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Reservation dog producer Migizi Pensoneau on indigenous stories

I think of an anecdote Clint Eastwood once told about chef Dan George. Clint campaigned for an Oscar nomination for George’s outstanding performance in “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” A common response from voters was, “Well, he wasn’t acting. He was just himself.”

In late October 2019, Sterlin Harjo first mentioned “Reservation Dogs” to me. Sterlin told me that he and Taika Waititi were developing a TV show for FX – and if a miracle happened (God willing and the creek doesn’t rise) and the show got made, he wanted me to be in it would matter. Well, that miracle – or rather, a series of miracles – happened. With the help of Angelique Midthunder, Sterlin and Taika cast four young native actors to play the Rez Dogs, four more to play their rivals (The Bad Guy Gang), and dozens more native actors to populate their fictional community. Sterlin and Taika wrote and Sterlin directed a pilot. FX said “yes.” Just a hair less than a year after I first heard of “Reservation Dogs,” I found myself in a Zoom room across from several other Native writers, ready to tackle Season 1.

We poured our heart and soul into it. In the writers’ room, we talked about our personal, formative experiences as Indigenous people dealing with loss, grief, financial insecurity, family problems, generally being a loser, and so on. We told each other stories stranger than fiction, and wove them together to create a world for our Rez Dogs. All that mattered to us is that the story we were telling resonated with our own communities. We may have gotten maudlin at times, but we were never banal. We brought authenticity. We had to.

We shot season 1 in the spring of 2021 and FX released it in August of the same year. “Rez Dogs” reached the world in a way we never could have hoped for. It was the first and only show where every writer, director, and series regular is indigenous. Indian Country loved it. Kids dressed up as the show’s characters for Halloween, people quoted our lines and turned my brother Dallas (“William Knifeman” or “Spirit”) into a meme, and my mother didn’t disown me. We were shocked that TV critics seemed to like it too; we have been nominated for numerous awards and have even won some. We had a pretty good 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, made a ‘best of’ list at the end of the year, and so on. Some said an Emmy nomination eluded us, but we never expected to receive one; we told stories that we thought were only important to our communities, and we were pleasantly surprised when they resonated more widely.

We went into writing and producing Season 1 expecting never to do that again. But the community and critical love shown to our characters brought us a second season. Sterlin doubled the writers’ room and quadrupled our ambition. We still felt like we were on a ride that we thought could end at any moment, so we wrote Season 2 the only way we knew how: we gave it everything we had. Our audience trusted us in Season 1 and we had led them into the funny, heartbreaking and surreal corners of our life experiences.

When we got the chance to do it again, we went bigger. We expanded the world of our young protagonists and told stories about the adults in their lives, with aunts performing a synchronized dance number, an accidental acid trip that exposed both long-held grief and sinister political machinations. We followed our leads to influencer-led youth conferences, a boys’ home, and to adult responsibilities and pressures. Lily Gladstone (yes, That Lily Gladstone!) guest-starred in an episode I wrote that took place in a prison, based on the experiences I and my fellow writers had visiting our incarcerated relatives. Directed and brought to incredible life by Sterlin, this will probably be the thing I’m most proud of writing for the rest of my life. We still kept the real one. But we allow ourselves to grow with our characters. And we took them to the beaches of California, where (at the time) we felt like their story ended naturally.

Season 2 was even better received than Season 1. Our communities responded with even more love. Not only did my mother not disown me, she even told me she was proud! We made more best-of lists, sat at the coveted 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, and saw more critical love and awards nominations. So this time, after hearing not only from our communities but also from Hollywood that we had created two of the best and most unique seasons of TV, it stung a little when the Emmys largely overlooked us.

We were nominated for an Emmy for sound editing. And it was a well-deserved recognition for the work our sound editors did on that episode. But the Television Academy did not recognize our contributions as writers, directors, producers and artists. Ever the underdogs (is that a pun? If so, it was meant to be), we followed it closely, but I can’t pretend we weren’t disappointed.

After telling our story, we were stunned again when FX renewed our show for a third season. This time, Sterlin led us to expand not only the space and geography of our created community, but also time. We went back to explore how the adults in the community became the elders they are. And in doing so, we learned that we weren’t just telling the coming-of-age story of a few teenagers. Instead, we told the coming of age of an entire community. Everyone in our story had a wound, or some terrible secret, and we found opportunities for healing for everyone. We kept our weirdness, of course. We had UFOs and more ghosts and little arrows.

While writing, we felt like we had found a fitting ending for this story and these characters, and we decided to make Season 3 our final season. There were many sad and difficult goodbyes. When you put so much of yourself into the art you create, “goodbye” doesn’t feel real. How is it possible that this family we have formed is really breaking up? While rewriting the final episodes I noticed my screen was blurry and I couldn’t figure out why. I realized I had been crying. Looking across the table, I saw that Tazbah Chavez, one of our directors and, like me, a co-executive producer and writer on set, was also crying as she wrote.

In writing this show, I dug to personal depths I never thought possible. As cheesy as it may be, I know that in healing our fictional characters, we have also healed a part of ourselves. There are lines, conversations and scenes in “Reservation Dogs” that I will forever be proud of. We went out on our own terms and people seem to respect that. The final season achieved the same level of acclaim and recognition. The consensus seems to be that we did the impossible and stuck the landing.

As I write this, voting in the Emmy nomination round is coming to an end. I don’t know if we will receive a nomination this time. In a recent open letter, John Leguizamo said: “There are hundreds of prolific non-white artists who deserve to be considered for awards this year, not because they are simply… Black, Brown, Indigenous or Asian, but because they are truly amazing … exceptional artists who have achieved that greatness with a foot on their neck for far too long.”

With this sentiment in mind, I’m not claiming that we are overlooked for being native AF, even though we are, and proudly (both native and overlooked… ha). But what I’m saying is that what we did was excellent, and it wasn’t easy. We weren’t just a bunch of Indians just playing ourselves. We felt good and presented the pieces to the world, and each department elevated that gift with excellence in their craft. We did the damn thing, did it well, and received universal and overwhelming acclaim. And we did it with almost no recognition from the Television Academy. And no, we don’t need the Television Academy to tell us we did a good job. We’ve been through it, and our families and communities have given us all the love we need. But if our show doesn’t “deserve” a nomination in this last chance to do so, what does?

(Photo: Co-exec producer/director Tazbah Chavez, co-exec producer/writer Migizi Pensoneau and co-creator/exec producer Sterlin Harjo.)