - in Steven Spielberg's latest film. He was - right after Season 1, he went and did a Spielberg film where he played Spielberg's childhood friend. So...
GROSS: Oh, this is "The Fabelmans"?
HARJO: Right, yeah, "The Fabelmans" - so pretty amazing.
GROSS: You're too young, probably, to have grown up on a diet of Westerns on TV. But did you watch many Westerns when you were growing up?
HARJO: You know, my dad watched Westerns, so, yeah, we watched some. You know, there was a way to sort of separate what was happening in the Western for me. Like, when you grow up and your grandma and your mom and your dad and everyone's Native around you and then you see this version of Native people in these Westerns that are just the bad guys that are faceless and sort of, like, the zombies, you know, of the Western - like, they're just there in the way and the white man has to sort of, like, exterminate them for Western expansion purposes and to tame the West or whatever, you know, like, you don't - I don't recognize that as my people. So it wasn't painful to watch for me. You know, I could separate it.
I do see the issues in that now, you know? Like, I have to explain to my kids why they can't watch "Peter Pan," you know? And if there was a Western on, I would have to explain to them, you know, like, everything. It all of a sudden becomes a lecture, you know, where I'm having to talk about film analysis with my children. And, you know, it has an effect. I mean, I'd like to think that it didn't, but it does have an effect, I believe.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then, we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sterlin Harjo, the co-creator as well as a writer and director of the series "Reservation Dogs." Season 2 is streaming on FX on Hulu. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MATO WAYUHI'S "WAR PAINT")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Sterlin Harjo, the co-creator as well as a writer and director of the series "Reservation Dogs." It's part-comedy, part-drama about teenagers growing up on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma wanting to escape the dead ends they face on the reservation. It's an FX series. Season 2 is now streaming on Hulu.
Can you tell us something about your parents?
HARJO: Yeah. My parents - my dad roofed houses when I was young.
GROSS: Oh, because one of your main characters learns to be a roofer and then bonds with one of the people teaching them 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: Well, 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 landownership 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 owned 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 it - 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 is - 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. 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 1, people, kids started dressing up as the Reservation Dogs. So many pictures flooded in...
HARJO: ...On social media of them dressed as the Reservation Dogs.
GROSS: 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 this show and to all my work.
GROSS: Of the stories that you were told when you were growing up, did any of those stories get handed down through the generations dating back to the Trail of Tears and the forced removal of Natives from the land, forced removal by the U.S. government?
HARJO: For sure. I mean, my great-grandmother, who didn't speak a lot of English - her name was Izora Bruner. She spoke English, but she - you know, it was like she spoke more confidently in Muskogee language. But she was - you know, I grew up around her, and she told us stories that were passed down from the Trail of Tears and, you know, babies that were being muffled because the soldiers would kill the babies if they wouldn't quit crying at night. And they, you know, suffocated the babies by accident. And so, you know, these stories kind of are always there in the background. And I think that it - just like, I think, people from the Jewish community and survivors of the Holocaust, it instills you with this knowledge that there is evil out there and there is a threat and your life can be flipped upside down. But also, you can survive it. Like, survival is possible. And as human beings, we have that capacity.
GROSS: As you've pointed out in the past, Native populations in terms of religion are a mix of, like, traditional and Christian because Christian missionaries tried to, quote, like, "civilize" - you know, civilize the Indians and convert them to Christianity. And I'm wondering if you grew up with a little bit of both Christianity and tradition. Yeah.
HARJO: Yeah. I mean, we were from the southeast. And one of the things that happened in the southeast was there were Scottish missionaries that came over. And it wasn't as violent of a conversion process, I guess you could say, because Scottish people were tribal as well. And I think that they - these two communities understood each other, and they shared through song and tradition, you know? And so yeah, I mean, I think that if you're a Muskogee person or Seminole person, you grow up with both, you know? And there's not a lot of choosing one over the other. You kind of - you know, as you get older, you can choose. But you grow up mostly in both. You have family members in both traditions.
I even made a film about it called "This May Be The Last Time." You know, the songs that we sing - they're songs that are sung at the funeral that were adopted from line singing, which came from the Scottish Highlands and were spread through down into the Southeast by Scottish missionaries. And the style of singing was adopted by both, you know, African slaves and freed African slaves. They became slave spirituals. You know, you can hear them in that. And then also, Muskogee hymns - it's the same type of singing. It's called a lining out type of song. And, yeah, I have a film that's about that. But, like, you know, I think that part of Native peoples' survival is through adaptation. You know, we adapt, and we absorb, and we take things, and we make it our own.
GROSS: So the title of the film, of your documentary, "This May Be The Last Time," about that crossover of Scottish hymns into Native culture - "This May Be The Last Time" is the name of one of the hymns. It's also the name of a famous Rolling Stones song that was done before that by The Staple Singers. I think it was - I think The Staple Singers preceded the Stones. I might have that the opposite way around.
HARJO: They did, yeah. They did.
GROSS: Yeah. So I think most of us know "This May Be The Last Time," the Stones version. But what is the Native version of that? And is there a translation for it?
HARJO: Yeah. âEspoketis Omes Kerreskosâ means, "This May Be The Last Time, We Don't Know."
GROSS: The last time I see you as a lover, the last time I see you alive - any...
HARJO: Yeah, I think it could be interpreted in a lot of different ways. You know, you hear that hymn a lot at funerals. And in a funeral sense, it's like, you know, get things together because this might be the last time you see me or I see you or that we see each other. So I think that's the way it's used in the hymn.
GROSS: Is the melody similar to what we know from The Rolling Stones?
HARJO: It's not at all. It's very different.
GROSS: So it's not an R&B hymn.
HARJO: No, no, no. It's very different.
GROSS: If you're not too self-conscious, could you sing some of it for us?
HARJO: Yeah, I'll sing the - I could sing the chorus. (Singing in Muskogee).
That's the title of the song.
GROSS: Thank you. You have a nice voice.
HARJO: Thank you.
GROSS: Time for another break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sterlin Harjo, and he is the co-creator as well as a writer and director on the series "Reservation Dogs". Season 2 of this FX series is streaming on Hulu. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE YOU")
SPACEMEN 3: (Singing) I stand accused. You know that's true. I've been abused, but what could I do? Ah, but what could I do? - 'cause, honey, I love you. Oh, honey, I love you.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Sterlin Harjo, the co-creator as well as a writer and director of the series "Reservation Dogs." It's an FX series streaming on Hulu. It's part-comedy, part-drama about teenagers growing up on a Native reservation in Oklahoma wanting to escape the dead ends they face on the reservation but also feeling very tied to the people they love there.
So the teenagers in your TV series - they want to leave the reservation. And two of them actually get out and go to California, end up coming back. What about you? Did you want to, like, get away? - because I know you're living back in Oklahoma, in Tulsa, and I know you went to college in Oklahoma. So did you feel this push and pull between leaving and staying?
HARJO: Yeah. I mean, like, you know, like a lot of people, I wanted to leave. And art was kind of exploding for me. Like, I always wanted to be an artist. And when I got to college, I was kind of blown away with literature I'd never read and, like, music I'd never heard, coming from rural Oklahoma. And I just, like - it just kind of expanded my worldview. And I wanted to get out, and I wanted to travel. And then I did. I traveled, and I - you know, I went to Oregon and different places - New York.
And what I came to realize - my grandma actually wrote me a letter while I was living in Oregon. And in the letter, it said, someday you should come back home and write about these Indian churches around here. And it - something about that - I was just getting into the idea of writing movies at that time. And something about that sentence that she wrote me just clicked. And at that point, I'd been missing it. And it is special, and I was really realizing how special it is. And I was like, you know, when my grandma wrote me that, I was like, wow. No one knows about where I'm from. No one knows about the people that I come from. You know, I moved back home, and I just, like - it took me to leave to realize what I had at home and how unique it is and how much kept secret it is. You know, like, it's such an interesting community that I come from, and I wanted to be back.
GROSS: You know, so you sang a hymn for us in a Native language. What language did you speak at home?
HARJO: English. I mean, you know, like, my - I mentioned my grandmother. My great-grandmother - she spoke fluent Muskogee and her husband, my great-grandfather. And they had a lawyer that encouraged them to not teach my grandma and her brothers and sisters Muskogee language. Obviously, they picked up a lot and knew how to talk some, but the lawyer said that they would fall really behind in school and not be able to work and not have a good job if they didn't know English. And so my great-grandparents took that to heart and started trying to just speak English to them, which, you know, has diminishing effects. My parents don't speak the language. They know a lot and can understand a lot, like myself. But, like, it's - you know, it's definitely a language that is - if not taken care of and if not actively taught, then it's going to go away.
GROSS: You know, it's funny how your life, like the life of so - the lives of so many Native Americans, are so similar to the lives of immigrants in America, except you were here first.
GROSS: It is your native land.
GROSS: Do you think about it that way, that it's like the immigrant experience in, like, your own land?
HARJO: For sure. I mean, I feel that. Like, you know, listening to, you know, like, second-generation people talking about their parents being immigrants and coming over, a lot of very similar things between the two, you know, between our families and trying to - you know, trying to fit in and get along in a country that is - that they were actually from but had been colonized and taken over. And, you know, like, there's a lot of complication. I mean, my grandfather fought in World War II, you know? He was a full-blood Indian. And he wasn't even considered a citizen of the United States, you know, like, he - at that point. But he fought in World War II, fought - you know, got a Purple Heart, was injured in Italy.
And, you know, a lot of our - a lot of Native people - a lot of people fought in our wars for our so-called freedom, you know? And I think that - I don't know. I think of my grandpa sometimes. And I think, you know, what a special person and complicated thing to be fighting for a country that, like, a generation before, you know, waged war against your people, you know? And then you're fighting for them and helping them. I don't know. Like, it's a very complicated history that has so much nuance to it. It's really hard to - it's not black and white, you know, the history. And I do explore that sometimes in my work.
GROSS: You know, one more thing. The comedy group that you co-founded, the 1491s, you know, is named after the year before Columbus landed in what is now America. What were you taught in school about Christopher Columbus?
HARJO: Oh, Christopher Columbus was a hero, you know? Like, it wasn't until I got to college...
GROSS: Was this a Native school?
HARJO: No. I mean, it was all mixed. And, you know, he was a hero. He was - he found this place. It wasn't until I got to college, really, that I - you know, and read "A People's History Of The United States" and also had a teacher that talked about the real stories, you know? Like, it wasn't until then - I was like, wow, like, genocidal maniac, you know? Like, how did that history get written so drastically wrong? And, you know, driven by money, of course. But, like - so I don't know. Yeah. I was - it's been a - it's a very complicated thing, Terry, growing up Native. You know, you swallow things, and then some things you let go, and then some things you absorb and take head-on, which I'm sure you know exactly what I'm talking about.
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 3.
HARJO: Awesome. Thank you so much.
GROSS: Sterlin Harjo is the co-creator and showrunner, as well as a writer and director, of the FX series "Reservation Dogs." Season 1, as well as the current Season 2, are streaming on Hulu.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REZ DOGS THEME")
WAYUHI: (Rapping) Yeah, Oh, so bona fide. Yeah. Oh, so bona fide. Yeah. Oh, so born to ride. Oh. Hey, oh. Yeah. I'm a made man, but I'm still a menace. Have my main man rearrange your face for the dentist. You'll be graced with my presence. You get laced on my sentimental case. Bring the base to bust this place into a separate state. I been better than all these bitter veterans. Taking spots like I'm playing Twister, but this ain't no game, then stick to my wrist, getting blisters from my ice on it. Tell my sisters don't got to fight to see life exist. Robbing for the opportunity to flock the nest. Stock tons in my whip - Jazz '96. Cock a gun if it comes to that, but it will not 'cause job is done before you even try to pad your stolen stash. Ride around with kin, drifting on baloney skin. My cousin around the way, slinging crypto for the currency. It wasn't always him. I want to see him free again. Going through with something else like us on CNN. Yeah. Oh, so bona fide. Yeah.
GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Geoffrey Berman. He served as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York for 2 1/2 years during the Trump administration. In his new memoir, "Holding The Line," he says the Justice Department under William Barr kept demanding that Berman use his office to aid the Trump administration politically. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MATO WAYUHI'S "FLAMING FLAMERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.