Why Reservation Dogs blurred the owl’s eyes in episode 3: Symbolism explored

Bruno Cooke August 17, 2021

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Episode 3 of Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo’s popular comedy series Reservation Dogs has got audiences curious – what is the meaning of owls’ eyes to Native Americans, and why were they blurred out in the show?

What do owls mean to the Indigenous peoples of the Americas?

Per Native Languages, for many Native American tribes, owls are a “symbol of death”. 

Their hooting bears an “unlucky omen”, and features significantly in the sorts of “bogeyman” stories adults use to warn children to stay inside at night.

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Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Among the Indigenous populations of Mesoamerica – the region comprising the modern day countries of southern Mexico down to northern Costa Rica – such as the Aztecs and Maya, owls have a similar symbolic meaning.

Do the eyes of an owl have a particular meaning for Native Americans?

Owls are both feared and revered among many Native American populations, such as those depicted in Reservation Dogs.

For some tribespeople, they hold an association with the dead – the bony circles around an owl’s eyes are said to be made of the fingernails of ghosts. This would explain why the kids from “Rez” Dogs avert their eyes as they pass the owl – and why its eyes are blurred in episode 3 of the show.

Perhaps it’s something to do with the eerie humanness of an owl’s gaze. 

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A fun humorous portrait of an eagle owl winking. The owl is facing forward with the left eye half open. It is a half length portrait

Maybe it’s the size of an owl’s eyes – they account for up to 3% of an owl’s body weight (compared to 0.0003% for humans). In fact, owls don’t have eyeballs at all. Instead, they have tubular eyes, held rigidly in place by bones called sclerotic rings.

They aren’t necessarily a bad omen

Seeing an owl is, for some, a sign that one’s ancestors are trying to make contact, especially in order to send warnings about members of the community who have broken tribal taboos.

However, that isn’t to say that all Native American peoples associate negative meanings with owls, or their eyes.

Others have pointed out that, among practitioners of Native American spiritual traditions, there are those who associate owls, and their eyes, with fertility, magic, clairvoyance and astral travel, or simply with vision and insight.

How have audiences reacted to Reservation Dogs’ blurring of the owl’s eyes?

The associate editor of Indian Country Today, a nonprofit news organisation based out of Phoenix, Arizona, mentioned Sterlin Harjo’s decision to pixellate, or blur out, the eyes of the owl in episode 3, during an interview with NPR.

When radio host Noel King asks him to identify something “I wouldn’t notice that you would”, Vincent Schilling replies: “Well, there’s – now the episodes hasn’t happened yet, but there’s a scene where they see an owl.” 

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Reservation Dogs | Trailer | FX on Hulu

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Reservation Dogs | Trailer | FX on Hulu
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“And they’re like, oh – oh, gosh, oh gosh. And then Sterlin Harjo even, like, pixelises the eyes of the owl.”

“Because in many Native cultures,” he continues, “the owl is a harbinger of evil [which you wouldn’t know unless you’re] involved in the Native community.”

Meanwhile, fans of the show have taken to Twitter to praise the move.

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Bruno is a postgraduate student studying global journalism, with research interests in the intersection of the media, storytelling, culture and politics. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, Packs Light and Forge Press, and most are readable on Medium or onurbicycle.com. He is a Student Ambassador for Tortoise Media, a big fan of Freddie Mercury and a novelist – his debut novel, Reveries, is available on Amazon.