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“Growing up on the reservation, stray animals would always come to our house,” says Paulina Jewel Alexis, aka Young Eagle, the breakout star of FX’s moody, coming-of-age comedy, Reservation Dogs. (Created by Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo, it’s the first TV series to boast an all-Indigenous writer and director roster). As the series’ title suggests, the 20-year-old Alexis was raised on a Sioux Nation Reserve (in Alberta, Canada) and is a huge fan of canines. In fact, she has two: a German Shepherd / Pit Bull mix named Rose, and Rose’s daughter, Lila — born while the actor was filming season 2 of the series (out now).
“I grew up seeing dogs in the bush hit by a car or freezing to death. That really made me sad and made me love dogs even more.” She also has a story that pinpoints the exact start of her obsession with horses: “Once, a horse came up that was all bruised and had this big cut on its neck from barbed wire,” she recalls. Alexis and her grandma nursed the horse back to health with some salt water and penicillin. She named it Spirit, before begrudgingly returning it to the owner from whom it had wandered. “And that’s when I fell in love with horses.”
In the first season of Reservation Dogs, we meet her immediately likable character, Willie Jack, who, much like Alexis herself, is a soulful, chilled-out tomboy. (“Alexis, as Willie Jack, is the true original,” the New Yorker mused about her performance. “Never has ‘f*ck’ or ‘love you, b*tch’ been mumbled with such spiky finesse”).
“She is me,” Alexis declares. And after speaking with the actor about the intersection between reservation life, her love of animals, and her lofty plans for Willie Jack to become an Indian relay-racer — well, we tend to agree.
Did you bring any of your own dogs to set while filming season 2 of Reservation Dogs?
I was bringing Rose to set, actually. I’d bring her to table reads. The production office, I brought her there a couple times. Then it got to the point where she became too much for me. So I would just keep her at home [where she was staying in Oklahoma].
How did you get her all the way from Canada to Oklahoma?
We drove. Just for season 2. I got a car, and I got to drive out there. She’s really good in a car. I always feel so bad leaving both dogs at home. So, like, I always take them with me to the beach or do something with my friends or camping.
Did you FaceTime her while you were filming season 1?
Yeah, she just looked so sad. She would look at the camera and turn her head and cry. My whole family said that she would go around the house, like, crying for me — in and out of my room, looking for me.
When you take her on set, do your castmates play with her?
Well, when I brought her, she was pregnant, so she couldn’t really go far. I wanted her to be on the show. I was like, “Just put her in the back as a random dog or something!”
Did you help deliver her babies?
Yes, I delivered all her puppies! They’re all spoken for. But I got to keep one, Lila. Before I finished [filming], my friend drove back with all the puppies. They were still newborns, so it was an easy drive. There was just, like, a blizzard on the way.
Tell me about your horses.
I’ve always loved horses since I was a kid. My dad used to do rodeo, but he never wanted me to get into horses, because he thought I would hurt myself. We couldn’t afford horses back then. We didn’t have any on the rez [reservation], because there wasn’t anywhere to put them. Now that I’m older and I have my own money, I taught myself how to ride and am training for an Indian relay right now.
So, your dad’s not happy.
He always says, “Paulina, you’re gonna break your spine!” But I’m gonna ride. And I want to bring horses back to my reserve, because I’m the only rider from my reserve. I feel like a lot of our youth would excel in the sport of Indian relay. I think that it will give them a sense of responsibility, a sense of purpose. The more you learn about your horse, the more you learn about yourself.
They are so good for therapy. They’re, like, so sweet and can feel everything. The youth in my reserve, they struggle with addiction, because intergenerational trauma lingers really hard.
What is life on a reservation like in terms of animals and pets?
It depends on where you are. In Indian country, we do Indian relay because back then [we] couldn’t afford saddles. We race around the track with thoroughbreds, like, the fastest horse. And you ride bareback. You exchange three times, on three different horses, with one rider. And that’s what I want my character doing as well.
I suppose it creates more of a connection between human and horse.
Yeah, you become one with the horse.
You mentioned you see your character, Willie Jack, getting into horses. Is that actually something we’ll see?
I hope so. I’ve been begging them since day one. “I hope you guys make Willie Jack a relay rider, because that will be really good scoop!” So I don’t know. Maybe season 3.
In the season 2 trailer, Willie Jack says something about removing a white-witch curse. What exactly is she up to this season?
You remember in season 1 when Willie Jack went to Uncle Brownie, and she wanted him to put a curse on [local rivals] Jackie and them? Uncle Brownie didn’t want to do it, and she couldn’t find anyone to do it. But then a white guy was like, “Let’s see!” And then it just ends. This season you’ll see Willie Jack trying to fix it and undo the curse. At the end of season 1, Willie Jack reached this place of peace, content to stay with her loving family.
Will that peace last through season 2?
That gets shaken up a bit. You’ll see Willie Jack connect back to her roots a lot, and you will also understand her better. She is the way she is because of a specific reason.
How did you feel about the episode last year where Willie Jack goes hunting with her dad?
Oh, that was a fake deer. But our people do hunt a lot. What I like specifically about how we hunt on my rez…we hunt all year ’round, and we get a lot of moose and stuff. I see my grandma making dry meat and stuff like that. It’s always been a part of us. We use every part of the animal, so we’re not, like, wasting anything. We do it in a respectful way. That’s what I love about my people. Up north in the Arctic, they can’t even grow fruits and vegetables and stuff. All their food gets sent to them, and it’s really expensive. They have to hunt to survive.
That deer was fake, but did you get to work with any real animals on the show?
In the hunting episode, that was a real turkey! It was pretty fun. I was having fun with that turkey on the side. I would go up and pet it. We tried to make the turkey follow us. We had to keep doing it over and over again to keep it in the frame.
Nisha Gopalan has been a writer/editor for The New York Times, New York magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and NYLON magazines. She currently resides in Los Angeles.