“Media representation determines whose stories are important and whose voices are valid.”
There is a moment late in the pilot of FX’s “Reservation Dogs” that feels as though it crystallizes the entirety of the series. In it, the show’s four teenage protagonists — Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Cheese (Lane Factor), and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) — gather together, all in dark suits, and head to their hideout. Here, they engage in a somber ceremony for their friend Daniel (Dalton Cramer), who died a year before. Each of them is smudged with sage, letting the smoke roll over them. They tearily remember their friend, arms draped over each other. It’s a moment both spiritual and irreverent, like so much of “Reservation Dogs” as a whole. And it’s the moment that Jacobs saw the world open up before her.
Created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, “Reservation Dogs” is set on a reservation in rural Oklahoma and revolves around the four teens as they do potato chip-related crimes and get into gang-related (paintball) warfare, all while trying to scrounge up enough cash to leave their dreary surroundings in the dust and head west to California.
An established actress, Jacobs has seen what it means to work within the industry. With recurring roles on Netflix’s “The Order” and Starz’s “American Gods,” as well as extensive work in the Canadian film scene — Jacobs is Mohawk and grew up in Kahnawake, a First Nations reserve just outside of Montreal, Quebec — she knows what to expect, particularly when it comes to making her way as an Indigenous actress.
But all that changed during Daniel’s memorial.
“It was the first time I looked around and I saw a space for us to collectively mourn and heal and celebrate together,” Jacobs said in a recent interview with IndieWire. But more than that, it was a new frontier for Jacobs, who had spent her career working on projects that might have an Indigenous writer or director or cast member and assumed that was the best anyone could hope for when it came to projects representing her heritage.
“I had thought […] we would never get to have indigenous creatives filling out the rest of the crew and producers and writers,” she said. “Working on ‘Rez Dogs’ and being surrounded by community, even though we’re not necessarily from the same culture or nations or tribes or backgrounds, there was such a strong sense of us honoring our family members back home and the commonality that we share between us.”
As Elora, Jacobs is simultaneously stoic and sensitive, a performance so evocative that it earned the actress a Gotham Award nomination for Outstanding Performance in a New Series. Her character’s single-minded focus on the California exodus plan is a lifeline that she clings to with all of her strength. By keeping her eyes on the prize, Elora never has to think about all the reasons she’s running away and all the reasons she’s afraid to stay. Jacobs’ performance thrums with all of Elora’s pent up anger and sadness, a live wire of emotion.
This is likely a big part of why the seventh episode of the show’s first season, “California Dreamin’,” hits as hard as it does. While the main thrust of the episode focuses on Elora’s attempt to earn her driver’s license, it also reveals the circumstances surrounding Daniel’s death for the first time.
Late in the episode, the audience sees Elora go looking for Daniel one morning. He’s not at home. He’s not at school. So she heads to the hideout to search. She finds him. She screams. She runs to his legs and tries to prop him up. She sobs.
It’s not just happenstance that Daniel kills himself. According to a 2019 report from the Population Reference Bureau, “For Native youth ages 10 to 24, suicide is the second leading cause of death; and the Native youth suicide rate is 2.5 times higher than the overall national average, making these rates the highest across all ethnic and racial groups.”
For Indigenous people, suicide is a public health crisis, which is why it was so important for the “Reservation Dogs” team to get it right, even from the get go.
“Before filming the memorial scene, Sterlin had shared with us that the character Daniel is based on was a real person from his life,” Jacobs said. “And we had each shared experiences from our own families and communities. It’s an issue that touches us all.”
With that in mind, the team also took great care to make sure that the scene in which Elora discovers Daniel’s death was handled with great care and mindfulness. The actress explained that Indigenous people will often have openings and closings to events, to make sure they go about things the right way. While that was true of the season as a whole, Jacobs revealed that they also had an opening and closing when filming the scene itself, complete with a Muskogee elder named Paul.
“We each had said a bit of prayer and made sure that we were telling the story in a positive and feeling way. And also that we leave that energy behind after we finished filming it,” she said.
The actress recalled intentionally not looking at where Cramer was being set up, the better to preserve a truthful reaction to the scene, as well as the measures taken to support her in the midst of an extremely harrowing scene.
“They let Dalton down between each take so that he could come up and hug me,” Jacobs said. “And I would like feel him and hold him. It was something that I needed to remind my body that he’s still here, he’s okay. Because it’s a topic that hits so close to home, for myself, but also for everybody involved with ‘Reservation Dogs.’
“It was incredibly personal for each of us. And it was paramount that we treat it with care and not show anything that we don’t have to.”
When speaking to her, you can sense Jacobs’ passion for the work, but also for the world. She’s an open and active advocate for Indigenous and LGBTQ+ rights and, in reality, more, because for her, no issue exists in a vacuum.
“When people ask what issues I’m concerned about, it’s hard to narrow them down because they’re so interwoven and are a result of colonization,” she said. “Especially all Indigenous issues, which are more like, Western issues that have an effect on Indigenous people.”
“In terms of environmental, women’s issues, mental health issues, issues around language and culture revitalization, I think those all go hand in hand. In my mind, media representation determines whose stories are important and whose voices are valid. And for so long in film and TV history, has there been so little representation (or misrepresentation with red face) of Indigenous folks. So to be intentionally excluded and then, now, reclaim our stories and share them with widespread audiences, for me is hugely important,” Jacobs said.
The reality is that moving forward she’ll play an even bigger part in crafting those stories of Indigenous experiences. While already a writer and director, as well as an actress, Jacobs had an opportunity to further her scribe skills and join the writers room for “Reservation Dogs” Season 2.
According to Jacobs, Harjo had been hoping to have her shadow him during Season 1 in the hopes that she could direct an episode in a future season. The pair ran into a little pushback on the idea.
“Understandably, FX was like, ‘Why don’t you focus on acting for the first season, the job we hired you for,’” she said.
“When Season 2 came along, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m getting all my writing samples together, it’s gonna be a battle but I want to try to be in the writers room.’ Then when I reached out and got my team to act, it wasn’t a battle at all. In fact, they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, please, we’d love to have you join us in the writers room.’ And so that was just something that I’m so incredibly grateful for.”
On “Reservation Dogs,” audiences have found Jacobs, an electric performer on the verge of breaking through in a big way. And Jacobs has found a port in the storm.
“There’s a sense of safety, this feeling of being surrounded by people who understand an experience similar to yours,” she said. “It’s just a space where we get our jokes, we get our sense of humor, we understand this collective experience of history and grief and colonization and survival and mechanisms and everything in between, we just get it.”