"Reservation Dogs" and "Echo" star on the "appetite for Native stories" and living up to her name

Devery Jacobs appears on "Salon Talks" to discuss writing for "Reservation Dogs," Marvel representation and more

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published September 14, 2022 8:18PM (EDT)

Devery Jacobs (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty images/Momodu Mansaray/FilmMagic/Iana Kunitsa)
Devery Jacobs (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty images/Momodu Mansaray/FilmMagic/Iana Kunitsa)

When she appears onscreen for our recent Zoom interview, Devery Jacobs is the portrait of chill despite admitting, "It's been a pretty crazy time."  The "Reservation Dogs" star is just stating facts, not complaining. She connected with Salon from Atlanta where she was on a break from working on the upcoming "Hawkeye" spinoff "Echo," due out next year.

Being a Marvel joint, Jacobs is contractually barred from saying much about her role beyond expressing her thrill at collaborating again with Navajo director Sydney Freeland, with whom Jacobs has worked in Peacock's "Rutherford Falls," along with the FX/Hulu comedy in which she stars.

As of Season 2, Jacobs is also one of the critically acclaimed show's writers. Like she said, her schedule is full.

But the work she's doing makes the effort worthwhile. On "Reservation Dogs" Jacobs plays Elora Danan, a young woman torn between wanting to run away from the Oklahoma rez where she was raised, and the mighty pull of her family's and friends' love for her. "Mabel," the fourth episode of the current season, clarifies the ramifications a person's departure has on a close-knit community like Elora's. It also represents Jacobs' first co-writing credit on the series, which she shares with Sterlin Harjo.

The "Reservation Dogs" creator was already familiar with Jacobs' screenwriting through several of her other projects, including the recently released Canadian feature "This Place." But she didn't take that for granted.

"I was just like, 'I'm going to have to brace myself to battle it out and be like, 'Here's why you should have me in the room' and plead my case," Jacobs remembered. "And when I was gearing up to do that, Sterlin actually invited me into the room, straight up. I was just like, 'Wait a minute. You mean I don't actually have to fight for this?'"

The episode "Mabel" proves the soundness of Harjo's choice, as Elora joins her friends, family and neighbors gathered to say goodbye to her grandmother Mabel (Geraldine Keams) in one of the season's most moving storylines. Jacobs, who is Mohawk, wanted to show the audience a tradition that's central to her own experience while also depicting the lasting impact of someone leaving their community behind, as Elora's Aunt Teenie did after her mother Cookie died.

Watch our "Salon Talks" here or read a transcript below as we discuss "Mabel" as well as the expanded representation for Indigenous actors, writers and directors in Hollywood.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On "Reservation Dogs," you have an all-Native writers room. I know that there have been a number of series that do. I recently talked to Zahn [McClarnon], one of your co-stars on "Reservation Dogs," for "Dark Winds," and he was very excited to have an all-Native production, and talking about his role as an executive producer and the star there. What is the representation on "Echo"?

"The Native film industry is just so small, and it's comprised of people who are just working so hard to try and kick the doors down, and to have our stories be heard."

The representation is actually a mix of different folks. There's Indigenous folks who are directing and who are in the writers room, but there's also deaf folks and there's also some other experienced writers. But because the series follows Echo, played by Alaqua [Cox], who plays Maya Lopez, there's definitely a lot of deaf representation in there too. And so that's been something that's just such an honor to be a part of and invited into a world of deaf culture that I hadn't had access to previously.

"Mabel"  is an episode that has a lot of moving parts to it. Obviously you've been writing since 2016, so . . . you're not green at it. Still, I'm someone who's been writing for decades and if I was handed an episode where I had to handle so many different moving parts, I would find it challenging. What that was like?

Being a part of that room was something that was really special because I've either known all of the writers or known of them for years. The Native film industry is just so small, and it's comprised of people who are just working so hard to try and kick the doors down, and to have our stories be heard. [It's] also filled with people who have been told by the industry for decades that there's just not an audience for Native stories. There isn't an appetite for it.

 . . . But when it came to this episode, I guess I wasn't going into the room anticipating writing for Elora Danan. I went in genuinely wanting to write and be a part of the creation of the season. And it was actually really focused on all of the other characters. But when it came to that episode, I was especially passionate about the conversations of death with Indigenous people, because I feel like for our communities . . . that death is a really hands on, warm experience.

Obviously there's exceptions: when people die by suicide, like Daniel in the series, or when people have passed before their time. Those are obviously the exceptions. But for the most part, when somebody's an elder and somebody passes away and they're surrounded by community, it's a celebration. It's like some of the funnest times I've had in my community, where you're with them all night long telling stories of the stupid stuff they did growing up. And I think that it's a glimpse into our cultures in a way that hasn't been explored before.

I couldn't be more proud of that episode, as a writer or actor. And I just really appreciated how beautifully and with how much care the director, Danis Goulet, had directed that episode.

One of the things that this show does so well, as you've said before, is finding the universality in specificity.

The other that this particular episode does is give us deeper knowledge about this community. This is the episode where you find out that the pain that your friends are feeling has been felt by the generation before you, with Elora Danan's mother, Cookie, passing. How did you decide to incorporate these themes and bring in so many different voices to take these stories and move them forward, and give [Elora] a new perspective on what it means to be home?

I think that's where audiences are going to be really surprised, pleasantly, by where we go this season. And one of those storylines was how it [Cookie's passing] impacted and shockwaved through the community, and how that's kind of happened also with Daniel.

"All of these components were things that have already been baked into the DNA of our series."

It was already in the story. If we look at last season in Episode 7, the "California Dreaming" episode, Bill Burr's character, Coach Bobson, talks about how he was impacted when Cookie had passed and what that was like. . . . It just makes sense for the audience, but also for Elora, to see the impact of Teenie leaving, her Aunt Teenie (Tamara Podemski), who didn't get to be a part of her life because she left once Cookie had passed away, similarly to how all Elora Danan wanted to flee and wants to flee after the passing of Daniel.

And so Elora gets to get a glimpse into her future – should she choose to leave – and the impact of that, while also feeling anger and grief over the loss of this person who could and should have been in her life, and also getting to see someone who is still connected to community, even though they've left.

All of these components were things that have already been baked into the DNA of our series. My favorite, being an actor turned filmmaker, is tracking everybody's emotions throughout the series and making sure that even if it's in little moments, that we're checking in with everyone and we know where they're at about everything, because that's why we care. That's why we're all here.

In this industry, whenever there is a surge in representation for any group, there's this tendency to be like, "It's a moment!" which is so infuriating, because a moment is small. One of the things that has been such a boon is to see you and Zahn, and Elva [Guerra] who was in "Dark Winds" with Zahn before then they came back to reprise Jackie on "Reservation Dogs," and Jana [Schmieding] coming in from "Rutherford Falls."

Do you feel like this momentum is something that's here to stay? What is your sense, just in terms of the presence that you as artists and you, Devery, as an artist, have in this industry right now?

Yes, it is a moment, but it's a moment that is launching the beginning of a greater industry for Indigenous folks, is what I'm feeling and what I'm determined to make sure happens. And even this industry is not the same industry that it was even five years ago, even three years ago. And I think seeing people come up and also talking to different folks who've been trailblazing the industry, people like Zahn, people like Tantoo Cardinal, who I'm getting to work with in "Echo," getting to work with Graham Greene, and people who forged this path for us to follow has been wild.

I was speaking with Tantoo on set the other day, and she said the first film she was in was 1971, when people had a very different idea about Indigenous people in North America. And so to be a part of this, I think, is the first glimpse into the stories that we have to share and is the first time that we are getting to prove that widespread audiences have an appetite for Native stories. And so I think that's the exciting part.

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It's also a little frustrating that it's taken this long for that to happen. And I've spoken before how it feels a little bit like whiplash – where all of the things that specified me too much, that made me sound too much like I was from a rez in Canada and that I wouldn't be able to work, all of those things that I was told to get rid of because it meant that I would be considered less of an actor – are now things that are being celebrated for in this show, which is absolutely the way it should be.

I've always known that Native people are so freaking cool and should be on stages like this. So I think it's a lot of undoing and unlearning the ways that we were taught to exist as Native people in this industry and to blow past that and to forge a new way forward. And I hope that there are so many creatives coming up, Indigenous creatives coming up, who I have no idea who they are, because that just means that there's more people and that we're growing a bigger industry for ourselves and for our communities.

One last question, and I just want to call this out so people notice it: On "Mabel," you use your full name [in the credits]. Can you talk about the significance of that?

Totally. So that's my first name legally. I was born and raised as Kawennáhere, and that's what my family calls me. The name was given to me by  . . . my grandmother. The direct translation means, "Her word is above." But what that means is what I have to say is important. And so I definitely try to live up to my name, when creating and acting as a filmmaker, whether that's a writer or director, it definitely comes from a personal place. And it's not me playing a character. It's me looking within and sharing some of that information as a creative. So for me having my first name be a part of it, when the writing process was such a personal process and such a personal component where each of us were deriving from our own lives, it just made sense for me to include my full name.

New episodes of "Reservation Dogs" stream Wednesdays on Hulu.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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