When writer and director Sterlin Harjo was 5 years old, his mother lost a baby. “He was only alive for a few hours,” Harjo recalls. “I think at 5, when you know you lost a sibling, it’s very confusing. You don’t know how to process that.”
For Harjo, the loss of his brother is something that’s never left him.
“I remember, through the grief and everything, going to school and a TA asked me how I was doing. It was really the first time I’d been asked that, because I didn’t know the kid,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It was just heavy loss that I felt. I didn’t know then; I’d never experienced that. I know that’s permeated and has been a part of my art and storytelling since.”
This would be just one among a series of brushes with life and death for the Reservation Dogs creator, which not only visited him while filming the show. It also guided him and his characters — Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), Cheese (Lane Factor) and more — through all three seasons, beginning with the death of Willie Jack’s late cousin Daniel (Dalton Cramer) and ending with last week’s series finale.
It’s an ending that, for the Oklahoma-based artist and member of the Seminole Nation with Muscogee heritage, felt truest to the story he was always trying to tell. Down to its final moments, the FX on Hulu hit challenged a pervasive narrative set upon certain communities: That things like happiness, success and survival lie beyond the boarders of the place you come from.
Titled “Dig,” the finale embraced a prevalent theme within Indigenous storytelling, and sent a clear message that home is found in community, and that community lives deep within you — both near and far, in life and death — no matter where you are.
“Most shows, or most Western stories, are about a person walking off alone into the sunset. I never wanted that to be any of them,” Harjo says about the endings for Reservation Dogs‘ young ensemble. “They’re leaving, some of them, but I never wanted them to be going like that by themselves. They all carry it with them. They’re carrying each other with them. They’re carrying home with them.”
Reservation Dogs‘ conclusion offers both a chance to mourn and a chance to hope, a fitting balance for a show that — even before its touching sendoff — left many anxious about the future of Indigenous and Native storytelling on TV. If Hollywood lets Harjo have his way, and it should, that won’t be the case.
The showrunner has already begun thinking about his own spinoffs and continuations for a series that he’s described as some of his most important work, and something that has with certainty changed Native storytelling on screen.
But he also believes that, more immediately than his own plans, this farewell offers a chance to make more space for other Native artists to begin their great stories. “At some point, I need to get out of the way,” he says. “The show needs to get out of the way and let those other stories be told.”
In the interview with THR below, Harjo talks about the importance of stepping aside, reveals the moment he decided it was the end for the series; discusses Hollywood’s need to remember the storytellers between its coasts; why his series was always about kids learning to embrace their home; and how personal tragedies helped him capture the feelings of loss and hope that are inherent in goodbyes.
You didn’t have the more traditional Hollywood final season because it released amid a dual strike. Your finale aired the same day the nearly six month writers strike ended. And while you can see the cast and crew saying goodbye in the episode itself, there’s a difference to having that final promotional run and being on set. What has it been like without that final round of goodbyes?
Honestly, it sort of feels right because we were never a part of this industry. We were never supported or asked to work in this industry. Everything that we did we had to fight for. And then we got the show, and we all got to pull each other up and do this together. I think I will always feel a bit like I’m on the outside of this industry. I live in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I knew that I can do this. I knew it was there; knew the stories were there. I didn’t know how an audience would respond, but it’s been very encouraging. I’m really happy that FX gave me the freedom and the support to do it. They really just trusted us, and not a lot of people in this industry have from day one and still don’t. It kind of feels like the rebel army is fighting the battles to get our stories told. It felt like we broke down some walls, but we’re still the rebel army inside the walls.
We live all over, so it was actually fitting that our celebration was mainly contained to a text thread called Shit Asses. All of the writers are on this text thread. A lot of texts saying, “I love you bitches.” We celebrate together, but it’s not like you end decades of racism in an industry with one show. It’s chipping away at a larger block that is all moving in the right direction. We all just put our heads down and keep going. We’re saying goodbye. Hokti [Lily Gladstone] says that’s what we do. We just keep going. We take care of each other even as people leave, and keep going. So when watching the show, it’s very emotional because it is a goodbye to the fans, to critics, to everything. Everybody that helped celebrate the show with us and got it. It felt like a goodbye. People were hugging each other every couple of minutes in the finale.
I think shows aren’t made with love as much as they used to be. Somehow love became… is the word passé? It became uncool to love and to show love in art. It became cynical, and I didn’t want that. It’s not like this is vanilla. There’s some hard-hitting questions, some darkness, but love is the undercurrent of the whole show, and that’s how we made it. That’s how all of us came together to make this show. And it makes sense that people feel it when they’re watching it, because I’m not interested in doing something cynical. I’m interested in doing something that has some sort of hope. Even if it’s bittersweet, still hope.
The WGA strike in particular highlighted how this industry has shifted in a decade and a half in terms of who is telling stories. Some writers spoke about the picket lines as places where they could connect to their larger community. Native Hollywood is pretty connected already but do you feel like these strikes opened the door to further connection within and beyond the community?
I have no idea because I am in Oklahoma, and I was doing all post-production here and was really just so busy editing. I tried to support online as much as I could, but physically I wasn’t able to be on the picket lines because I wasn’t in L.A. or New York. The industry isn’t here, really. We have shows, and we have crew, but there’s not a lot of writers moving to the middle of America to become Hollywood writers. So it’s hard to quantify it. I know there was a Native day on the picket line, so that’s great. That would have never happened 20 years ago. But sometimes Hollywood does forget that there are people in the middle of this country, and it’s pretty unfortunate because some of our most interesting stories and work have come out of areas that aren’t on the coasts. Let’s not forget about jazz and blues, Southern Gothic writing — countless types of art come from here. And I enjoy being outside of Hollywood because I feel like being an outsider fuels me.
While speaking to Danis Goulet, she said she wasn’t aware this was the final season as she was directing the premiere. So when was the moment you decided this was the end?
It was somewhat leading up to season three, but then really in season three. I wondered in the writing of season three. As we were into season three, halfway through, it became more evident. We moved around some episodes and then I finalized this last episode, and as I was writing it, it was just like, “Oh, this is the end. This is the end. This is the end.” I didn’t know if it could be the end because apparently people don’t usually say “I want to end my show that could go on for a couple more seasons.” I didn’t know it wasn’t a thing, so I didn’t know how FX was going to react. I didn’t know what would happen. So it was all a bit up in the air until we were into season three.
I’ve heard a lot of people wish that it wasn’t the end. Originally I had a hope, a plan, for this to be four or five seasons. It was always going to end in the same idea, the same place, which is coming back to community. But it just started to happen faster because of the nature of how the stories are told. You don’t fill it up with a lot of detail. We sort of pop in and out of this story. There’s a lot left to the imagination. We don’t fill in any gaps. There is a love story happening but it happens in the background, whereas another show might focus on the build up of that love a lot. Ours is very slight and then at the end, you see Jackie [Elva Guerra] and Bear together.
Writing something like that, all of a sudden I found myself in a place where it felt like the end. I had blinders up as far as audience expectations, executives, money. I tried to just tell the best story that I could. If I didn’t stay true to that, I would feel like a sellout or not genuine. So I needed to stick to that.
I never planned on it being just three seasons. There were a couple of things that happened. I originally wanted to do a ’70s season, and that ended up being an episode. But as it was unfolding, it presented itself to me in that way. I went with it and decided that it needed to happen. A lot of people worry: Who is gonna represent Native people now. The show was such good representation. It was. But if you leave people wanting more, I think you’ll get more. I didn’t want this to run its course. It was essential to me that no one else came to me and said, “Yeah, this isn’t great anymore. I need you to wrap it up.” That would have felt horrible the rest of my life, and I would have felt like I failed my community.
I needed to leave it with people wanting more. Because there’s a lot more that’s in development and coming in. There are a lot of great artists who people know about now that have their own stories to tell. If I thought this was going to be the only thing, I would have went 20 seasons. But I don’t think it’s going to be the only thing. At some point, I need to get out of the way. The show needs to get out of the way and let those other stories be told.
Do you feel because your show was championed so strongly, that it might have been falling into that historical Hollywood token trap of people deciding “there can only be one”? That if this person is good and we trust them, we’ll just stick with them and won’t focus our attention on anyone else in the community?
That happened with Smoke Signals. No door was opened after that. The door was shut and no one else got a chance to tell stories. We were all making micro-budget independent films for years after that. I didn’t want that to happen with this show. It’s a relay to me. Hand the baton off and let’s keep going. I’ll see you around the other corner, and I’ll pick it back up from the last leg or whatever. I think we could just keep doing this.
Characters do a lot based on the idea of whether to stay or go this season. For some it includes the difficult experience of reaching out to a parent; and there’s the trip to California like Daniel wanted. Where in the return, we see the past and understand how harsh colonial systems like boarding schools affect the present. In the end, they all choose a different relationship to their reservation community. Can you walk through landing on the choices you did for the final season?
Inherently, I always knew that they were going to find home in the show. We were going to start with them really wanting to leave home, but I think that I always knew that I wanted them to find homes. Home has always been a very complicated thing to me. I always wanted to leave and when I left I wanted to go back, then I had to leave again. I have this push and pull with home. I think a lot of Native kids feel encouraged to leave home, and that home is not good. But it’s not that home is not good. It’s what happened to your home and the people who live in your home that was bad, and you didn’t do that either and neither did the people.
I needed them to find the good in their home, and the good in their home is their community. Most shows, or most Western stories, are about a person walking off alone into the sunset. I never wanted that to be any of them. They’re leaving, some of them, but I never wanted them to be going like that by themselves. They all carry it with them. They’re carrying each other with them. They’re carrying home with them. They’re carrying the lessons that they’ve learned through their friend Daniel with them.
Attempted genocide is a hard thing to overcome. You have these generations that try and try and, through teachings and community, we learn how to handle things better. So the version of the story I want to tell is that these kids learn something about how to grieve. Also, how to not forget your friends or people on the periphery. So instead of losing Maximus [Graham Greene], the kids help get Maximus back because they understand what ultimate loss is, because they lost Daniel. The older generation does not have the tools in a modern world to process their feelings about losing their friends. They don’t realize that all they need to do is reach out. It’s very complicated. They’ve been through a lot.
But because of their fight, and because of their struggles, they gave their young people, their kids, a better chance at life and a better chance at learning how to process things. So these kids go and they learn how to deal with the death of their friend, and then they come back and they help their older generation. They help them be stronger and bring one of their people back into their lives. That’s the story to me.
It wasn’t about these kids leaving home or coming of age, even. It was about these kids learning how to heal trauma. To heal generational trauma. That’s why we had to talk about boarding schools. That’s why we had to go into the ’70s. That’s why we had to do all of these things. To paint the picture of what was lost and what was attacked, and how, through these kids, we’re able to get some of it back. I think it’s a very slight thing, but it’s also very important and big in terms of the world of the show.
“Dig” grapples with everything that’s wound up in a goodbye — that hole in your heart loss can bring and the opportunity and hope to fill it with something new. How did you think about navigating the nuances of goodbyes?
I think that’s just how I grew up. You suffer heartbreak, and it’s very sad and it’s all consuming. You can really get in your head and have a broken heart about it. But there’s also a side of you that’s open to change now. Everything’s open now, everything’s free and you have a chance to repaint your future. There’s some hope in that. When I listen to a Tom Waits song or Leonard Cohen song or even Townes Van Zandt — something considered to be sad — I do find the hope in that. I find hope in knowing that somebody else has gone through this. I’m not alone.
I grew up in a big family and someone was always passing away. I’ve been a pallbearer 13 or 14 times. I’ve sang a lot of funerals. What you see in the finale is exactly how our grieving process and burial goes. I’ve been through a lot since I was a child. I grew up in this really hardcore part of the community, and they’re some of the most beautiful, funny things I’ve ever experienced. Because everyone comes together all of a sudden. People who have their own lives and aren’t together, all of a sudden you’re sitting with each other. You miss each other, and you’re in a more vulnerable place because someone just passed away. So you’ll say I love you easier than you would in any other time. You’re all together and you’re laughing. It’s really beautiful to me.
There’s also this throughline of sadness, and that is the show that I made. There’s a throughline of Daniel and loss, but it’s ultimately also funny and beautiful. I remember we had a funeral [for my baby brother] and he was buried in my grandma’s backyard, because we have family cemeteries. We were there with my Uncle Tommy, who was always this really tough uncle of mine. He was a roofer his whole life. The “Roofing” episode in season two is my Uncle Tommy and my Uncle Mecko, and my dad who was a roofer, too. I remember looking over at my really tough uncle — someone that I really looked up to — and he was wiping tears and crying. He’d never met the kid either. It was this lesson in loss and sensitivity, and it being OK to mourn and cry. I know that all of these lessons and all of these feelings have been with me since I was 5 years old because of that.
My mom’s very good at taking care of people when someone’s passing or someone passes away, and shows up for people in the community. I have that in me. If someone loses somebody it’s an urge to be there with them. Regardless of whatever “reality” I have going on at the moment, I will leave and go be with people. All three seasons, somebody passed away in my family, and I had to leave and go and be at their funeral. Some of them were people who had characters based on them. One of my uncle’s that passed away in season two, the character Big [Zahn McClarnon] is based on him. The character Hokti is based on my Uncle Marty. He passed away as I was filming the episode in season two where Willie Jack is with Hokti at the jail. He passed away while I was standing at the monitors, making that. I went to both of their funerals and I spoke at both of them.
When you’re from a big family, you’re surrounded by so much life and lessons on how to carry on. Some of the things you see in “Mabel,” or even this last episode, I just wanted to show the young women who step into these roles as these matriarchs and who don’t have to be taught too much. Just doing it. My great aunt Doe, she was really close to me, always would cook. My first short film, she catered. She was just known as this person that could cook really well, and every time someone passed away, she would be there. She took care of people and fed them.
I remember when she passed away, in the back of my mind, I kept thinking, “Wow, we don’t have her anymore to do this. The person that took care of us is gone now.” At her house after she passed with all of her grandkids and cousins, aunts and uncles, we were eating and I was looking around. All of her granddaughters, without missing a beat we’re doing exactly what she did.
Every time we lost somebody, they were taking care of everyone. They were making sure you were fed. They were cooking. They were making sure that you felt the love, and they didn’t have to be taught that. They just saw that experience their whole life and they knew exactly what they needed to do now. I think that a lot of that just comes from being from such a tight, large community. But all of this is a really beautiful thing and I wanted to show that in this show.
Interview edited for length and clarity.