For Jewish Indigenous actress Sarah Podemski, it's a miracle just to exist

Publication Date12 October 2021
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...

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