New Reservation Dogs TV Series Aims to Break Indigenous Stereotypes Through Humor

Canadian actress Sarah Podemski says she stars in new TV series Dogs Reservation is “quite historic” in more ways than one.

The coming-of-age comedy, which premiered earlier this month in the US, is directed by filmmaker Sterlin Harjo and Oscar-winning director Taika Waititi, and features a main cast and theatrical wholly indigenous writers.

Dogs Reservation follows a group of four teens living on a rural Oklahoma reservation as they commit petty crimes to fund a trip to California.

Podemski plays Rita, a single mother of frontman Bear, played by D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai.

She says Day 6 guest host Peter Armstrong that Dogs Reservation success, Indigenous stories are finally being heard – and she believes there is more to come.

Sarah Podemski, left, who stars as Rita in new Indigenous-directed comedy Reservation Dogs arrives on the red carpet for the 2019 Canadian Screen Awards with Jennifer Podemski, center, and Tamara Podemski. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press)

Here is part of that conversation.

How does it feel to be a part of this?

It’s pretty crazy, because I think when I read the script I knew it was something really special.

I had already worked with Sterlin on a film a few years ago called Mekko, and working with him has been such an experience in itself because he’s such a beautiful storyteller. And then being able to transfer that to TV, which is sometimes difficult for filmmakers to do, it came to him so easily.

And seeing the authentic perspective and point of view, it was so amazing to see it come to life. And really, it’s pretty historic – we had an all-native writers’ room, all-native directors, and a predominantly native cast, which you don’t really see.

What does that mean for the vibe and just the overall feeling on a set where you’re certainly not used to being?

To be honest the only way I can really describe it is [to] to feel safe.

I have worked so much in white spaces as a native actress, and there have been a lot of complications and communication issues and most of all telling stories from a white perspective with directors, writers and d ‘other actors. And there is sometimes a feeling of not feeling in a safe space to speak my voice or to share my opinions or to talk about my lived experience.

But when you work with all the native creators, you at least feel like you can make your voice heard and it won’t be dismissed. There’s a kind of understanding of that lived experience that we’ve all had, even though it’s like there’s a million different shades, of that experience. But it was really like a safe space to be and exist, play and go to work every day.

WATCH: FX Reservation Dogs Series Trailer

These four young comedians who brilliantly played the main characters, do they recognize the importance of this moment and what it could mean for future generations?

I think they do. They’re so smart and they’re so talented and… they know the history of native cinema and pop culture. So they were very wise and knew they were part of something really special.

And I think now, as everyone sees it, seeing them shine in these interviews and see D’Pharaon in Vogue. It’s crazy. They are just in a mad rush.

You play as Rita, Bear’s mother. This relationship is truly remarkable and appears from the very first episode.

It’s really fun. I had never seen a character like her before, and I had never been able to play a character like her before. And I think it was written so clearly that when I walked into it I brought a little bit of myself to the character. But when I read it, I saw it so clearly that… I kind of put myself in someone else’s shoes.

And their dynamic, they are a bit like this team but they also feel a bit like friends sometimes…. You know, it’s just the two of them. And it was the same [for me]. I grew up mainly raised by my father, and when my sisters were old enough and out of the house, I was often with my father. And it was… just the two of us.

The scenario is that these children are in trouble. The show is really honest about it. But it’s also very funny. What about the native humor and being able to laugh even when the terrible things that come out of this show are?

I’m mixed, so my mom is Ojibway and my dad is Israeli and we grew up mostly in a Jewish home. I think the trauma brings out the humor. If you can’t laugh at it, you won’t get very far. So I think there are similarities to the same kind of Jewish humor that we are all very familiar with.

Left to Right: Sterlin Harjo, Paulina Alexis, Devery Jacobs, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor, Garrett Basch, Zahn McClarnon and Taika Waititi attend the premiere of FX’s new comedy series Reservation Dogs in Hollywood, California. (Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images)

We haven’t witnessed Indigenous humor [on screen] because when it comes to a non-native perspective, they want to focus on trauma and stoicism – those characters, like stoic native characters. But we’re really funny and we have a really unique humor, and I’m really happy that audiences can finally see our very dark and sardonic sense of humor.

I think it’s a real treat and it’s going to be very new to people.

It shouldn’t sound like a big deal – a show of Indigenous people telling Indigenous stories – and yet it looks remarkable. Do you feel like we’re in a short time for Indigenous cinema and Indigenous art?

I think so. I think there were times over the years when we felt like this was going to happen. But with the content coming out, it started with Rutherford Falls and it continues with Dogs Reservation and all the scripts that come out – finally people invest in us and hear us.

I really think because the content is so good they can’t turn their backs on us anymore. And we got super vocal and strong as a community that this time around feels different.

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Laurie Allan. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Listen to full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

About Michael B. Billingsley

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