The Toronto actor is front and centre in one of the year’s most ground-breaking new TV shows
Ask Toronto’s D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai about the little details he was excited to see in the hit comedy series Reservation Dogs and the first thing that pops into his head is Orange Crush. “The native side of my family loves Orange Crush,” the Anishinaabe actor tells NOW. “That’s such a big fucking thing for us.”
Eagle-eyed audiences will catch Woon-A-Tai’s goofily stoic character Bear sipping the sugary soda from the can in episode two and Paulina Alexis’s charmingly scrappy Willie Jack sporting an orange t-shirt with the Crush logo in episode eight. The affection for that pop, and its regular presence on set, is one of those things in the touching, hilarious and brilliant series that gave Woon-A-Tai a taste of home in a story about the Muscogee Creek (or Mvskoke) community in Oklahoma.
Twenty-year-old Woon-A-Tai is speaking to NOW on a Zoom call from Corpus Christi, Texas, where he’s working on a film. He’s sitting on a couch, nearly bouncing into his phone screen with infectious enthusiasm as if he already downed one too many Orange Crush cans. His sprawling mane is barely contained within the phone’s portrait dimensions. He’s explaining how he went from growing up in the Esplanade and working jobs at McDonald’s and UberEats to leading the best new show on television, which not only tapped into aspects of his own life, identity and community, but connected him to the diversity of Indigenous experience.
By now you may have heard how ground-breaking Reservation Dogs is. The show’s stars Woon-A-Tai, Alexis, Lane Factor and former NOW cover star Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs joined creator Sterlin Harjo at the Emmys in September. They presented an award and gave a speech about the meaningful representation in the first entirely Indigenous-led TV show to play on U.S. networks. Reservation Dogs, which is streaming on Disney+ Canada, is created by Harjo and executive produced by Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi, and boasts all Indigenous writers and directors. They bring a combination of riotous jokes and empathetic consideration to a story of teens hustling – whether by stealing chip trucks or selling meat pies – to fund an escape to California, while mourning the loss of a friend. And they naturally bring authenticity to a show that playfully navigates rez life, pop culture and teens trying to find their place.
Woon-A-Tai says that Reservation Dogs was described to him as an “Indigenous show for Indigenous people.” Each episode is teeming with cultural touches that would earn nods of recognition from those who know. Meanwhile us settlers are left to just roll with and appreciate the local slang, traditional customs and lore like the Deer Woman, the Tall Man or the owl sculpture that gives our heroes a conniption in episode three.
Woon-A-Tai explains some of that. Owls are considered beacons towards the afterlife or symbols of death in some Indigenous cultures, he says, which is why the sculpture’s eyes in episode three are censored onscreen using a blurring effect, protecting Indigenous audiences who may fear looking at death’s messenger. That had us settlers tickled while also scratching our heads.
The young actor also digs into the ear-worm hip-hop tune Greasy Frybread, which is featured in episode four as part of a performance at an anti-diabetes fundraiser. The obvious joke is that frybread, which is similar to bannock, is terribly unhealthy. Woon-A-Tai adds another layer to it: the dish isn’t even traditional. Instead, it was created out of desperation when settler governments held back food rations from Indigenous communities, leaving them with only flour and water to mix together for food.
The series doesn’t bother explaining these references, which are plentiful. The whole show could come with a textbook’s worth of footnotes. But there are no concessions made to the settler gaze.
“It’s not an Indigenous person’s responsibility to teach,” says Woon-A-Tai, challenging what so many recent Hollywood movies have ingrained in us with spiritual guide characters. “We’ll show you what we do and if you’re interested in learning, take your time and learn it by yourself.”
Woon-A-Tai also recommends a more holistic approach to the learning. Don’t just leave it to Google and Wikipedia, he says, but visit places like the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre where they have classes and you can openly speak with elders. Council Fire, an Indigenous community centre in Regent Park, also played a significant role in helping Woon-A-Tai break out into the world.
He was born D’Pharaoh Miskwaatez Loescher McKay (Mahkaai) Woon-A-Tai, with each name nodding at a piece of his Indigenous and Guyanese ancestry. Miskwaatez means red belly turtle in Ojibwe. Loescher is a nod to some of the German blood in him. McKay is a common name in the Oji-cree community, where his paternal grandfather is from. And Woon-A-Tai is his Guyanese last name.
The actor is one of six siblings who grew up in the Esplanade neighbourhood, going to school at Nelson Mandela Park, Regent Park and Duke of York, and spending every other weekend with his father’s family in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation (or Big Trout Lake). He would attend Council Fire in Regent Park to learn Indigenous drumming. It was there that his mom found a posting for an open casting call searching for Indigenous youth.
“My mom really pushed for me to do it,” he says. “Without her, I don’t think I would have actually stepped forward and done it.”
The project behind that audition fell apart, but the casting director, Larissa Mair, kept Woon-A-Tai in mind and eventually landed him a small role on tween series Holly Hobbie. He followed that up with parts on Murdoch Mysteries, Tracey Deer’s Beans and his starring role in Reservation Dogs.
He’s not the only cast member flashing a Canadian passport. Alexis is from Alberta’s Nakota Sioux Nation. Jacobs, the co-star packing the heavyweight emotions, is from Kahnawake in Quebec, as is Kaniehtiio Horn, who plays the Deer Woman. Sisters Sarah and Jennifer Podemski who play Bear and Willie Jack’s tender mothers, respectively, are from Muscowpetung First Nation. And Gary Farmer, from Six Nations, has a hysterical recurring role as an eccentric stoner uncle.
I make a point about the wealth of Indigenous talent we have in Canada. Woon-A-Tai rejects that separation between Canadian and American Indigenous communities, reminding that those “invisible borders” were imposed by settlers. “It’s not like this is Canadian, this is American. It’s just one land.”
He speaks to the shared experiences between Indigenous communities on both sides of the medicine line, but also the stark differences making it so that no one face can represent the entirety of Indigenous experience.
“An Indigenous person in a big city will have faced different challenges than an Indigenous person on the reservation,” says Woon-A-Tai, adding that even the reservation experience is extremely varied. “Some locations are more isolated than others. And then in response, they have [more] drug abuse and suicide rates.”
Woon-A-Tai also explains the range of attitudes when it comes to staying on the reservation or moving away, which is a central tension in Reservation Dogs as the characters plot an escape to California. Woon-A-Tai maps out the difference in those attitudes between his family’s reservation in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug and Kahnawake, where his co-star Jacobs hails from. He describes Kahnawake as a very proud Mohawk community. “It’s important for them to stay on the reservation. My community, you’re seen as a hero if you leave, make work and be successful.”
Woon-A-Tai chalks up the difference to geography. Big Trout Lake is isolated, which makes leaving a challenge for those without money. “It’s definitely seen as an accomplishment,” says Woon-a-Tai. Kahnawake is close to Montreal, which is one of the earliest settlements in Canada. That interaction for generations has made the Mohawk community more protective of their culture, Woon-A-Tai explains.
Reservation Dogs rides that tension between staying or leaving, exploring both as avenues towards healing from trauma and loss. Healing is ultimately what this show is about.
“Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs were the two first Indigenous-led television shows,” says Woon-A-Tai, adding that they are both comedies. “That’s how we treat our traumas, through comedy. Laughter is another form of medicine. It’s very much healing.
“But it’s healing in the form of making Indigenous people proud of who they are,” Woon-A-Tai adds, referring to a new generation that can hang onto this moment and undo the self-hate indoctrinated by residential schools and pop culture. “So many people were talking to me, saying that it’s beautiful that their children are growing up and seeing this as normal. This generation coming up – you’re going to see a different type of a way of life.”
There is one community that felt left out of the healing Woon-A-Tai describes. Members of the Afro-Indigenous community in Oklahoma described disappointment for not seeing their stories reflected in Reservation Dogs, which is an opening for a bigger conversation, perhaps in season two.
That begins shooting in March. And all Woon-A-Tai tells me to expect is more characters that represent all kinds of Indigenous people, not just the ones Hollywood expects to see. “They’re definitely going to do justice, which all Indigenous people deserve.”
He goes on to describe a “gold rush,” where Hollywood is grasping for more Indigenous stories because they see the appetite and the rewards. But Woon-A-Tai trusts that this gold rush will be different than the extractive one from history because people like Harjo, Waititi and Night Raiders director Danis Goulet are teaming up, leading the way, opening the doors and empowering other Indigenous talents to take on new positions of power.
“People always tell me that this is a moment for Indigenous people,” says Woon-A-Tai. “That’s bullshit. Saying it’s a moment means it’s brief. We weren’t here for a moment. We weren’t on this land for a moment. We were here forever, since time immemorial.
“This is not a brief moment. This is just going to keep on rising and rising until we own all of Hollywood. Jump on board because it’s fucking awesome.”