Keland Lee Bearpaw made his acting debut in a fifth grade Christmas play. After that performance, he threw in the acting towel for a little over a decade. But now, he’s made his comeback as Danny Bighead on the FX on Hulu series “Reservation Dogs .”
Bearpaw plays an antagonist in the show that follows a gang of four Native teenagers on their journey to try and leave the reservation behind for their dreams in California. Bearpaw’s character, Danny Bighead, is a wisecracking member of the rival gang. “Reservation Dogs” was filmed on Muscogee Nation land and co-created by Indigenous filmmakers Sterlin Harjo, director of “Love and Fury,” and Taika Waititi, director of “Thor: Ragnarok.”
The series has garnered praise across the board and was named as one of the American Film Institute’s “10 Outstanding TV Programs” of 2021, with the likes of “WandaVision,” “Ted Lasso” and “Mare of Easttown.”
According to the American Film Institute, in order to make the list, the shows needed to be “deemed culturally and artistically representative of this year’s most significant achievements in the art of the moving image.”
“Reservation Dogs” was also awarded the number one spot in a “10 Best … TV Shows of 2021” Entertainment Weekly list, beating out “Squid Game” and “Succession.”
Bearpaw, who is Yuchi, Creek, Cherokee and Seminole, lives in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, with his wife and one-year-old son. He said he first heard about “Reservation Dogs” when he and his friends saw a casting call in Tulsa for Native actors and decided to pile into a pickup truck to go try their luck.
“Really, we weren’t even going to try and make it,” Bearpaw said. “We were just going for fun and to see what would happen … to make a memory.”
Bearpaw said when he walked into the audition room he was immediately starstruck. He said Sterlin Harjo was sitting in a corner of the room, quietly playing guitar. Bearpaw said he was already a big fan of Harjo and his comedy skits on YouTube with The 1491s .
“(Harjo) was just sitting there, chilling, posted up,” Bearpaw said. “After I got done, he put down his guitar and he looked at me and he was like, ‘Alright, take this other piece of paper and go learn it and come back here in a second.’”
Bearpaw said he walked out of the audition room and asked his friends if they were asked to go read again, to which they all replied “No.”
He and his friends never expected anything to come of the auditions, so Bearpaw said he felt relaxed during his first reading. Once it was clear he might have a shot of landing a role, he said the pressure started weighing on him.
“My wife, my girlfriend at the time, got excited,” Bearpaw said. “She hyped it up a lot and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I guess this is a pretty big deal right now.’”
Bearpaw spent the rest of the day in and out of the audition room, each time receiving a new piece of script to go memorize. That nerve-wracking day would prepare him for what the next weeks of his life would feel like.
Bearpaw said after the first day of auditions in Tulsa he went home without knowing if he had been cast. Eventually, he received an email from the casting director asking him to come back to Tulsa to read again. A few weeks later, he was asked to go audition in Norman and he was told the next step in the process would be auditioning in California.
A month after his Norman audition, Bearpaw said he finally received an email inviting him to come audition in California and was told he needed to make the trip the next day.
“I was really antsy,” Bearpaw said. “I was really excited and kind of jumping around.”
Bearpaw’s excitement didn’t last for long. He said an hour later the same casting director emailed him back and said they had changed their mind and would be moving in a different direction.
After Bearpaw spent a week being bummed out, he said he received an email to clear his schedule for another callback. He said he ended up going to that callback and before he knew it, he was shooting the pilot.
“It was crazy,” Bearpaw said. “I had my own trailer.”
While shooting the show, Bearpaw said he was blown away by the number of cast and crew members who were Native, and he even got to meet a few more of his idols — Dallas Goldtooth and Migizi Pensoneau — from The 1491s.
“One of my favorite parts was getting to see the people I look up to,” Bearpaw said. “It might seem crazy because they’re not big time just yet … but I thought it was amazing to see them because those are people that we’ve always seen as stars in our Native community.”
Bearpaw said he even caught an Easter egg for The 1491s on set and excitedly brought it up with Harjo. The group was paid homage to with the house number on one of the main character’s homes, which reads “1491.”
After the filming was finished, “Reservation Dogs” was released and widely praised for its portrayal of Native people in the modern day. Smithsonian Magazine referred to the show as “a breakthrough for Indigenous representation on screen.”
Bearpaw said the show’s contemporary setting is one of the things he admires most about it.
“It represents here, today,” Bearpaw said. “We’re still here, alive. … It’s modern day and modern society.”
Bearpaw said he is hopeful that the show will have a positive impact on non-Native people’s understanding of Native culture. Before his time on the show, Bearpaw graduated from Sapulpa High School in 2018. There, he came face-to-face with cultural insensitivity caused by what he said is ignorance.
At the time Bearpaw attended the school, he said the logo featured a Native man in a feather headdress, who was based on the Creek Chief Sapulpa, and that a Chieftain served as the school’s symbol. But Bearpaw said that Creek people did not wear headdresses like that.
The Sapulpa Junior and Senior High School Twitter The account shows the Chieftain logo wearing a headdress with feathers on it and features the hashtag #CheiftainStrong. Sapulpa High School administrators did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’s really not a good depiction of us,” Bearpaw said. “It’s not Creek. It’s not Yuchi. It’s not anything.”
He said while he was attending the school, he was asked if he wanted to dress up as the mascot, to which he declined. Another time, a student made noises with their mouth and hands in an attempt to make fun of Bearpaw and his culture .
Despite the harassment, Bearpaw said he tries not to take things like that to heart.
“I can’t be mad at someone who’s my age … because it’s not their fault. It’s been like this since 1492,” Bearpaw said. “Unless I inform them and they continue to do it, then it’s their fault, and then I might have a problem with it.”
Sapulpa High School graduate Brent Deo, who grew up with Bearpaw and also auditioned to be in “Reservation Dogs,” said he observed similar things at the school.
Deo, who is Creek, Yuchi, Seminole and Cherokee, said he disagrees with mascots that depict Native people. He said it can feel dehumanizing and that any effort to pay respect or homage to Native culture by way of mascot is disrespectful.
“It really is kind of degrading (there are) certain things we hold as sacred, and it makes a mockery of it,” Deo said. “They want to say it’s paying homage, but I think they just say that because they don’ t want to feel like they’re wrong.”
Deo said that many schools will use vague names, like the Warriors at Washington Public Schools, and then use a caricature of a Native person as the mascot.
“You can keep the name, but change the whole mascot because anybody can be a warrior,” Deo said. “The image of the mascot is problematic because it just plays into the stereotypes and then it gives them free range to dress up in their stereotypical Indian garb.”
Despite the anger Deo feels about issues like this, he said he agrees with Bearpaw and that most of other people’s hatred and insensitivity stems from the fact that they just don’t understand.
“I don’t mean to say white people, but it’s usually white folks or European folks. … They’re coming from generations of people who acted like that towards us, with hate,” Deo said. “And it’s not it’s not their fault. It’s just ignorance.”
Jason Salsman, press secretary for the Muscogee Nation, said that mascots, like those at Sapulpa High School, are a traumatic issue for Native people. Salsman said the effect of such portrayals can have a negative impact on young Native people in particular.
In a research report funded by the Oneida Nation, psychologist Michael A. Friedman said that exposure to Native mascots, whether or not they were culturally accurate, negatively affected Native people’s self esteem.
According to the report, “Not only do mascots have a direct effect on Native American self-esteem, mood, community confidence and sense of achievement, but they also perpetuate negative associations of and attitudes towards Native Americans among non-Native American groups.”
Salsman, who is a citizen of the Muscogee Nation, said much of the cultural insensitivity present in places like Sapulpa High School can be explained by a lack of knowledge of Native culture. He said that although he believes Native people need to continue to educate people and share their culture, it is ultimately up to those who are ignorant of the culture to choose to learn.
“The best way forward is opening serious dialogue … about how harmful these (mascots) can be if they’re done improperly,” Salsman said. “Anything that deals with Native culture (needs to have) the respect of tribes and have those tribes take part as a real participant in those conversations.”
When he was growing up, Bearpaw said there wasn’t much Native media available to consume. He said most of the time Native people were depicted in a sad or depressing way, but “Reservation Dogs” feels more celebratory with its humor and triumph.
Bearpaw said he is hopeful that the show will change the world his son will grow up in and encourage others to be more accepting and understanding of Native culture.
“It feels crazy and amazing. It almost makes me want to cry or tear up,” Bearpaw said. “This (show) is something to really be proud of.”
“Reservation Dogs” has been renewed for season two and all episodes of season one are available to stream on FX on Hulu.