‘Reservation Dogs’ Showed Me an Indigenous Way to Grieve

After my dad's death, the show's second season reminded me that lost relatives also find ways to help us heal.
Scene from Reservation Dogs season 2 prayer native american tv
Reservation Dogs still courtesy Shane Brown/FX.

When I was a kid, my father would point out a nearby bird and explain how it was not a mockingbird, but a cenzontle—a creature with 400 voices. Everything around me had meaning: My life was intertwined with the land, the sky, and ancestors I’d never known. But my dad was also once a kid whose young father was murdered, and while he went on to find sobriety later in life, he held onto the shadows of his past, even until his recent death. Everything in life is connected, collides and separates. 


At a shattering time, I found the threads of my own grief in the interwoven storylines of Reservation Dogs’ winding episodes, each a prayer-like medicine. Where the first season broke new ground for Indigenous representation in media—it was a funny, dramatic, punk-infused rendering of Indigenous life captured entirely from the Indigenous perspective—the second season dug even deeper, reached in and showed us the beating hearts of our teen rez dogs and their extended kin. For those Indigenous among us with close ties to the ancestor-side, we know there’s magic in the telling of a story and a thinness in the barriers between life and death. Call it “magical realism” if you like, but that shit is very real. 

About two months ago, I held my father the moment he died in one of those dry hospice places in a suburb outside of Chicago. A mountain of a man, his life, complete with staggering peaks and shadowed valleys, was rendered too small and too fragile by lung cancer. It would be days later, after my family and I had said our goodbyes and I settled back into the sweet dailiness of life in the Los Angeles apartment I share with my fiancé and dog, that I clocked the edge of the chasm in front of me, a crater that I’d need to lower myself into, at some point. Work days slid into weed-dulled evenings. Fog—or something like it—softened the corners of my mind. Nothing felt safe to pass the time with, so I spent most evenings on the couch lost in my phone until I fell asleep. 


Weeks went by like this until a Wednesday in early August, when I saw that Reservation Dogs was back for its anticipated second season. I’m still not sure what pulled me out of my warm stupor but some call drew me back into the story. Here, Elora, the group’s grounded center, chafed at her self-assumed role as the group’s responsible nurturer. Now, she was back on the road with her new companion, Jackie, on a mission to leave the Oklahoma reservation and make her way to California and live out her dead friend Daniel’s unfulfilled dream. Was it Elora leaving home for a sense of peace and relief in California, or was it me? 

Daniel’s suicide marked the outlines of the first season, leaving each character’s life with an altered landscape to navigate. Season two called these shapes into focus, only to blur them again. In its opening episodes, I began to sense the longer reverberations of Daniel’s loss stretching back and forth across time and space, colliding and separating. While Elora hit the road, back on the reservation the crew’s off-kilter dynamics betrayed a simmering struggle between hanging on and letting go. Immediately, across a half-dozen characters, I saw my own pain mirrored back to me, each rez dog an avatar for some fractured aspect of my loss. While I avoided that grief-crater in the real world, for a bit, I could view it through the telescope lens of Reservation Dogs


“We tear ourselves to pieces so that we can build ourselves anew on the other side. You go through all of it so that they know that they can go.” —Spirit

As the season progressed, the episodes revealed a core truth, as Spirit so deftly told Bear from the inside of a construction site porta-potty: “We cry for those that we lost. We mourn them. We cut our hair. We cut ourselves. We go through all the feels. We take our relatives—their bodies—and we make clothing out of it. This is my auntie right here. We airbrush their faces on T-shirts. We get their names tattooed on our bodies in Old English script. We tear ourselves to pieces so that we can build ourselves anew on the other side. You go through all of it so that they know that they can go. That we'll miss them, but that we'll be OK without them.” It’s the harsh but effective Native way of teaching, Spirit said, a traditional pedagogy of, “Just get out there and learn, fucker.” 

In the immediate hours after my dad died, I hurtled from errand to errand, each one a daughter’s sacred duty before me. Arranging a funeral, cleaning his home, sifting through molded-over photographs, keeping my own grief quiet so that others might give voice to theirs, handling things, getting by. Was it me, or was it Elora tending to her family while her grandmother passed to the ancestor-side?

On Reservation Dogs, whether it took the form of a meandering musing from Spirit on the side of a construction site, a vaguely threatening visit from Deer Lady during an acid trip in the Oklahoma woods, or a night lost in the streets of Los Angeles with white Jesus, the dead were never far. It’s like that in real life, too, whether we’re Indigenous or not, as we try to move on, forget, feel guilty about forgetting, blame ourselves for the mistakes we think we make. Like a joke whispered between siblings at a funeral, the dead prod about the corners of our minds, bubbling up to the surface whether you want them to or not. But lost relatives also find ways to help us heal ourselves and to make peace with the wrongs we imagine we’ve done to them. Ancestors are human, just like us, and know best that we can’t make it to the other edge of that grief-crater without some levity. 

By some mixture of luck and fate, when the gang finally made it to the beach in California, Daniel materialized with them in the water, laughing through tears as each rez dog called out, “Love you, bitch!” Maybe the dead know better than any of us still alive that the moments of joy in between sorrows are where we find our survival. The only way over grief is through it. 

Two weeks ago, my dad visited me in a dream. I ran around a house that wasn’t mine, doing chores that weren’t mine to do. My dad peered inside and asked me to step out into a black expanse—to follow him. My body disappeared into nothingness, with only my mind’s camera-eye experiencing what followed. The blackness gave way to a forest preserve’s parking lot at golden hour: The scene was framed by shrubs and marked off with police tape. Somewhere at the bottom of my vision, a shrub moved in and out of focus. It revealed a foot, then the outline of a body. I woke and sat in bed, knowing immediately my father was calling me to do something about the grief-crater he left behind in his wake, to keep trying. Maybe, even, to write this. Just get out there and learn, fucker.

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