The third episode of Reservation Dogs, appropriately titled “Uncle Brownie,” is all about stories. The stories that guide us, stories told about us, and stories we tell ourselves. It’s appropriate, given the Indigenous oral traditions that are in some ways at the heart of this story, as Uncle Brownie teaches Bear, Elora Danan, and Willie Jack how to fight without letting them swing a fist.
Before we get there, we get the stories white people tell themselves about the “Indians,” as an old married couple out on a leisurely drive get in an argument over reparations, casinos, and the myth of a $1000/month payment each Indigenous person gets from the government. Matt Saracen’s grandmother calls her husband a “shit-ass” multiple times in sixty seconds, and it’s worth the price of admission on its own. Her husband’s blithe ignorance inspires a nice little rant only slightly spoiled by her insistence that she herself is part Native American, a story much of white America tells itself in a desperate unconscious need to connect to the land they know their ancestors stole. Whatever spiritual connection they may feel, though, it doesn’t stop them from running straight into what I’m pretty confident is a mule deer, or leaving the poor thing on the road for our Rez Dogs to find and collect for its meat. Pro-tip: do not store dead deer in your trunk. The smell… lingers.
But enough about the white folks, because the story isn’t about them. It’s about Uncle Brownie (veteran character actor Gary Farmer) and the night he knocked out ten people in a single barfight. Bear, still sore from his NDN Mafia ass-whuppin’, doesn’t know how to defend himself. Elora Danan takes him to see her “Uncle” Brownie. It’s one of those unclear familial situations where Brownie is genetically Elora’s second or more distant cousin, but because he was raised by Elora’s grandmother, is also sort of her deceased mother Cookie’s brother. It has to be said Uncle Brownie isn’t the friendliest guy at first, even after he learns Elora is Cookie’s girl. He’s a recluse who lives off the land (and Sonic) whose property is covered in traps and decorated with skulls and owl decoys. Owls being dead spirits or omens of imminent disaster, it’s enough to make Willie Jack extra nervous. She already suspects Brownie’s a shapeshifter. She’s not above a little bad medicine and hopes Brownie can curse the NDN Mafia with a bag of their hair. But there’s bad medicine and then there’s wizards and shapeshifters, and Willie Jack doesn’t want any truck with the latter. Her accusations lead to an entertaining spitting contest that Bear and Elora watch like a tennis match.
Fortunately, Brownie’s mood improves substantially when he finds a 15-year-old jar of skunk weed buried in his yard. The fact you can legally get better herb for cheap at the dispensaries doesn’t faze him. He’d rather have his old green than that new purple sticky and since he thinks other folks should too, he barters with the Dogs for a ride to town to sell his weed in exchange for fighting lessons. Not that anyone wants it, and not that Bear finds his fighting lessons all that helpful. But Uncle Brownie’s got his good points. As a role model, he advocates strongly for marijuana use over alcohol, and honestly who can blame him? And Bear’s learning. He just doesn’t realize it because it’s not in a neat little instruction manual. Brownie teaches with his stories, in the traditional Indigenous way and teaches him the first, most important lesson; always be ready. Then it’s off to the local dispensary where Brownie learns he is not at all prepared for the THC levels in the white man’s 21st-century marijuana and we see the Indigenous respect for traditional medicine. Between the pot and some Sonic, Brownie realizes he’s ready to go back to the beginning of his story, and the story Elora, Bear, and Willie Jack have been chasing all day.
Local stories are a big thing in small towns. They’re told and retold and usually grow in the telling. Circumstances change, crowds wax and wane, and story becomes legend. Brownie’s story is unusual in that it gets larger the closer we get to the truth. Elora Danan thought her uncle whipped ten men in two minutes. Brownie himself claims it was twenty, and one of them a cop. When our foursome finally arrives at Ol’ Muggy’s Bar so Brownie can offer his ditch weed and heartfelt apology, they discover it was thirty men and two cops. And here the story changes again.
Hometown folks loved telling the story of how my grandfather knocked a man off his feet with a single punch, without ever leaving his own barstool. My WWII Marine, NYC construction worker, cattle-raising grandfather had stopped for a drink after gassing up the tractor. When my grandma called the bar and asked him to come home and he promptly paid his tab, a loudmouth decided to accuse her of being domineering and my grandfather of being attached to her apron strings. Granddad turned, hit him once with a fist the size of a shovel, and put him out cold. Then he finished his beer, climbed on the tractor, and went home to his wife. I loved that story too when I was a kid. Who doesn’t want their father or grandfather to be a badass? Then someone told the story again, only this time my grandfather was there. And I saw shame on his face rather than pride. We talked about it some. He didn’t regret standing up for my grandmother or his own pride. He regretted being the kind of man who ever turned to violence as a solution. He’d seen plenty in the Pacific and wanted nothing more to do with it. Better to have an easy humor and tolerance for fools than let him make him something he wasn’t.
I loved him more for that.
The story, the true story, isn’t just about what Brownie did but why. Gary Farmer shows us Brownie’s shame and embarrassment in exquisite detail. When confronted with the truth of his actions Brownie doesn’t swell with pride. He apologizes, humbly and sincerely. He has no excuse for his behavior; he wasn’t in the right. He wasn’t honorable. He did a line of meth because he thought it was cocaine, and went out of his mind. He offers his pot, a couple of rounds for the house, and venison backstrap off the doe in the trunk. Folks will forgive a lot for beer and backstrap, essentially deer ribeye and tenderloin. Brownie and his nieces and nephew go out to butcher the doe and… Yeah, I can’t spoil the scene. It’s too good.
I loved this episode. I love this show. I’m already disappointed there are only a few episodes left and that we don’t yet have confirmation on a second season. Please join me next week for another recap, tentatively titled Where the Fork is Cheese?
Header Image Source: Hulu screenshots