Director Danis Goulet on ‘Reservation Dogs’ final season, telling Indigenous stories

Co-hosted by Eric Deggans, written by Anna Buss, produced by Joshua Farnham

“Reservation Dogs” season 3 official trailer. Courtesy of FX via Youtube

Cree-Métis Canadian filmmaker and screenwriter Danis Goulet has been an advocate for Indigenous storytelling since she began her career in the 1990s. She spent almost two decades as a casting coordinator, then as a producer before making her 2021 directorial debut with the dystopian sci-fi film Night Raiders, with Taika Waititi (Thor: Love and Thunder, Jojo Rabbit) serving as an executive producer. Night Raiders garnered the widest theatrical opening by an Indigenous director in Canadian history. 

Goulet was subsequently invited to direct several episodes of the multi-award-winning FX/Hulu dramedy series Reservation Dogs, collaborating closely with the series co-creators Waititi and Sterlin Harjo. Most recently, she directed the episode “Deer Lady,” written by Harjo, which chronicles the horror story of Native children who were separated from their families and taken to “Indian boarding schools.”

As the much-lauded series wraps up its third and final season, the group of young friends who make up the Rez Dogs gang —  Bear Smallhill (D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora Danan Postoak (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor) —  survive a rollercoaster trip from rural Oklahoma to California to Oklahoma again, where they face the consequences of their actions. Their adventures are now streaming on Hulu.

NPR TV Critic Eric Deggans discusses with Goulet directing the show and her surprise at learning the show’s third season would be its last. She also shares her thoughts about the future of marginalized storytellers, representation in Hollywood, and how Reservation Dogs’ co-creator Waititi has been integral in creating a platform for Indigenous stories.

Many KCRW staff are members of SAG-AFTRA, though we are under a separate contract from the agreement at issue between actors and studios.

This segment has been edited for length and clarity. 

KCRW: How does it feel to be promoting the third and final season of Reservation Dogs without its actors and writers, due to the ongoing SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes? 

Danis Goulet: It's bittersweet. I think three seasons, it feels like it's over so fast. I think everyone has fallen in love with these characters and we definitely want to hear from them all right now, but understandably so, it's not to be. 

I think it's such an important time to reflect on what this show has done, and what it has meant to… certainly to the Indigenous communities all over the place, but also to the larger milieu of Native creativity. It's been so, so important, so I'm really happy to be here to chat more about it.

What has this show done for Native American creatives and folks who are trying to talk about stories rooted in Indigenous cultures?

I first met Sterlin [Harjo] in the mid 2000s when we were both youngsters on the film circuit at Sundance with our short films out there. Back in those days, it felt like everything was possible, and yet, it also took years for things to develop. Around that time, you sort of knew who everybody was. The Native film community was small. We would meet up on the global film circuit, and all of us, in our respective countries, were advocating for more opportunity. It took a long time to push those doors open. Now, the show really is something the likes of which we've never seen before on a major US network.

In Canada, we've been having similar struggles. It really took until last year for a fairly big broadcaster in Canada to create a Native-led TV show. 

More: ‘Reservation Dogs’ shows Indigenous lives, struggles, inside jokes

“Little Bird” is a six-part limited series about the Sixties Scoop in Canada and an Indigenous woman’s journey to find her birth family, and uncover the hidden truth of her past. Courtesy video of Crave via Youtube

[Reservation Dogs] is so incredible. Knowing Sterlin for as long as I have, and also knowing the talent that's in our community for as long as I have, it's like we've always been saying: “Just let us in the door. Give us the opportunity and we'll prove what's possible.” 

To see the critical reception [of] Rez Dogs and everything that the show has done, it's so incredible. It's so excellent. The critics have all responded in such an amazing way, and I think audiences have responded. It's just been so incredible to finally see this moment happen, especially when you've seen a friend that's been slogging it out in independent film for so long finally get this opportunity and show what's possible.

More: Director and writer Sterlin Harjo almost quit the industry entirely. Then came Reservation Dogs

It seems like from the minute that Reservation Dogs hit, people were accepting of it. The industry praised it. Critics got it. Did it feel that way to you? Were you surprised that that acceptance came so quickly and that people were so appreciative of it?

Having known Sterlin for so long, I always felt like, “Just give this guy the money to do something. He's got such an incredible voice. It's so authentic. It's so natural.” If you know Sterlin as a person, he's so warm and friendly, and it's very easy to drop into his world. 

He told me crazy stories about Oklahoma since I've known him. We both kind of came from places – I come from Saskatchewan in Canada, which is definitely the in-between land of it's not Toronto or Vancouver, and I love how staunch Sterlin always has been about, “This show is going to be set in Oklahoma. It's going to be specifically Oklahoman but also Native Oklahoman.” 

And having watched all of his films, from his very first short, knowing the uniqueness of his voice, I had no doubt it would be a success. I am a believer that the more specific something is, the more universal it becomes. So it's no surprise to me that everyone responded in this way. It's just been so exciting to watch it all happen.

“Four Sheets to the Wind” was Sterlin Harjo’s first feature film, which he wrote and directed. Courtesy video of Millennium Entertainment 

The show constantly plays with the idea that figures and concepts from Native spiritual culture are real, and they have real impact in the world and on the lives of the characters with whom they interact. How does the show flesh out those ideas?

That's one of the things that I love about Indigenous screen storytelling, is that sort of lack of a clear line between something that's real and grounded, and then something that might be of the spirit or fantastical. I guess from a Western perspective, people might call that magical realism. But I think from an Indigenous perspective, just take the magic out of it. This is real life and matters of the spirit are something that we have opportunities to intersect with. I love that there's no hard line between things. They exist all in the same space.

I think we've been seeing that if you look at global Indigenous cinema from the films of Warwick Thornton or Zacharias Kunuk, from the far north. [Kunuk] has made this beautiful movie called The Journals of Knud Rasmussen. It's up on the Arctic, set on the ice, [and] about halfway through the movie, I realized that half of the characters are spirits. He doesn't explain it. That's something if you were to look at different characteristics of the way Indigenous artists express themselves, you would find this as a characteristic in a universal way.

The best spirit world moments from “Reservation Dogs.” Courtesy of FX on YouTube 

One of the episodes you directed this season is “Deer Lady,” which features the brutal origin story of a spirit character. How did the idea for this episode come about? Why was it important to tell her origin story at this point in the series? 

Sterlin wrote this episode. I didn't know that he had written anything about boarding schools until I just got sent the script and was told that this was the one I was doing. 

What's so brilliant about it is to touch upon going to this dark place in history. It's going to a place of collective trauma. But that's very important for us to contend with, and to heal from. I think the first step in that process is really just to expose the truth of it. 

Up in Canada, we've had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that looked into what we call the residential schools. It's basically exactly the same thing as the boarding school system in the US, and it was a practice of taking children away from their parents in Native families across the board. In Canada, when the findings were finally released from that process, they found that a child going into a residential school had a greater chance of dying than a Canadian soldier did going into World War II. These schools were deplorable. They were places of abuse, where experiments were done on children. It's a really horrible history, but it is something really important to know about. 

I think in the US, because it hasn't been talked about widely, for Sterlin to write this episode into the show and then place it within the context of acts of being the Deer Lady's origin story, is just such a brilliant entry point into something that we need to talk about. And because the show is already so loved, it's really beautiful that he chose it as a medium to come into this. 

But the fantastical also gives us a bit of space. It's like, when things are hard, you need to move into somewhere imaginary in order to dream your way out. In a way, that's what happens in this episode: The young Deer Lady runs away from this horrible boarding school situation. And, without revealing too much, there's this fantastical thing that happens to her: She not only dreams her way out and chooses her way out, but then she decides to become this character that is seeking justice, and to understand where that all comes from for her character, especially. I think it was so beautiful in the way that it added so much dimension to who she is.

We're in this moment where we've had several TV projects that feature Native American performers and creatives: Dark Winds on AMC, Rutherford Falls on Peacock. Does it feel like we're in a new moment where the door is open and we'll see more of these kinds of stories? Or is there still a fear that this is a momentary blip, and once you guys are gone it may not happen again?

I think it's a little bit of both. It's sort of like, “Oh, my God! These doors have been cracked, wide open.” What a beautiful moment it is to see all of these shows that intersected at the same time, and really different genres as well. I loved seeing staunch comedy, just laughing. It was such a gift and a joy to see [Sierra Teller Ornelas]’ show go up. It definitely felt like a moment, so I feel like we just had to stop and take stock and celebrate what was happening. But at the same time, knowing the history of the industry, there's a part of me that's a bit apprehensive. We've pushed the doors open. We've proven what's possible. It shouldn't close again. I really hope it doesn't happen.

In the history of Indigenous film and TV, sometimes we've seen blips, and we go, “Oh, my God, this proves it's all possible. Now, the floodgates are gonna open.” Then they don't. But I would also say that maybe what feels different about this moment is, it feels like suddenly there was a critical mass and not just an individual, like Taika out there. It actually feels like there's a group of us and that with that kind of comes a wave and a wave has more power than a singular thing.

“Rutherford Falls” official trailer. Courtesy of Peacock via Youtube 

One of the concerns about the strikes is that we're just starting to see women and people of color get these jobs, where their series were picked up, or they were showrunners, or they had any kind of real power. Now all of a sudden, everything's halted, and there's concern that deals are gonna get canceled, and you just worry that all that progress is going to get wiped away when the industry resets itself.

That's exactly right. I think it's interesting to be in this moment where two simultaneous unions are on strike at the same time. It's a huge moment. It has ground everything to a halt. What artists are saying is that the way we're doing it is not right. It's not valuing the work. If you look at different marginalized communities that have been advocating to the Hollywood machine to say, “Let's do it differently,” I would hope that this would be a moment where it's even more important to listen to those voices because it's really those folks that have been coming forward and saying for a really long time, “We have to do this differently.” I think in some ways, they're on the forefront of new models and ways of working together that really feel like they're driven by different values. 

More: What’s the latest in WGA and SAG-AFTRA negotiations?

When I went down to work on Reservation Dogs, it was definitely my experience that this was not a run-of-the-mill film set. This felt like you were coming into this warm embrace of a family or a community where everyone's like, “Just got your back,” and are saying, “Come on in, and what can we do to support you?” It wasn't at all like the horror stories I'd heard about, “Oh, when you work in TV, you're just the director of the week, there's going to be conflict, and just a lack of value. It wasn't like that at all on Rez Dogs

I think Sterlin is not just changing what ends up on screen in terms of representation, his leadership and this whole Native-led group of writers and directors, actually changing the way that things get made as well. I've really liked to think of that as being driven by different values. And I think there's many communities that are holding a vision for how we can do this differently.

More: Hollywood diversity backslides in 2022 after some progress

Taika Waititi not only co-created Reservation Dogs, but also co-executive produced your debut feature film Night Raiders. When did you first meet him? What was it like working with him on that film? 

I met him around the same time that I met Sterlin in the mid-2000s. Taika and I also had a short film at Sundance the same year. We're just youngsters around on the film circuit trying to get our stuff made. 

But the Indigenous community is so small. It's really globally interconnected. He's from New Zealand, Sterlin is  from the US and I'm up in the Arctic right now with the Indigenous folks of Northern Norway and Finland, on Sami land. So that interconnectivity has just been a beautiful community to be a part of. 

Taika is incredible. He does so much to open doors for other folks in what they're doing. And for him to come on, as an EP of my first feature Night Raiders, which ended up being a Canada, New Zealand co-production, it was so incredible to have his support with the project, especially because we were like this small, independent Canadian film in the Hollywood system. Everyone wants you to have names attached to your project. We were pretty much a mostly Indigenous cast, that didn't have that star power to drive it. So to be able to even say that Taika is an EP just opened doors for us. That was so important for the film getting supported. That's also what he did with Sterlin on Rez Dogs, and I know he's doing it on many, many other projects as well.

More: Taika Waititi on Hunt for the Wilderpeople

“Night Raiders” official trailer. Courtesy of Entract Films via YouTube

You’ve said in interviews that you were surprised when Sterlin announced that this season was going to be the last for Reservation Dogs. What's your sense about why he decided to end things now? And how did you find out about it?

I found out once I got down to Oklahoma and we were rolling, but I didn't know in advance that it was going to be the last season. I think when he said it, it made sense. It's a coming of age show, and I think towards the end of season two, it really did feel like the kids had had this big moment of catharsis, that something had come to a natural close. With season three, we had this great opportunity to just say, “Okay, what's next?”

But I think it's really amazing to make a decision to come to an end in a way that feels like it serves the storytelling. I think sometimes when shows get really successful, they push it and push it and keep squeezing an extra season where it may naturally feel like you shouldn't keep going. I really respect when a show knows when it's time to end and when it's coming to that natural close. I think that Sterlin really felt that and I'm really glad that he was able to make that decision on those creative terms.

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Joshua Farnham