The place: Reservation Dogs Season One, Episode Two, “NDN Clinic”
Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and cheese (lane factor) all hang out at the Indian Health Service (IHS) clinic of their local Oklahoma reservation. This is not their idea of a nice meeting place. The four teenage friends plan to raise money so they can finally get away from their dead-end “rez”, and in order to do so they come up with the idea of setting up a station outside their clinic and selling some meat pies. For example, Jacobs was already quite familiar with the dish: “They’re a staple in Muskogee communities, but I feel like we all have our own version of them.”
The IHS clinic is the main setting of the episode – it’s where Cheese befriends an elderly clinic patient, Bear gets jumped by the “NDN mafia”, Elara starts having a stomachache after eating too many chips, and ends up meeting we the snarky, sarcastic clinic secretary, Bev (Jana Schmieding† “Hey, everybody, this girl with a stomachache is selling meat pies,” Bev tells Elora after being hit for a sale. “Do you want one?”
While Bev’s cameo is short and sweet, many of the cast and crew of Res Dogs agree that it’s still one of the funniest performances of the entire season (so much so that Bev even returns in season two). “Bev doesn’t care HoeraJacobs says. “She’s every aunt I’ve ever encountered behind every counter in my community.”
For Schmieding, who is also the star of Peacock’s Rutherford Falls, the character comes from that exact inspiration. “I’ve also been to IHS clinics, so I know what it’s like there,” says Schmieding, who is a member of the Cheyenne River Lakota Sioux Tribe. “I just know Bev is like that with every person who walks through the door — annoyed that they’re even here. Like, ‘How dare you make me work?’”
But getting character wasn’t as easy as choosing the attitude. She worked with series cocreator Sterling Harjo to cultivate that signature Bev sass. “Sterlin had a character in mind [for Bev]’ says Schmiding. “He really wanted this receptionist to be stone cold and completely stretched, which isn’t really my forte – I tend to be more expressive and play with my face and do crazy things.”
A comedian by trade, it took Schmieding a few takes to get the monotonous voice and judgmental eyes cast down. “I got the note a few times that said, ‘Just take it completely flat this time,’” she says. “I’d think I was doing it, but he’d be like, ‘No, just dried out this time.’” Meanwhile, Jacobs struggled to keep his face straight: “It was hard to play offended when Jana talked about my digestive system,” she says.
Even more powerful than the eye daggers Bev shoots at her patients, though, is the deeper meaning at play in the episode. Bev, and the poorly run clinic where she works, actually serve as a commentary on reservation clinics and their widespread lack of funding. “Different institutions play a role in [people in] The life of an Indian country, and IHS is one of them,” says Jacobs. “It’s definitely a commentary on people getting services [there] damn suck. Studies have shown that we, as indigenous peoples, receive significantly less money per person per capita; It makes it light-hearted — as we Indians do, by laughing at everything — but it’s actually fueling a bigger conversation about access to health care in our communities.”
While there is an element of satire, Schmieding adds that the episode is not intended to “pollute” the IHS. “It says, here’s an underfunded institution, and the people in it are committed,” she says.
Schmieding, whose character returns in the second season of Rutherford Falls this week, remembers her time on the Native-led set of Reservation Dogs as a very special experience. “I remember looking into the background and seeing so many indigenous elders and community members that Sterlin had invited to be people in the clinic’s waiting room,” she says. “It just felt real — like a legit IHS experience.”
Jacobs adds that there’s a certain power that comes with working on a show that comes completely out of the native lens. “We all come from different communities and cultures in North America, but there is also a common thread between all of us,” she says. “There’s a shorthand we can use when we’re doing takes — we don’t need to exaggerate or justify choices. We can draw on our experiences and find things that we wouldn’t find if we weren’t surrounded by relatives.”
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