Representation and Black & Hip Hop Culture in Reservation Dogs





A key feature of American popular culture and everyday life is the misrepresentation of Native peoples. From mascots to Hollywood to rap music, denigrating representations of Indigenous peoples exists everywhere and is done by white people, Black people, and Latinx folks. Indeed, the persistent mis-representation of living, breathing Native Americans in popular culture explains why many desire to have accurate and three-dimensional characters portrayed in film and television without buckskin and headdresses. They desire to produce what Indigenous film scholar Michelle Raheja has called visual sovereignty (Raheja 2010). And Hulu’s groundbreaking series, Reservation Dogs (2021), has done just that. It portrays three-dimensional characters, on the rez, being their full Indigenous selves. Though it is worth noting that the majority of Indigenous peoples live in urban settings—not reservations—but that is a conversation for another time and place.

Reservation Dogs presents modern Indigenous cultures, which is beyond invaluable. It is an important example of NdN (short form of Indian/Indigenous via social media cultures) popular culture, which is the use and remix of Indigenous cultures and meanings, often blended with other cultures—especially Black American coolness—but making it its own. It is a representation of contemporary Indigenous aesthetics and cultural expressions rooted in the idea of an Indigenous future. It is concerned with dismantling colonial ideas of what Indigenous peoples are supposed to be. It shows how many of us actually produce and live cultures. Hell, though I didn’t grow up on the rez, the elders remind me of my aunts and uncles, the characters remind me of my cousins—I can feel the familiarity of my Indigenous family while watching it. Yet, the critiques of the show center on issues of authenticity and representation.


First, though, let’s acknowledge that depictions of Indigenous peoples (and audiences) are not a monolith so how we interpret the meaning of those representations will not be the same. We are different and have diverse experiences. As an Afro-Indigenous person, I would love to have seen more three-dimensional Afro-Indigenous people in the media, including Reservation Dogs. While Native people remain largely invisible in whitestream society, there are hardly any representations of Afro-Indigenous peoples. And no, just because there are Black people on TV, that does not mean they are a representative of Afro-Indigenous peoples. Some seek more Afro-Indigenous folks in the series and I think it’s ok for Native people to produce limited forms of media that don’t always represent the pantheon of Indigenous cultures. So, I disagree in part with those Afro-Indigenous folks who seek more representation in the series. Representation within the mainstream media shouldn’t be desirable in the first place. Let’s ask ourselves, do we even want to be mainstream in a culture that continues to denigrate Indigenous, Black and Brown peoples? I don’t think so.

Some people seem to have the logical fallacy that more “accurate” and “authentic” portrayals of Indigenous peoples will lead in some linear way to respect, which might even lead to decolonization. I don’t think that’s how decolonization works. In my understanding of decolonization, following Frantz Fanon, decolonial artistic production means “fighting for the liberation of the nation […] One cannot divorce the combat for culture from the people’s struggle for liberation” (Fanon 1961:168). It’s not freedom to have accurate portrayals for mainstream society. In this way, even asking Reservation Dogs to create more liberated representations in mainstream media can only lead to disappointment.

Representation matters, people say. I think the real question is does Indigenous representation really matter under colonialism, and for whom does it matter anyways? If a particular representation appeals to some, and even matters now, will it matter in 5-years? Are we only concerned with the now of representation? Yes, as my friend and comrade Bryce Henson reminds me, representation is meaningful, “but what does it mean?”

Some Indigenous people in the Twittersphere made the allegedly astute observation that because Afro-Indigenous peoples have Black representation throughout popular culture, they should not be complaining about the lack of Afro-Indigenous people in Reservation Dogs, set in Oklahoma, where there are thousands of Black people. What if I told those people that just because Black people are represented more than Indigenous peoples in the media, that doesn’t necessarily reflect an Afro-Indigenous representation. But if Indigenous folks mention all of the Black people in Oklahoma, and there is a lack of their presence in the show, it says something, just like In the Heights (2021) was set in Washington Heights with hardly any Afro-Latinx folks.

Another stringent criticism seems to be the characters who appropriate African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or Black Language, and other markers of Black culture. Some suggest that while Reservation Dogs might be smashing Indigenous stereotypes, they are reproducing more by making a mockery of Black culture. The brunt of the issue is rapper Sten Joddi, who plays rapper Punkin Lusty. He is the father of Bear, portrayed by D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai. Joddi used Black Language throughout his dialogue. He wears a grill, is rocking Native bling, which is a mix of Native pow wow culture and Hip Hop culture jewelry, which originated as an expression of those getting money during the height of the crack-cocaine era in the 1980s. People believe that his portrayal of a character was nothing more than a caricature of Black masculinity, performed by an Indigenous person and written by Indigenous authors. Some folks screen-shotted several instances in which Joddi uses the “N-Word.” He would later apologize for that on Twitter and Instagram. But let’s break down Black Language.

According to sociolinguist Geneva Smitherman, “Black Language is Euro-American speech with an Afro-American meaning, nuance, tone, and gesture” (Smitherman 1977:2). She also argues that there are two parts of Black speech: language and style, even as they overlap. The critique of whether or not Indigenous actors are appropriating Black Language is a slippery-slope. What exactly does it mean to appropriate? Appropriation is generally when a dominant group takes without attribution the culture of a subaltern group and makes it their own. They don’t acknowledge where it came from, but instead makes it seem new. Perhaps the poster-children of such a phenomenon are the Jenners and Kardashians, who make millions of dollars off of well-known forms of Black women’s aesthetics, from nails to hair. But what happens when a non-dominant group appropriates culture? Can someone appreciate and adopt Black Language and culture without it being considered appropriation in the negative? On the one hand, I think it’s important to have respect for other people’s cultures. In the case of Reservation Dogs, I think people are mis-reading the global currents of Black Language and culture. Black Language and culture are everywhere. They are indelible parts of youth culture, including Indigenous youth.


Black Language is everywhere, and when you consider Hip Hop, which anthropologist H. Samy Alim has called, “Hip Hop Nation Language (HHNL),” it has become part of speech communities throughout the world, from the reservation to Japan! Alim states, “As Hip Hop Culture continues to be adopted/adapted by heads all over the world, the syncretization of local street languages and black American language practices has produced multiple HHNL varieties” (Alim 2006:10). HHNL has and will continue to be adopted by people all over the world. Thus, to call it appropriation is mis-leading. There were other instances where Black and Hip Hop culture were featured, including Jackie wearing a Wu-Tang t-shirt or Bear’s mom singing TLC. Those were instances of cultural appreciation, and demonstrate how ubiquitous Black music is.  

For me, perhaps the most egregious form of Black stereotypes wasn’t even coming from Joddi. We could discuss episode one when Mose and Mekko talk about Jackie moving from the city and gang culture, which, although they specifically cite the NdN Mafia, is often code for Black gang culture negatively influencing Indigenous youth. Or when the teens robbed the chip truck. Young working-class and working poor children robbed a working-class Black man. When they went to the restaurant to eat catfish, and Bear imagines in his own head the racist trope of the angry Black man standing over him, whispering in his ear that something bad was going to happen to him. They changed the tone and made him seem darker—not in color but in demeanor—a voice to make him seem more monstrous. It is projecting, in part, the anti-Blackness that some Native people might have of Black men. But they move away from this trope when, in reality, the truck driver tells all of them, “enjoy your lives, young’uns.” They end the episode with the track, “The Halluci Nation,” by R.E.D. Ft. Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), Narcy, and Black Bear of A Tribe Called Red.


I’m less invested in the politics of accurate representations than I am in the possibilities of truly post-colonial depictions of ourselves in the aftermath of colonialism’s reductive white man’s burdensome gaze. Even if season two of Reservation Dogs includes more Afro-Indigenous peoples—and I think it should—then what? We have to create art that is not meant for the white gaze, without defining our experiences as an “Other.” Nevertheless, we also have to deal with how Indigenous artists respond to critics.

It’s also troublesome that Indigenous creatives are so uptight about criticism. In the age of social media, and the access that everyday people have to comment on one’s work makes critique and commentary personal, even as it can be difficult to decipher and certainly can cross the line. However, not everything is hating. If Indigenous cultural producers want to continue to create important, groundbreaking art like Reservation Dogs, then we need to accept criticism—an NdN cultural criticism—that features those who criticize for a living and from the communities you claim to represent with your art. I would prefer an Indigenous criticism stage like that of the Apollo Theater in New York City where you would get booed off of the stage if the crowd didn’t like your performance. Even Lauryn Hill was booed off of stage—and look at her now. Just because Indigenous peoples have to fight with the politics of invisibility, that doesn’t mean they can’t be criticized for producing subpar or even great art. If you produce art for the public, it also deserves engagement, whether praise or criticism. Though we might have criticisms of the lack of Afro-Indigenous peoples in Reservation Dogs, at least it is buoyed by wonderful acting, and dealing with stereotypes. Indigenous representation is important, but we should respect the diverse experiences of people.



Alim, H. Samy. 2006. Roc the Mic Right: The Language of Hip Hop Culture. New York: Routledge.


Fanon, Frantz. 1961. The Wretched of the Earth. Paris: Éditions Maspero.


Raheja, Michelle H. 2010. Reservation Reelism: Redfacing, Visual Sovereignty, and Representations of Native Americans in Film. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.


Smitherman, Geneva. 1977. Talkin’ and Testifyin’: The Language of Black America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 


Kyle T. Mays (he/his) is an Afro-Indigenous (Saginaw Chippewa) writer and scholar of US history, urban studies, race relations, and contemporary popular culture. He is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies, American Indian Studies, and History at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Hip Hop Beats, Indigenous Rhymes: Modernity and Hip Hop in Indigenous North America (SUNY Press, 2018), An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States (Beacon Press, 2021), and City of Dispossessions: Indigenous Peoples, African Americans, and the Creation of Modern Detroit (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022). He contributed a chapter, “Blackness and Indigeneity” to the New York Times bestseller,, 400 Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, Keisha Blain and Ibram Kendi (eds.), (New York: Random House, 2021).

Kyle’s work broadly explores three questions. What is the relationship between blackness and indigeneity? How does dispossession in cities shape the lives of Black and Indigenous peoples? And finally, how can we imagine and put into praxis a world in the aftermath of settler colonialism and white supremacy?




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