Director Sterlin Harjo reflects on Reservation Dogs’ finale: ‘We told the truth, that was radical’

Sterlin Harjo reflects on the world-changing and highly acclaimed television series

Indian country and fans of Rez Dogs are collectively mourning after the 10th and final episode of Season Three of Reservation Dogs hit the streaming waves. 

It all started a little over three years ago amid the COVID crisis when Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi created what would become a huge smash hit for HULU.

For those unfamiliar with Reservation Dogs, it is the story of reservation life in Oklahoma. It follows the exploits of four teen Native youths by the names “Bear Smallhill,” portrayed by D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, “Elora Danan,” portrayed by Devery Jacobs, “Willie Jack,” portrayed by Paulina Alexis; and the youngest of the group “Cheese,” portrayed by acting newcomer Lane Factor.

Many people don’t realize Sterlin Harjo, the director of numerous episodes and showrunner and executive producer, also portrayed the ominous red-eyed Bigfoot. I learned this fact several years ago with my first interview with Harjo.

In an interview with Native Viewpoint, Harjo explained his profound love for the show and characters, the community of the #RezDogCrew, which became family, and why he decided the show had to end…at least for now.

Harjo did relay that life will go on as a creator. He told Native Viewpoint that he has several projects in the works, and others on the cast and crew of RezDogs also had projects in the works.

You can watch the interview here or read the excerpts below.

Interview with Sterlin Harjo (excerpts from a longer interview in the YouTube video)

Vincent Schilling: If you look back at about three years ago, when you took the first frames of film, how far are you now compared to where you started? 

Sterlin Harjo: You can’t predict or expect anything; you’ll be disappointed every time. All I knew was that I needed to swing for the fence and try to tell this story as truthfully and as well as I could. It turned my life upside down. It was a beautiful thing, but it also changed everything. I’ll never be the same. A lot of people will never be the same from making the show. And it was a really beautiful thing. We got to represent our people. That’s also a lot of pressure. You know, show running is hard enough. And you had the pressure of representing people for the first time,  I was like, yeah, don’t screw this up. 

Vincent Schilling: Was your intention to create an entirely new definition of Native people or have viewers say, “Oh, Native people are that too.”

Sterlin Harjo: The version of us that people seemingly want to see is not the truthful version of us. Part of it is because they’ve never seen the truthful version of us. They have this Westernized vision of who we are. If you don’t show them who we are, they won’t have any other version of who we are. 

“We just told the truth. It’s very simple. We told the truth, and that was radical because it was very rare that anyone told the truth about who we are as Native people.”

Vincent Schilling: Regarding your decision to end the show after three seasons. In one way, I understand moving onto other projects when RezDogs is at the top, but you know many people in Indian Country are thinking, ride this wagon until the wheels fall off.

Sterlin Harjo: I could have kept going, but I think that where it ends was the place that needed to end. It goes from Reservation Dogs being about four Native kids on a reservation, and that grows to Reservation Dogs are actually the whole community of the show. That’s who the Reservation Dogs are. 

We went from kids feeling very alone. With the loss of their best friend, they felt very alone. It was just the four of them mourning together. Then, you see the soft embrace of a whole community. They slowly wrap their arms around these kids. You end up in this place where they’re surrounded by everyone they love, even though they’re dealing with loss, just like they were dealing with in the beginning. They’re still dealing with loss to the end, but in a very healthy way because they’ve realized that you have to lean on each other and the community. 

If I kept going up to that, it would feel like I was cheating the audience a bit. And yeah, we would have had some laughs and more great times, but that’s the show that I wanted to tell … it’s so personal to me … it is my life. And if we ever got to the point where people were like, ‘Ah, this last season’s really bad,’ that would crush me. 

Vincent Schilling: Reservation Dogs was super funny. That said, What are your thoughts on some of the tough subjects: excessive drug use, Native people incarcerated, poverty and having to commit crimes to survive?

Sterlin Harjo: I think to truly see yourself, to truly change in a positive way, you have to really hold a mirror up to yourself, and you can’t just look for the good stuff and the beauty; you have to also look for the blemishes and the darkness. Then, you can truly get better and heal. I think that to tell this story in a way that didn’t touch any of that stuff would have been just as bad as making a really bad Western and misrepresenting our people in a way I think it would be just as bad or worse. There are kids that are dealing with the same things, and you have to show them that there are other kids dealing with the same things you have to do and when you feel like you’re not alone.


At the end of the interview, I asked Sterlin what he remembered most fondly, and he said it was the love and community of the Reservation Dogs family. He remembers the dancing and music they enjoyed on Honky Tonk Tuesdays in the Mercury Lounge in Tulsa.

“A lot of people fell in love for real. There was love all around. I’ll always remember these three years of just that—this family we created. That’s the hardest thing to say goodbye to is the family that we created. Because everyone was a part of it … everyone played a part in that,” said Harjo.

“You know, people are sad about the show. I’m also very much grieving the community we created … the family. It was really beautiful. I hope to do more with all of them.”