A still from Murder in Big Horn. Courtesy of Showtime.

From Reservation Dogs to Murder in Big Horn, The Rise of Native Media

Words by Ruth Robertson

Real Native American representation is making a splash in the mainstream entertainment industry, writes Atmos columnist Ruth Robertson. After decades of erasure, films and TV shows are focusing on the issues our communities are wrestling with on a daily basis.

After decades of persecution, followed by the rise of false, negative, and often hilariously-bad portrayals of us through the prejudiced colonial lens of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and ultimately, erasure, real Native American representation is finally making a splash in the mainstream entertainment industry.


Not only are there current TV series and films depicting Natives accurately and in a more positive light—they’re being created and staffed by—and also star—actual Native people.


Reservation Dogs, which premiered in August 2021, and aired its second season in 2022, is perhaps the best example of this new, exciting phenomena. Produced by FX, and brought to us by Indigenous co-creators Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, Reservation Dogs is a comedy that offers an insider’s view of the adventures of fictional Native teenagers Bear Smallhill (played by D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and Cheese (Lane Factor), who reside on a Native Reservation. The series is filmed on location in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.


Every director, writer, and series regular on Reservation Dogs is Native and stories featured throughout its seasons are regularly based on their lived experiences. You’re probably already familiar with Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok, Thor: Love and Thunder, Jojo Rabbit, What We Do in the Shadows), who is an Academy Award winner. Waititi is Māori. Sterlin Harjo (Love and Fury, Barking Water, Four Sheets to the Wind) is Muscogee, and a citizen of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. An excellent filmmaker in his own right, we’re likely to see a lot more from Harjo as his career flourishes.


In 2021, the show made the year-end best lists of more than 80 critics. Reservation Dogs is among seven programs recognized in 2022 by the Television Academy as part of its 15th Television Academy Honors, which highlights shows that have harnessed the power of television to drive social change. Other awards Reservation Dogs have garnished include: the 2021 Gotham Independent Film Award for Breakthrough Series, the 2022 Independent Spirit Award for Best New Scripted Series, as well as Best Ensemble Cast in 2022, the Peabody Award for Entertainment in 2022, the American Film Institute TV Programs of the Year Award in 2023, and the 2023 Variety’s Showrunner Award.


The show’s success is far from over, too. Its third season is expected to arrive on the Hulu streaming platform this August. Of its newest season, Waititi has said that it will continue to provide viewers with fresh insight into the lives of Native youth.


Reservation Dogs cast members are blowing up on their own as a result of the hit series. K. Devery Jacobs (Kanienʼkehá꞉ka or Mohawk), who is one of the show’s stars, will be joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe this year. She is set to co-star in Echo, the Hawkeye spin-off with Vincent D’Onofrio, which will air on Disney+. The lead role of Echo, who is a Native American superhero, is being played by Alaqua Cox. She draws her ancestry from the Menominee and Mohican Native Nations and is deaf, just like the character she will play.

You are being invited to partake in the Native experience. It’s a privilege that will not only serve to entertain you or enlighten you. It will change you.

Ruth Robertson

The effects of Reservation Dogs is far reaching, and its influence is stretching far beyond the small screen. Indigenous comedy is exploding. Shows are selling out everywhere. Indigenous comedians credit Reservation Dogs for increasing interest and exposure, but there’s more to it than that. Non-Natives appear to be genuinely interested in catching a glimpse of Native lives and the unique, edgy humor that derives from it.


But 2022 also brought us a major motion picture that was not only about Native peoples—it starred Native actresses and actors and moreover, was the first film ever to come complete with a full Comanche language dub.


Prey (2022) was the fifth installment in the long standing scifi-horror Predator film franchise. Set in 1719 in the Northern Great Plains, it starred Amber Midthunder, who is Fort Peck Assiniboine Sioux. Amber had previously starred in Legion (FX) and Roswell, New Mexico (The CW). In Prey, Midthunder plays Naru, a Comanche hunter, warrior, and Healer. She comes into contact with a Predator, who hunts human beings for sport, as well as vicious French fur traders. Along with her dog Sarii, she courageously and skillfully battles the alien alone. The movie got rave reviews and received awards from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, the Austin Film Critics Association, the Chicago Film Critics Association Awards, Cinema Audio Society, USA, the Critics Choice Awards, the Dublin Film Critics Circle Awards, and the Hawaii Film Critics Society.


What I find especially enthralling about this new wave of stellar Native representation in film is not just its entertainment value, but its aptitude to focus on serious Native issues that our communities are wrestling with on a daily basis. Along with great works of fiction, documentaries about us are making their way into the mainstream.


This month, Showtime is airing Murder in Big Horn, a series that promises to raise awareness about the epidemic of missing and murdered Native American women and girls. The documentary follows the heart-wrenching stories of the missing Indigenous women from the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Nations in Big Horn County, Montana, by talking with Native families, Native journalists, and local law enforcement officers involved in the cases. Namely, viewers will be confronted with the disappearances and subsequent unexplained deaths of 14-year-old Henny Scott, 16-year-old Selena Not Afraid, and 18-year-old Kaysera Stops Pretty Places. Directors of Murder in Big Horn joined activists Lucy Simpson and Luella Brien at Sundance 2023 to discuss how the series spotlights missing Indigenous women and girls and how the ongoing crisis requires the attention of non-Natives. “Outside of Tribal communities, people don’t know that we still exist,” explained Simpson. Awareness is crucial to addressing legal problems that exacerbate the issue, and assisting Tribal communities in obtaining the funding and resources needed to deal with the epidemic head on. The epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous women and girls (#MMIWG) has gone on for decades with little to no attention. And it has only gotten worse. Big Horn County has been described as the hottest zone for #MMIWG. As a Native woman and a Tribal judge, I’ve experienced the reality of the epidemic in my own life, having experienced violence personally, lost close friends and family to it, and presided over cases concerning the matter directly.


The shows I’ve discussed here are just the tip of the iceberg. Other Native media has emerged in recent years. I encourage you to research them on your own. We value your support. Reservation Dogs and Prey are both available for your viewing pleasure through the streaming service Hulu. Murder in Big Horn premiered on Showtime February 3. I encourage you to watch them all with an open mind and an open heart. You are being invited to partake in the Native experience. It’s a privilege that will not only serve to entertain you or enlighten you. It will change you. Together, we will assist humankind in escaping its failings. We must evolve past the shameful bigotry that we are being called to leave behind. We can and must grow to heal the world.

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