Canadian star of “Reservation Dogs” on increasing Indigenous representation in the United States

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TORONTO – Five years ago, Canadian actor D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai never expected to see a series like “Reservation Dogs” south of the border.

TORONTO – Five years ago, Canadian actor D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai never expected to see a series like “Reservation Dogs” south of the border.

But with him and several other Indigenous-led projects finally becoming bigger platforms in the United States, a shift is underway when it comes to such traditional Hollywood portrayal, he says.

The 19-year-old, who grew up in Toronto and is of Oji-Cree, Anishinaabe and Guyanese descent, stars in the half-hour animated comedy FX as one of four Indigenous teens from the Rural Oklahoma mourning the death of a friend and resorting to petty crime to finance a getaway to California.

An Indigenous team including Oscar-winning “Jojo Rabbit” filmmaker Taika Waititi and writer-producer Sterlin Harjo created the show, which debuts Wednesday in the Star section of Disney Plus in Canada. It premiered on Hulu in the US in early August.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins and Emmy-nominated actor-writer Mindy Kaling are among those who have tweeted praise for the series, in which every writer, director and lead actor is Indigenous.

“Five years ago that wouldn’t even be rare – it would be impossible,” Woon-A-Tai said in a recent telephone interview.

“But now I think that will definitely change.”

Woon-A-Tai noted that the series comes months after streaming service Peacock debuted “Rutherford Falls,” which touts the largest Indigenous editorial staff for one American TV show and stars another. Toronto-based actor, Plains Cree performer Michael Greyeyes.

Then there’s Harjo’s upcoming Native basketball movie for Netflix, “Rez Ball,” which he co-wrote with Navajo filmmaker Sydney Freeland, who is the director.

With so many Indigenous projects coming out, the word “rare” will no longer be associated with such shows in the future, Woon-A-Tai said.

“I feel like it’s going to be the normal thing eventually. I’m so happy and proud to be a part of one of the first projects to start this.”

Of course, such portrayal is not new to Canada, where the Indigenous Peoples Television Network has for many years provided an important national platform for Indigenous-led series. Examples include “Moccasin Flats,” which also aired on Showcase Television, and “Mohawk Girls,” which also aired on CBC.

It turns out that several actors from this side of the border are also in “Reservation Dogs,” which was filmed and set in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, and features heritage characters from Muscogee Creek and Seminole Creek.

Other local artists include Devery Jacobs and Paulina Alexis, who co-starred as two members of the Friends Group; Sarah Podemski, who plays the mother of Woon-A-Tai’s character; and Gary Farmer, who plays Uncle Brownie.

Woon-A-Tai plays Bear Smallhill, whose conscience hangs over him as he and his friends engage in mischief. Lane Factor plays the other member of the group of friends.

“When I first met Taika and Sterlin at the audition, at the end of the audition, they told me that if Taika and Sterlin had a child, I would be that child,” Woon said. A-Tai laughing.

Harjo, who is a member of the Seminole Nation and has Muskogee heritage, used his own education in Oklahoma as the inspiration for the story.

Woon-A-Tai said that each main character is based on someone from the childhood of Harjo or Waititi, who is of Maori descent. Farmer’s character, for example, is based on Harjo’s father, and the late friend was based on someone Harjo knew. But the creators also took inspiration from the actors, tweaking the scripts as they became familiar with them.

“Everything you see inside this show, which may sound silly, it’s probably true, it probably happened,” said Woon-A-Tai, whose maternal family is descended from Guyana, while that his father’s family is from the isolated Big Trout Lake reservation in the northwest. Ontario.

This is Woon-A-Tai’s biggest televised role to date, following smaller roles in shows such as CBC’s “Murdoch Mysteries” and APTN’s “Tribal”. He also starred in Tracey Deer’s acclaimed 2020 Canadian film, “Beans,” which also starred Alexis.

He said he was happy that his first foray into comedy was this project, considering that “indigenous communities are so funny.”

“You can hear that, but it’s very true. We tackle a lot of issues with comedy,” he said. “A lot of times when you talk to elders in a traditional language, they always make jokes. “

Woon-A-Tai said he prepared for the role by learning the words and traditions of Muscogee Creek, and digging into the history of Oklahoma and its native communities, learning of tragedies, including the genocidal forced displacement of tribes known as the Trail of Tears in the 1800s.

Overall, the series “gives people a chance to break down misconceptions about Indigenous people” and “normalizes” Indigenous life, Woon-A-Tai said.

“I am very honored to be a part of this project,” he said. “The fact that I can represent a nation that I am thousands of miles away… talking to locals, doing it with precision – that’s what was really important to me, because yes, we are all native but we come from communities. very diverse and diverse with different traditions. “

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on August 31, 2021.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press


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