(This story contains spoilers to Reservation Dogs season three, episode three, “Deer Lady.”)
In the first season of Reservation Dogs, actress Kaniehtiio Horn made her debut as the mysterious Deer Lady in episode five, “Come and Get Your Love.” Now in its third and final season, Reservation Dogs reveals the dark origins of its hooved hitchhiker and, in the process, offers a look at the violence of residential boarding schools in the U.S.
A first step in acknowledging their history, impact and legacy on a national level came in May 2022 when the U.S. Department of the Interior released the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report. The 100-page study found that the government funded over 400 reservation schools across 37 states, at times paying missionary organizations “on a per capita basis” for the children they enrolled. Between 1819 and 1969, Native children from across the U.S., Hawaii and Alaska were targeted, enduring “rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse,” with at least 500 deaths recorded at 19 schools based on an initial investigation.
The report was released around a year after more than 700 unmarked residential school graves were found in Canada, and around seven years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its own historic findings as part of the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history.
“What (showrunner) Sterlin (Harjo) wrote introduces a very difficult subject by showing why the Deer Lady goes about the world taking out bad people,” the episode’s director Danis Goulet told The Hollywood Reporter. “Once you understand where all of that comes from, I think it’s an incredible story of a character, but that also opens us up into this world of residential schools or boarding schools.”
The episode is stylized as a horror film that bounces between Deer Lady’s past and modern day, after Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) is stranded on his return journey to Oklahoma from California. While stopping into a general store-like business with a kitchen and restaurant seating, he meets the folk legend, who promises to let Bear hitch a ride back home — but only after she makes a quick (and bloody) stop.
“She’s such a wonderful character, and Tiio Horn is brilliant. Her presence on screen is incredible,” Goulet shared. “Every take, everything she did, just blew me out of the water. What I love about her is that she contains this rage and yet has a swagger, humor and mischievousness about her. There are all kinds of things to tap into with her as a main character, with Bear as the observer of it all.”
In an interview conducted ahead of Reservation Dogs‘ season three premiere, the director spoke with THR about how she navigated the episode’s violent content with a young, Indigenous cast; why the episode’s Native children speak an endangered language and English is incomprehensible to them; and how the 2018 Suspiria remake influenced her portrayal of a horrific period in America history.
There’s a history of tropes and stereotypes onscreen because of who has gotten to tell the history of North American Native communities. That includes storytelling around residential schools. Directing this, was there anything you were trying to stay away from?
There are residential school tropes that are well-worn. For me, it was really important that there was an element of the performance, especially when it comes to the nuns and the religious. Sometimes that can feel in, past experiences, a little bit out of reality. So when it came to the casting — the people we were looking for and the performance that I was pushing for — I was trying to make it grounded. At the same time, you need something that gives you a little bit of space to move in something that is so horrific. It’s such a tough question. I will say as an Indigenous filmmaker, trying to answer this question was the biggest challenge of directing the episode, and it’s the biggest challenge for anyone who tells stories like this. You don’t want to alienate the audience. You want to bring them in.
For me, I felt like one way to do that was to take the story and try to make it feel real while bringing it a little bit into the genre space. As soon as I read it, I immediately felt — and I think I’ve felt this for a while — that residential schools are like a horror movie. The horror of it is so present. It is about child abuse and a whole system that was dedicated to the eradication of Native people on their own lands through strategic means. The abuse in the schools is just so widespread. There was also an added layer because in Canada, there’s a body set up called The Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They released their findings back in 2015. So, at least in Canada, there’s a ground where it is widely and nationally acknowledged that this happened. That’s not to say there’s still plenty of denialism, but I think in the states, it’s less known about the boarding school system and yet the exact same thing happened.
You have a very specific visual style for the residential school timeline. Can you talk about how you chose it, and what informed it?
One thing that was a concern is: How do you approach something when the audience has no previous knowledge? If you go in too strong, too fast, I think it’ll be hard for people to accept. So I was hoping that if we introduced not a staunch container but a bit of a genre container — that holds the horror of what it is — hopefully that would bring people in. And we know that this is the Deer Lady’s origin story, so already there’s a fantastic element that’s introduced. It already puts it in the genre container.
My mind immediately went to ’70s horror movies because there’s something about that era that’s particularly scary that feels so real, yet there’s always fantastical elements. The updated version of Suspiria was a go-to in terms of the visual style. That’s what we were working with as a touchstone, so there were zooms — that kind of whipped zoom up to the nun when she screams in the mess hall — in the camera work that were very much trying to create this dark and shadowy world, but with aesthetics that have a bit of grit and texture. It’s not the clean genre world. It’s a gritty reality that then has a genre container.
The young children at the school only capture isolated words in English. The rest of the time, when the nuns or boarding school staff speak, it sounds like gibberish or a made up language. That seems to say a few things, both in terms of the experiences of the children, but also how Indigenous languages have been portrayed onscreen in the past without accuracy or authenticity. What was behind that storytelling decision?
I think in all of the history of cinema, going back for over 100 years, we’ve been up against, obviously, so much misrepresentation of our people in our stories onscreen. So many negative stereotypes that have been perpetuated by Hollywood, where we’re made to look silly or dumb, or there to be murdered or bodies to inflict violence on. But I will say that a lot of that was in Sterlin’s script to begin with. What you see are the white characters speaking in an almost gibberish, and it is very much there to represent the children’s POV.
When you’re talking about violence against children, it has to be done in such a careful way. But it is so intentional for all of it to become so staunchly from an Indigenous POV. We’re dropped into that world basically right at the opening. We are experiencing the world through the eyes of Young Deer Lady and what she understands, and because she doesn’t understand English when the nuns are talking to her, it just sounds like gibberish. It doesn’t make any sense. We really wanted to draw the audience into their perspective. How would it feel if you were a child that was suddenly taken away from your parents? You don’t even know where you’re going and why. You don’t speak the language; you don’t understand what’s happening to you. From the get-go, you’re being spoken to in a different way; in a language you don’t understand. And the violence is casual every day and done without a thought.
You are capturing the arrival of children when they are still speaking their own language. Can you talk about being able to feature an Indigenous language in an episode that’s going to be watched by so many, particularly as so many Native boarding school survivors had their language stripped? How did you work with young Native actors in this language, which might not have been familiar to them?
First, it was really important to me that the kids spoke in Kiowa, which is an endangered language. And to me, what residential schools did is it took our languages, which form the basis of our worldview and culture. So, how do you take the time to teach young actors who have some experience, but not a lot of experience, and then ask them to act in an endangered language?
We leaned incredibly hard on the language consultant, Warren (C. Queton), who Sterlin knew for many years. He was such a caring, helpful guide, and sometimes we would just slow down and go through the lines, even just sentence by sentence, then really take care of it in editing. But the kids were just so good. I can’t even express how emotional it made me feel. They would do a take and I would be crying many times just from hearing the language.
Viewers see blood and the dead bodies of boarding school employees who tortured and killed young children, but we don’t see the children die. That happens offscreen. Can you talk about your approach to what violence you do show and what you don’t?
When I spoke to Denise (Lajimodiere, consultant) about the violence, she said to me: It’s way worse than anything you could possibly put onscreen. But the thing is, in the history of representation, all we’ve ever seen is violence inflicted upon Indigenous bodies. As an Indigenous filmmaker, I’m really not interested in showing more of that. What’s so brilliant about Deer Lady as a central character is that she has so much agency. Yes, this happened to her. This shaped her. This made her who she is. But she is out in the world as a force to be reckoned with.
I think with her, we are countering the victimization of Indigenous people onscreen. You can’t ignore history, the violence. You have to find a way to show it. But it’s a matter of placing it staunchly in the POV and in the lives of Indigenous people, which is what the show does across the board to begin with. It’s this dropping us into a historical experience. It was really interesting, too, because even when I got started with the editor, he just said to me, “You know, I’m not quite ready to start. I’m just trying to cut some of the scenes, and I’ve been finding that I’m getting very emotional and this is going slower than normal.” He is not an Indigenous person, but he understood what this was. He had a young toddler at home and so to contend with the material itself was a really big undertaking for him.
It is difficult to watch, which means that it couldn’t have been easy to film. You’re working with young actors — and crew members — for whom this holds personal significance. Performers additionally have to act out forms of physicalized violence. How did you work with them on set to deliver these scenes?
The first conversation happens with the children and their parents, but everybody who is Indigenous knows what it is right off the bat. But the first thing is that you’re transparent about what the story is, so that people know what they’re coming out for and what they’re getting into. We had a consultant on the show, Denise Lajimodiere. And she wrote a book about the boarding school experience in Stringing Rosaries. I spoke to her in preparation and I asked her questions about representation or what she felt in terms of: How far do you go? She was an incredible resource.
In terms of the actors, I know we throw around the term safe space all the time, but when we’re dealing with collective trauma, safe space is an understatement. You really have to put one foot in front of the other with so much care. In a way, it’s almost to go slower. I made sure that conversations were happening, that I talked to (Georgeanne Growingthunder) who plays Young Deer Lady, and her mom — and her mom totally knew what this was. (Koda), the boy who is her friend, is played by Michael Penske. His mom is Jennifer Podemsky, who plays Willie Jack’s mom in the series. They are a very experienced acting family. Jennifer also was just naturally an amazing (support) for what Michael was getting into.
But those two days shooting in the school with the kids were amongst some of the most challenging days I’ve ever done, because we had so much to get through. We’re on a television schedule. We’re working with kids. It’s a period piece. We also had a lot of action to get through, which normally is something you can carve out a lot of time for. And to reenact these things also is a process of being retraumatized.
I remember asking Indigenous filmmaker friends, “Do you think it always has to be this way?” And they just looked at me — when you’re dealing with really serious stuff — and they said, “Yeah, I think so.” I don’t know how you talk about that without feeling it. And as a director, it’s our job to feel it. I remember we shot an awful take of Michael being dragged away down the hallway. The first time I saw it actually in action, I’m in tears, and he comes running back up, and is like, “Was that good?” So these kids were amazing in the joy that they brought to the process. Both of them were so excited to be there and they were so keen, so beautiful on screen. Michael was like a ray of sunshine on set. In a way, sometimes it’s more free with the kids because they see it as pretend. It just felt miraculous when we finished, and I was so proud of the work that we did.
But that’s also because of what the show is and how it’s run. “It takes a village” just kept resonating with me. The crew on Res Dogs are so incredible. They’ve now worked together for a number of years. People return to the show because they love it so much. It doesn’t work like a show in L.A. or New York. It goes to its own rhythm and with its own ethos, and that really comes from Sterlin and the fact that it’s an Indigenous run show, but it’s also an Oklahoma show. There was so much work done behind the scenes, from the boarding school consultant to the language consultant to the ways the crew held what we were doing with so much care and presence. Sterlin going out to talk to the extras or the background performers when we were about to start the day; going around personally and talking to parents and making sure they knew what we were doing. To the elder that spoke about his family experience, Wotko (Long), who also appears in the show. He was in tears when he spoke to everybody. It was incredibly emotional for everybody to do that. After it was done, I went back to Canada and I asked, “What just happened?” That was huge. But we really needed every single person and everyone just brought it.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Reservation Dogs is releasing its final season Wednesdays on Hulu.