A version of this article originally appeared on Alma.
In FX’s newest hit series, “Reservation Dogs,” the audience first meets Rita Smallhill, mother to main character Bear, prepping for a night out. Rita croons TLC’s “Waterfalls” while blithely swiping mascara across her eyelashes and checking herself out in the mirror. When Bear asks where she’s going and who she’ll be with, Rita retorts, “With my friends, Grandpa.”
It’s a telling first introduction to Rita, a tough yet loving single Native mom in a show which is historic for sharing Native stories and characters with such a widespread audience.
Sarah Podemski, the actress who plays Rita, is similarly tough. Frankly, she’s had to be. On her mother’s side she is Salteaux, a tribe of First Nations people who are part of the Ojibwe Nations in Canada. After inhabiting North America for thousands of years, Indigenous peoples, including her ancestors, were dispossessed of their land and culture by European colonizers. Other horrors they would endure include the residential school system in Canada and the United States, which, again, Sarah’s relatives were subjected to.
On her father’s side, she comes from Holocaust survivors. Her grandfather, Joseph Podemski, was born in Lodz, Poland in the 1920s and, like basically all other European Jews during World War II, was sent to concentration camps. During this time he lost his mother and sister. After being liberated, Joseph reunited with his brother Fajwel, who was hidden during the war, and together they moved to Israel. There, Joseph met his wife, Betty, and they started a family together. Eventually, they moved to Toronto, where Joseph passed away just last year.
Sarah talked to Alma over Zoom about her Anishinaabe/Ashkenazi identity, her youth involvement in Hashomer Hatzair, reparations and the survival instincts of both communities.
This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Could you tell me a little bit about the process of being cast in the show?
I had worked with [co-creator] Sterlin [Harjo] previously in a feature film, so we were familiar with each other. When I got the script, the character was completely there. There wasn’t much reaching; she was so clear. I’m not sure if it was because it was from his mind. But the vision of who Rita was, was so clear. There wasn’t much I had to do.
Sometimes, you get a script and you’re like, who is this person? You have to do all this work to figure out how to put your stamp on something, or how to make it yours. In [this] script, every character was so clear. So being able to step into a role like that is really comforting. Especially in the sense of being on set and shooting and knowing that the director, all the writers in the writers’ room, the producers and the other actors have a similar lived experience. There’s a safety there of being able to step into a character like that, and know that when you’re dealing with certain issues that you’re in a safe place to explore those storylines. So from the first time reading it to the last shot I did with that show, I knew it was gonna be a huge success. Just because it was overdue, and it’s so good.
Do you feel like you eventually put a stamp on Rita or inflected some of yourself onto her?
I mean, I hope so. I know she was written to be really tough, and show tough love. There’s a lot of love in Rita. My mom is like that. My mom is super, super tough and she comes from a lot of intergenerational trauma, being Indigenous. And I know that she’s had to have a tough exterior to move through the world comfortably. But there’s also so many moments where she’s just so loving and caring, that it’s so crazy to see that these two people exist in the same body. You know? I think that was an exciting thing to portray: that we can have these tough, fierce women that will protect their children and protect their community, but also, you know, just have so much love and softness. That’s a balance which we just never get to see. We just never get to see multi-dimensional Native women, period.
We have had content within our communities of incredible storytellers, and incredible characters. But there’s kind of a ceiling of the audience. And I think “Reservation Dogs” is one of the first times that we have a huge audience being able to get a glimpse into our lived experiences. That was so exciting — to finally have something that got into so many people’s homes, and gave humanity to our communities.
Could you tell me a bit about your Jewish upbringing and what it was like growing up with a Jewish parent and an Ojibwe parent?
My parents got divorced when I was 4, and I was raised by my dad in a Jewish home. We went to Jewish summer camp and we were part of a youth organization called Hashomer Hatzair, which my grandfather was part of in Poland; he managed to continue with that movement in an underground capacity during the Holocaust. And then when he was liberated, he managed to keep in touch with people from Hashomer Hatzair. And when they came to North America, they started the movement in whatever capacity they could, which ended up being summer camps.
So I was brought up essentially in that movement with Hashomer Hatzair. Israel was a huge part of that. I’ve been going to Israel since I was a child, and I lived there for a year on a kibbutz when I was 16. But there was always a recognition that the conflict in Israel was something that needed to be resolved in a good way. And so I grew up in, not a Zionist family, but a family that believes in peace between Palestine and Israel. And I think that was really important because at the same time, I was growing up and learning about being Indigenous in Canada. I was seeing the dispossession of land and colonization, so I grew up seeing parallels between those two countries. And I’m super grateful that I grew up in a family that was really pro-peace and resolution and reconciliation.
I think only now I can realize, or just appreciate and be grateful for, the amount of culture I grew up with. I was able to have Shabbat dinner and have the tradition of Jewish food and culture, and then be able to go to a powwow with my mom. I remember we went to a protest at Sun Peaks Resort in [British Columbia] when she lived out here. We were protesting the development of more condos on the ski resort there that was already built on unceded territory.
And that’s something similar with the two cultures. With Hashomer Hatzair I remember growing up and we would write letters to different organizations asking how they were handling certain issues; activism is a huge part of our responsibility as Jewish people. And I look at a lot of the people that I went through Hashomer Hatzair with and they’re working in education, they’re activists through politics. I’m so grateful that I was taught that at a young age: responsibility for community. That’s something that’s so rich in both of these cultures.
What does your Jewish identity mean to you now?
I think my Jewish identity means legacy. I feel it so deeply in everything I do. Knowing that my grandfather is a [Holocaust] survivor, I feel the responsibility to do better for humanity. I don’t necessarily associate [my Jewish identity] with religion. I would say I’m more of a cultural Jew, in terms of how I live my life, and a spiritual Jew. But I would say legacy is the word that I like to use because it’s something that we carry with us. And legacy is about how the urge to do better manifests into our everyday life.
And to carry on the joy that my grandfather brought his community and his family. He was someone who spoke about the Holocaust and his experiences. We went back to Poland with him. I’ve been to Germany with him. We, all six of his grandchildren, all girls, were privileged enough to have him share those experiences with us and I think it affected us all in ways that we felt a responsibility to continue that legacy of love and forgiveness and celebration of life.
On both sides of your family, you come from survivors. How do you feel that’s shaped you?
It’s definitely put a fire under my ass. It’s made me very feisty. But I would also say that it’s shaped me in the sense that I’ve had a lot of healing to do on both sides. It’s also influenced a lot of the work that I do and how I choose work and who I work with. It’s influenced me in realizing that not every space is a safe space, as a Jewish woman and as an Indigenous woman. It always surprises me.
I was thinking the other day how incredible it was to work on “Reservation Dogs” and be around all Native people, and then how sometimes I feel really isolated and alone as the only Native person on set. And then I realized that I haven’t worked with a lot of Jewish people either. A lot of the shows I work on, I kind of feel like my back is up because I’m worried someone’s gonna say something offensive about being Jewish. And my back is also up because I’m afraid someone’s going to say something offensive about being Native. I’ve experienced both.
So I had this weird realization that I’ve had to move through a lot of spaces through my whole life in a state of being on guard. Which is really stressful, and I don’t think I noticed it until the last few years when I realized, oh my God, I’ve been carrying so much fight-or-flight with me. I’ve had to have this really hard exterior, because I’m just always afraid that something is going to trigger me, or someone’s going to say something and I have to think about whether or not I say something in response.
I think as a kid you feel this responsibility to stand up when someone’s being racist toward you or anyone else. It’s a lot of responsibility for a child. And then we grow up as adults and we try to navigate that. So I would say that the way that it’s shaped me is… the responsibility is like a double-edged sword. It’s been great in terms of feeling empowered to be active in the community and fight for people’s voices who aren’t being heard. But then it’s also the exhaustion of constantly feeling like I have to have my back up.
I saw your Instagram post about how your grandfather received reparations from the German government after the Holocaust and how that needs to be the model for the Canadian government to give reparations to the Indigenous community. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit more about that.
Yeah, for sure. I mean, I’m not a politician. I’m not a scholar. I’m not a historian. I can only view it from my perspective, which is that my grandfather was very well taken care of, financially, after the Holocaust. And I’ve been able to go to Germany multiple times, and see the way that students are educated about the Holocaust. There’s no shame in it. People are taught that it isn’t about shame. [Holocaust education] is about moving forward in a good way, and making sure something like this doesn’t happen to anybody ever again. I think that’s a really impressive way of handling it.
Whereas I feel like the way that the [Canadian] federal government has dealt with [the Indigenous community] has been very reactionary. It’s like they’re trying to plug holes into a boat that’s sinking. And there have been many opportunities [for them] to do something in a really meaningful way. But instead, I feel like a lot of what they do is very performative.
And a lot of the systemic racism that affects our community, within the child welfare system, within the justice system, the barriers to access, etc., have a lot to do with the narrative that the Canadian government has spread through the media. There isn’t empathy for our community a lot of the time. A lot of people feel like [Indigenous peoples] have had some kind of handout. So [Canada] missed the boat on [taking responsibility] for what has happened over the last almost 500 years. Whereas what the German government was able to do is very powerful. They were able to say, we can’t change what happened. But we can give you the tools to at least start your life with the resources that everybody else has.
You know, a lot of things that we’re dealing with in our communities have a lot to do with poverty and erasure. And we’re just starting to hear the truth about residential schools and the Sixties Scoop and colonization and the effects that all of those things have had on our community. But that truth is the one positive thing I see. I just hope we can continue to bring awareness and shift the narrative from what people believe to be true about the Indigenous community versus the actual truth of what’s plaguing our communities, which is the truth of what happened to us. The [Canadian] government just needs to take responsibility and then put resources in place for our communities to thrive and have equal opportunities, like every other Canadian.
It seems to me like “Reservation Dogs” and media that’s written by and for Indigenous people is showing that Indigenous people are not of the past.
It’s amazing what the media can do, and what film and television can do. I always refer to “Schindler’s List” for Jewish people. When that film came out, people could watch it and they understood something they hadn’t understood before. “Schindler’s List” opens up a part of their empathy so that they see Jewish people as human. When you give that narrative to people, they connect in a way that’s not really possible through politics, or through other dimensions.
When we can experience those things and we can see that content, it opens up our heart and it opens up our mind. It changes the way we vote; it changes the way that we support each other; it changes the way that we see disadvantaged communities. So it’s a really powerful way that we can change those narratives. When you watch a show like “Reservation Dogs,” and you’re not Indigenous, and you can laugh, and you can cry, and you can feel what those characters are going through, it changes the way you move through life. It changes the way you interact with that community.
Taika Waititi was a part of “Reservation Dogs,” as well. What did it mean for you to work with another Jewish Indigenous creative?
It’s interesting, because I’ve known him for such a long time. I think I’ve known him for about 15 years. I remember when I met him, because there’s a handful of us Jewish Indigenous people, and I think when he did “Jojo Rabbit” that was the first time a lot of people knew about his Jewish heritage.
But the thing I love about that connection is that comedy is so important to those of us who are Jewish and Native. I think that’s why Taika is such a brilliant filmmaker and storyteller — you have to laugh about the trauma, otherwise, it’ll kill you. I’m such a fan of his, and “Boy” is one of my favorite films. He just takes this really sad story, that could be so heavy and dark, and brings a lightness to it. It’s this balance of needing to have this laughter and this comedy in the darkness. For Native people, it’s ridiculous how disadvantaged and dispossessed we are. With all these things that are such intense circumstances and feelings that we live with, you have to find the absurdity of it all. The absurdity that we’re still fighting to be seen and we’re still fighting to be heard.
So I think he definitely carries that legacy of humor. Laughing through the tears and being able to see the bright side and see the humor in life, even when it’s the darkest of times, is something that Jews and Native people are really good at.
Are there any other ways Jewish and Indigenous culture intersect for you?
When we’re celebrating. It’s so crazy to think how we see this theme of everyone trying to destroy us every every few hundred years, every few thousand years. And you’re just like, whoa, man, we’re resilient. And how we’ve endured people trying to take away our rights as Jews, trying to take away our language and culture. And you’re just like, oh my gosh, we’ve been fighting for thousands of years to continue this legacy, and so have Indigenous people since colonization.
For me, that’s where they kind of meet. I come from two groups of people who have endured, despite people who have been trying to annihilate them. It’s crazy, but I find it really interesting. And I find it a real privilege to exist. Like, what are the odds? What are the odds of that? I think that’s like a superpower of Jewish and Native people. What are the odds of Jewish and Native people actually existing after all of the genocide and erasure, and attempts to detach us from our communities, and take away our languages and our cultures and our practices? Here we are still hustling and working and thriving. To see the people in these communities that are thriving against all odds and are continuing to shift the narrative, it’s a miracle.
As a member of both communities, what do you think the Jewish community could be doing more to support Indigenous peoples?
I actually know of a few organizations that have been super vocal and have really been allies to the Native community. I don’t know them off the top of my head, but of a lot of communities, I’ve noticed that there’s been a lot of support between the Jewish and Native communities, which is really incredible. Especially in Canada, I’ve noticed there’s been a lot of cross promotion of organizations and mutual support.
Recently, I spoke to a group of over 30 Jewish women who are part of a textile club, and I think that it’s always interesting to have these conversations about decolonization and misinformation and rewriting the narrative. These concepts are so familiar to myself and other Indigenous people, but then I also find it interesting to be able to connect with them as a Jewish woman. It’s really important to share the parallels of the intergenerational path of genocide in our communities.
Something else that I would share with the Jewish community is that my grandfather had the opportunity to thrive, build wealth and build up his family through reparations. Something similar happened to a different community, the Indigenous community, but we weren’t given any of the recognitions for reparations. So if there is a way to reach out to organizations, or to help educate about the kinds of struggles that we’re facing, as Indigenous communities — Jews can recognize our shared history of dispossession and genocide.
I think Jews have a lot of lived experience that they can share, too. Like the ways that they’ve been able to thrive in their communities after the Holocaust. There are also lots of ways to help elevate the voices of Indigenous activists or organizations. And, to remember that there are still people who haven’t been able to recover from their genocide like how the Jews have been able to after the Holocaust. Imagine nobody was there to help you emigrate to North America. Imagine there were no reparations. Imagine nobody spoke about the Holocaust. Imagine you were still, today, fighting to make people believe that the Holocaust happened. Because that’s what’s happening in Indigenous communities. I mean, there are still people that don’t think the Holocaust was real or a big deal, to be fair, but at least on governmental levels and funding bodies, it’s recognized. Whereas our communities are still fighting to educate people about the atrocities that happened to us.
Jews have a very unique perspective that makes us familiar with some of these concepts. It makes us, the Jewish community, a perfect community to help elevate Indigenous voices and become involved.
What is your favorite Jewish tradition and your favorite Indigenous tradition?
For sure powwow. Going to powwow always makes my heart explode, just seeing what we’ve overcome.
As for my favorite Jewish tradition, I would say Shabbat. A few months ago, I started making matzah ball soup for Shabbat, and I just felt my grandma, my Safta, with me. And it makes me feel like I’m living history. I lost my grandfather last year, and making the soup was a reminder that we are him. We are my Safta. We are continuing this. And Shabbat is like such a simple way of focusing and connecting, even if you’re not doing it in a religious way. It’s the tradition and the repetition of being with family, taking a moment to give thanks for those who came before us, and who handed these traditions down to us. And it always makes me feel so Jewish. I’m just like, ah! With the candles and the eating challah, I’m a Jew! I love it.