‘Reservation Dogs’ Revisits a Shameful Moment in American History

This post contains spoilers for “Deer Lady,” this week’s episode of Reservation Dogs, now streaming on Hulu.

“Just ’cause you can’t see something, don’t make it less real.”

This was something Deer Lady told Big the first time she appeared on Reservation Dogs, back in Season One’s “Come and Get Your Love.” In a flashback, the young Big (Little Big?) was auditory witness to Deer Lady massacring a pair of convenience store robbers, and wasn’t sure what to believe about what happened, nor about the pair of deer hooves he saw from under the bathroom stall as she brought him a spare roll of toilet paper.

But Deer Lady’s sentiment doesn’t entirely fit the way that Reservation Dogs incorporates Native spirituality. In this show’s world, you can sometimes see things that aren’t real. And, for that matter, things can be real and unreal at the same time. Never has that been more clear than in this tragic, beautiful episode titled after the Deer Lady herself. It shows her in action, at the height of her mythical powers (played, as usual, by Kaniehtiio Horn from Letterkenny). But this time we also see the little girl (played by Georgeanne Growingthunder) she once was, and the context in which that girl sacrificed her humanity to become a spirit of vengeance.

The flashback segments of the episode take place in one of the many shameful chapters of Native mistreatment in our nation’s history, where Native children were taken away to “Indian training schools” run by various churches, with one goal in mind: to strip these children of every last trace of their own culture. Braids are chopped, English language lessons strictly enforced, Christianity drilled into kids who had been raised in other spiritual traditions. For some whites, it wasn’t enough to have killed so many Indigenous people and taken their land; the goal was to snuff out the very idea of being a Native American.

We see this play out in a collection of utterly brutal scenes where the nuns treat the young Deer Lady and her friends as something less than human. The episode (written by Sterlin Harjo, directed by Danis Goulet) makes a very smart stylistic choice: for a while at the school, we are hearing the white characters the way that the young Deer Lady hears them. The English dialogue sounds like it has been placed into a food processor, chopped up and reassembled at random, and then run through a few audio filters. These people do not see her as a person, but to her, they in turn may as well be one of Maximus’ star people.

Kaniehtiio Horn as Deer Lady in ‘Reservation Dogs’ Season Three, Episode Three.

Shane Brown/FX.

This drab, physically and emotionally abusive past is contrasted with the Deer Lady’s vibrant, joyful present. At the school, one of the nuns shoves her face into a bowl of gray gruel. While on the road as an adult, she enjoys stuffing her own face with the color and texture and sheer pleasure of a couple of diner pies. In one of the flashbacks, she befriends a fellow student, Koda Littlebird, who has found a small but crucial means of emotional rebellion. “Remember,” he tells her, “they can’t stop you from smiling.” This present-day Deer Lady smiles all the time, even if much of her pleasure comes from killing.

The mission we see her on in this episode is more cathartic than it is enjoyable. After crossing paths with a broke, starving Bear at the diner, she offers him a lift back to Okern, but first makes a detour to the ranch of James A. Minor — the ranch that once housed the despicable school. Minor at this point is ancient, far removed from the “human wolf” she remembers so well. He has no idea who this woman at his front door is, and I suspect that if she were to confront him about what he did to Koda and others, he would barely remember it. Yet despite his complete harmlessness, the trauma of her days at the school have never gone away. Their benign conversation is the first time we have ever seen Deer Lady not in complete command of a situation. She is still terrified of this man, still unsure of whether she can give him the death he has deserved for so long. Horn is incredible at portraying this downshift from spirit back to human.

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The scene in the present is intercut with young Deer Lady’s attempt to escape the school in the wake of Koda’s death. Racing through the woods at night, she encounters a deer spirit who offers her the choice between a potentially short and painful human life, or a much longer one where she is something more than human. She of course takes it, but as we see her shaken in the aftermath of the adult Deer Lady’s killing of Minor, it hasn’t always been a lifetime of fun and games. There’s a cost to being a person, but there’s also a cost to being a Deer Lady, and this episode beautifully captures that cost.

In the aftermath, she gets Bear back to Okern, and there’s a hilarious bit where the rapper twins lament the missed opportunity to give the legendary Deer Lady a copy of their CD. But she also assures Bear — as she once assured the young Big — that he is a good man who has nothing to fear from her. And she gets to pass on Koda’s advice about the importance of smiling.


In that earlier episode, Deer Lady mentioned that she had been friends with Big’s grandmother: “We were kids together.” It can be hard to think of a supernatural killing machine as having once been a kid. But everyone starts somewhere, and every act of violence is born from something terrible. We are shaped by our environment. Some of us internalize our pain, while others find ways to channel it out into the world, for good and for ill. But even Deer Ladies were once vulnerable little girls, you know? We can see her, and we can see just how real she, and her pain, are.

Even by Reservation Dogs, this was an incredible episode. Bravo.