[The Atlantic] Rez Life: Sterlin Harjo’s genre-mixing, cliché-exploding series captures coming of age as a Native kid like no TV show before it

First, a story.

So this one time some rez kids messed up my car. It was my first “real” car. I’d had a ’67 Catalina that started about half the time, and went off the road the other half because the tires were worn down to nubs. And then I’d had a ’79 Thunderbird that everyone called the “Thunderchicken” because it had a broken door and one of the eight cylinders didn’t work. This new car was sensible: a 1993 Honda Accord done up in pale blue.

It was 1994. I was driving from Bemidji, Minnesota, back to my house, on the edge of the Leech Lake Reservation. I’d dropped out of grad school the year before and come back home. It was the right thing to do, the only thing: I’d moved away when I was 17, and now I was 23 and I felt disconnected, adrift on American seas, invisible in a way only Native people can understand.

Anyway, it was a good night. My brother and a buddy and I had gone to the movie theater to see Speed. We were headed home and had turned onto Lake Avenue and suddenly—pop-pop-pop—my car was under attack. And I just knew it was those Metallica-T-shirt and nunchuck kids from nearby throwing rocks at my ride. That’s where they hung out, on the south side of town. I slammed on the brakes and said, “Let’s get ’em.”

It had to be Cheyenne and Charlie and Robbie and Davey and Ogema. Some of these kids were brothers—like, actual brothers—but they were all related in that Indian way. I got out of the car and walked through a cornfield to surprise them. The corn was high and waxy, and the leaves looked wet under the sodium lamps. I heard them whispering. They’re by the road. Naw, dog, I can hear them. Yeah, that’s them. And then … Oh shit! I saw them: bushy hair, baggy jeans, skater-punk tees. They turned to run just as I jumped out of the corn. I think they actually screamed.

I put my hands on Cheyenne’s shirt and lifted him up on his toes. “Is that you, Cheyenne? That you throwing shit at my car?” “I didn’t know it was yours!” he yelled. “I didn’t know it was yours!” I shook him a few more times while I said something about the car being new, how they could throw rocks at white people but should leave me and my car alone. Then they took off into the night. And that’s the story about how my first real car got fucked up by a bunch of Indian kids.

In 2021, I was surprised to see those kids again—different names, different tribes—stealing a truckload of Flaming Flamers chips in the opening minutes of the FX series Reservation Dogs. The same restless energy, the same quick patter, the same easy style.

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