It’s not every day I turn on my television and see someone I know. So imagine my surprise watching the season premiere of Reservation Dogs, the new comedy from FX that follows a group of four Indigenous teens that dream of leaving their Oklahoma home for a new life in California.
Fifteen minutes in, a spirit named William Knife-Man shows up shouting a healthy (and hilarious), “Aho!” He’s played by Dallas Goldtooth, the Keep It in the Ground campaigner for the Indigenous Environmental Network, a leading organization in the climate justice space. I couldn’t believe it; I often call up Goldtooth when I’m covering pipeline battles or environmental policy, yet there he was on my screen—funny as hell and natural as can be.
I knew it was him when his character said: “Being a warrior isn’t always easy… It’s easy to be bad, but it’s hard to be a warrior with dignity… In my time, we gave everything. We died for our people. We died for our land.”
But the show isn’t about land rights or activism. Put simply, Reservation Dogs is a comedy about teenage drama—and yet it’s so much more. Reservation Dogs has launched a new era of Native representation in film and TV. More often than not, Native characters are played by non-Native actors. Their scripts are written by white dudes, and their plots fall flat. The gross stereotype of the uncivilized savage is so played out and hurtful, yet it shows up time and time again when writers decide to include any Native characters at all. Reservation Dogs is none of the above. It’s the real deal: the kind of show you watch with your bong at your side because the laughing is endless and the realness is deep. I found myself cackling and crying within a single 30-minute episode, and I’m not even into comedy.
Welcome to The Frontline, where you’ll get to meet the spirit himself. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. The fight for climate and environmental justice is also a fight for freedom and representation. It’s about our voices being heard. One of the most ignored voices is that of our Indigenous communities—whose experiences vary from one tribal member to the next. Goldtooth breaks down the power of this new show and the intentional, subtle messaging it features around land back, Indigenous sovereignty, and mental health.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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First of all, how does someone go from Keep It in the Ground campaigner to acting on my TV screen? You’ve done such an incredible job! I know that you’ve done stand up, but this feels like a whole other level. Congratulations!
Yeah. I appreciate that. Well, one of the show cocreators is a friend of mine: Sterlin Harjo. He and I cofounded our sketch comedy group, The 1491s, a group of five Indigenous comedians. When he created the show, he reached out to me and asked if there was any interest for me to act and asked me to audition for a part he thought was perfect for me. And I just took a chance, auditioned for it, and got the role. It’s pretty sweet because it is a direct result of our work as a sketch comedy group. My brother Migizi Pensoneau, who’s another member of The 1491s, was a writer and producer for the show. They know me, so they wrote the part leaning into my strengths.
Wow, amazing job. You are so freaking funny in the show. How was it playing the spirit and acting alongside other Indigenous fam?
I got to tell you: It’s amazing to be on a mainstream production of that level and to see all the Native folks who are not only in front of the camera but behind the camera: the production crew, the directors, the sound design team, some of the stuntmen. Sterlin and Taika Waititi as cocreators went above and beyond to ensure that Indigenous peoples were involved in the production of this from beginning to end. And that’s really empowering.
What made me a little nervous is that my character is visually a stereotypical Native American character you see on camera, but the part I like is that it’s a subversion of that stereotypical image of Native people on camera. The character’s whole intention is to play on our own perceived ideas of what a Native wisdom keeper is. And I feel like it landed really well.
The issue of mental health is directly connected to the issue of climate justice.
Yeah, it did. Your character was among my favorites. I really loved how prevalent “land back” was throughout the show even though it wasn’t something the characters really talked about. There was that one scene where there’s that old white couple asking about a sign and what “land back” means. It was hilarious but also a snippet into how folks from the outside don’t always understand. And I loved that final scene—spoiler alert—where we got to see that “land back” graffiti on the sign as Elora drives off with Jackie. Talk to me about that. Did you have anything to do with all this messaging going on in the show?
It was a collective effort across all folks involved to create these meta-narratives within the show itself. Sterlin as a cocreator is very intentional about not beating people over the head with these topics. It’s about subtlety and reading between the lines when it comes to his work. The writers really took that to heart. We didn’t want to make this an overt political statement, but inherently, as Native folks, our lives are political and our experiences are political and our fights for justice are political. Those narratives are woven into our lives very naturally, so why not do that with the show itself? Also, the arts team that created all that material, they were Native. They were given a lot of freedom to create art as they see it. You see that in all the signage of land back being sprinkled across the show.
Yeah, it was one of the first things I noticed, and I love that it was also one of the closing elements. The show also gets into ancestral knowledge and medicine. And not western medicine—I’m talking about that spiritual shit. As a Latina who grew up around beliefs of brujeria and the superstitious, I really appreciated that. It helped me connect even more to the show and characters. Y’all found a way to balance that in a way that was funny while still being grounded. Talk to me about how this worldview bleeds into your climate work and bleeds into the relationship that Native people have with the land.
There’s two aspects to it. One is that we can all agree that Indigenous lifeways and spirituality has been overtly romanticized to such a degree that is quasi-erotic and demeaning because it minimizes our identities down to singular identities. On the path for decolonization and the path for various forms of justice, including climate justice, what we are pushing back against are these attempts to minimize our identities down to singular aspects. We’re pushing back against these attempts to erase our histories or to overtly simplify our history so that they’re easier to consume for mainstream dominant society.
The other aspect is that we, as Native folks, oftentimes feel compelled to pander to the outsider’s gaze. The show really is trying to challenge and say, No, actually, let us express ourselves as we see. Because spirituality is ingrained in all aspects of many of our lives and in many diverse ways because Native folks are not a monolith. But how do we actually show that in our real life? Well, it’s just a commonly accepted truth. Owls have certain meanings. That’s a common truth held by many Native folks, so let’s just accept that at face value and move on and not pander to any romanticized ideas of spirituality there.
What I love about the show is it really makes us more real as Native folks—and our lives, our lived experiences in this contemporary world. It also validates our perspectives of the metaphysical.
100%. And the show is not about activism, right? I liked that because I think that that’s where a lot of folks are consuming information around Native people. However, the show is about the youth and their struggle. Some of the more emotional scenes are around suicide and trauma. I see these parallels between some of the characters on the screen and the young water protectors that I’ve interviewed who are now leading so much activism in Indian Country. What’s the impact and power of portraying such nuance and heavy topics in helping the wider public understand your people and culture?
Most folks don’t realize this—even in Indian Country—but the issue of suicide is very real within Native communities. It’s a struggle a lot of communities have gone through for generations now: having a lack of mental health services. But that merely speaks to the ongoing inequities within this country about how we are—or are not—providing resources for Native communities to thrive. We’re trying to thread the needle between making the conversation of mental health normal and the necessity for us to confront our dysfunction and imbalances. At the same time, while doing it in a way that holds society more accountable for contributing to those factors.
It’s all connected for those of us who are in the thick of it. The issue of mental health is directly connected to the issue of climate justice. The issue of housing and food security and economic security. These are all linked together for a lot of our experiences. It’s hard to separate all of that. If anything, we are trying to make those issues more palatable. The majority of people don’t know what Native folks look like today or what their lives are like. Even those who consume information about Native communities through activism, it’s a very specific lens through which they’re catching a glimpse into the lived experience of Indigenous peoples in the United States.
I hope that this show will contribute to broadening that lens so that when society is confronted with environmental issues that pertain to Native communities, they have a better understanding of who they’re listening to and who they’re watching.