The Reservation Bandits vs The Reservation

Reservation Dogs is, at least in my opinion, a great show. It somehow manages to be comedic and impactful within a thirty-minute run time and features representation of a demographic group all-too-often stereotyped or overlooked in media: indigenous youth. Still, in the midst of breaking the glass ceiling as the first streaming show featuring an all indigenous writing and directing team, the Reservation Dogs episode “F*ckin’ Rez Dogs” counterintuitively assembles barriers between racial and economic groups with an enforcement of the norm that people from low-income backgrounds who leave their communities are “bad” and those who remain are “good.”

In the first twenty seconds of screen time, footage of a Native American reservation in Oklahoma cycles in front of the viewer. Creators often utilize setting as if it were a character itself in literature and film, and in Reservation Dogs, that character seems to be holding the four main human characters (Bear, Elora, Willie Jack, and Cheese) captive. Throughout the episode, the teens are fueled by a desire to escape reservation life and travel to California, and the gang embarks on money-raising schemes to fund their exodus with feverish intensity. They hotwire a food truck, stuff frozen meats down their shirts, and scale street lamps, all to steal and sell for profit. “This place killed him,” Elora states matter-of-factly when thinking about her late friend Daniel, and with her words, the motivation behind their desires to flee becomes clear. Still, by the end of the episode, in less than a half of an hour, their plans are gone. California has been replaced by the desire to remain in their community and better it, and they declare themselves to be vigilantes rather than criminals. Their new goal is no doubt noble, but their history and urgency to leave in the first place makes it feel as though Stockholm syndrome has set in. Viewers saw them attempting to flee a toxic relationship with what the teens described as a “dog eats dog” setting, and yet, as they slow-mo walk out of an abandoned building dressed in suits after reaching this conclusion, one cannot help but feel as though they are watching an action flick where the superhero squad has just showed up. The romanization of this idea of staying gives the viewer the impression that this was the decision to be made all along, that if they had just tried helping their community, they wouldn’t have these problems. As if four kids have not only the agency but the responsibility to better their circumstances, the show discards the opportunity of making staying a choice that these teens could make in favor of clearly outlining that staying is a choice that these teens must make in order to stay in the light. The message that one can simply ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ is reinforced, but this time, it takes on a moral tone: Good people pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Inversely, Reservation Dogs presents the failure to stay on the reservation as just that, a failure. After being shot with paintball guns by a rival gang, Bear passes out and has a vision of a warrior who died at The Battle of Little Bighorn. The scene overall is light-hearted, but the spirit leaves Bear with the heavy question of, “What are you doing for your people?” This question then torments Bear even after waking up. He hides his head in his hands after overhearing a man whose truck the gang stole explaining to a cashier how after losing the truck, he lost his job, his wife left him, and his diabetes means he’ll probably lose his foot too. Bear comes to the conclusion that he is the bad guy, and he takes action by voicing his concerns to his friends that they shouldn’t leave the reservation for California. The decision that Bear is forced to make, though, groups two ideas unnaturally. The spirit’s words about people warp the idea of leaving for California to be a betrayal of Bear’s people. Maybe because they are teenagers nearing adulthood, this doesn’t strike the same tone as younger children leaving a place that affects them negatively, but why shouldn’t it? Rather than supporting characters who decide to pursue better opportunities for themselves, the show marks them as selfish.

This idea that there is a lower moral standing for those who choose to leave their low income backgrounds has the potential to fuel dangerous arguments. Reservation Dogs and other shows that facilitate the enforcement of the norm, ‘stick to your own home,’ are also facilitating an audience who then takes that message and replaces ‘home’ with ‘country’. If it sounds similar to nationalist sentiments, that’s because it is. In conjunction with other pieces of media who vilify those who seek better situations, the source of xenophobic protests that refugees ‘fix their own country’ becomes less opaque. On the flip side, those who do leave their communities for safety or financial security are receiving the message that they are inadequate. Like Bear, they are the bad guys. Someone who wants to leave their community to attend an institution of higher learning, serve another community, or maybe even pursue their dreams of creating a television show highlighting their underrepresented community, could be discouraged by these ideas. I’ll say again, this show is great, but, in its taking of a moral stance on the idea of remaining vs leaving a community, Reservation Dogs, much like the copper in the street lamps after Bear, Elora, Willie Jack, and Cheese are done with them, is lacking,

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