Sterlin Harjo’s genre-mixing, cliché-exploding series captures coming of age as a Native kid like no TV show before it.
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First, a story.
So this one time some rez kids messed up my car. It was my first “real” car. I’d had a ’67 Catalina that started about half the time, and went off the road the other half because the tires were worn down to nubs. And then I’d had a ’79 Thunderbird that everyone called the “Thunderchicken” because it had a broken door and one of the eight cylinders didn’t work. This new car was sensible: a 1993 Honda Accord done up in pale blue.
It was 1994. I was driving from Bemidji, Minnesota, back to my house, on the edge of the Leech Lake Reservation. I’d dropped out of grad school the year before and come back home. It was the right thing to do, the only thing: I’d moved away when I was 17, and now I was 23 and I felt disconnected, adrift on American seas, invisible in a way only Native people can understand.
Anyway, it was a good night. My brother and a buddy and I had gone to the movie theater to see Speed. We were headed home and had turned onto Lake Avenue and suddenly—pop-pop-pop—my car was under attack. And I just knew it was those Metallica-T-shirt and nunchuck kids from nearby throwing rocks at my ride. That’s where they hung out, on the south side of town. I slammed on the brakes and said, “Let’s get ’em.”
It had to be Cheyenne and Charlie and Robbie and Davey and Ogema. Some of these kids were brothers—like, actual brothers—but they were all related in that Indian way. I got out of the car and walked through a cornfield to surprise them. The corn was high and waxy, and the leaves looked wet under the sodium lamps. I heard them whispering. They’re by the road. Naw, dog, I can hear them. Yeah, that’s them. And then … Oh shit! I saw them: bushy hair, baggy jeans, skater-punk tees. They turned to run just as I jumped out of the corn. I think they actually screamed.
I put my hands on Cheyenne’s shirt and lifted him up on his toes. “Is that you, Cheyenne? That you throwing shit at my car?” “I didn’t know it was yours!” he yelled. “I didn’t know it was yours!” I shook him a few more times while I said something about the car being new, how they could throw rocks at white people but should leave me and my car alone. Then they took off into the night. And that’s the story about how my first real car got fucked up by a bunch of Indian kids.
In 2021, I was surprised to see those kids again—different names, different tribes—stealing a truckload of Flaming Flamers chips in the opening minutes of the FX series Reservation Dogs. The same restless energy, the same quick patter, the same easy style.
The setup of the show is simple: Four kids living on an Oklahoma reservation commit petty crimes to bankroll an escape to California. They’re motivated by the death of their friend Daniel, which happened the year before the series opens. Bear, Elora, Cheese, and Willie Jack have been friends all their life—more than friends, actually. They are unofficial siblings and cousins, and Daniel was family to them, too. His absence drives the first season. Reservation Dogs is an ensemble comedy, full of mischief and warmth, but it’s also a powerful portrait of unresolved grief.
Reservation Dogs has been a critical hit for FX, earning widespread praise and landing on multiple lists of the best TV of 2021. Its second season premieres in August. The series was co-created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, the Māori filmmaker from New Zealand known for depicting the lives of Indigenous people with wry humor. Waititi had already achieved mass-market success: He won an Academy Award for his film Jojo Rabbit, directed the Marvel movies Thor: Ragnarok and Thor: Love and Thunder, and is now developing a Star Wars movie. But this is Sterlin Harjo’s first TV show, and his biggest project to date. Reservation Dogs came most directly from his brain.
Harjo, 42, grew up in Holdenville, Oklahoma, more or less on the seam between Muscogee and Seminole territory; he belongs to both tribes. He has made three feature films, two documentaries, and multiple shorts, all of which deal intimately with Native life—but nothing has captured mainstream attention quite like this show.
Three years ago, I destroyed Harjo at pool at one of his favorite bars in Tulsa, where he now lives. I’d known him casually for more than a decade, through the network of Indian creatives who end up bumping into one another at powwows and conferences and festivals. But that night in Tulsa was our longest hangout yet, and I remember how excited he was to show me his Oklahoma—to have me try his favorite barbecue and listen to a local honky-tonk band he loved. “Check these guys out,” he said admiringly. “They’re so Tulsa.” (Harjo ended up using their music in an episode of Reservation Dogs.)
When I reached out to him again recently, he was in Los Angeles for two awards ceremonies. So we met at the rooftop restaurant at the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills. It was strange. And by it I mean the caviar french fries and the way the waiters brought us a few things “courtesy of the chef” and generally seeing Harjo as a part of the Hollywood machine, although he seemed exactly as he’s always seemed. When an Indian asks for another Indian’s bona fides, the highest praise you can give is to say “He’s a community guy.” It means that he knows where he’s from, and he still hangs out there. He actually likes his fellow Indians. He hunts and gathers food and goes to ceremonies, and you’re just as likely to see him at the local QuikTrip convenience store as anywhere else.
Harjo is a community guy. He’s got the same slightly greasy hair and big smile as he did when I first met him. The same taste in hipster hats that would look lame on another guy but just work on Harjo. The same Seminole and Muscogee bling (chest plate, bracelets) that he’s always worn. Still, we both felt a certain mischievous glee in ordering those caviar fries. It was like we were counting coup on an industry, or a better life, or an establishment that had for a long time frozen out people like us. Like: How much can we get away with?
There’s a spirit like that in Reservation Dogs, a sly giddiness. Stifled by the ways of their elders and the limited opportunities of rez life, the four kids dream of escaping to a freer, more exciting future. They navigate standard-issue teen drama—a driver’s test, a turf battle with a rival neighborhood crew—but they also face the very specific challenges of being young Indians who must decide what their own commitment to community will be. Over time, they are repeatedly pulled apart and thrust back together, and their goal of leaving the reservation becomes more complicated as they discover that their connection to home is deeper than they’d thought. Watching Reservation Dogs, I realized that this was a show like I’d never seen before: a show that was about me and my life, that was somehow made for me. And by me, I mean us. And by us, I mean Indians.
Harjo and Waititi first met almost two decades ago. Harjo described a feeling of immediate kinship between the two. Their fathers were similar—both into Harleys, both into “Native shit.” Harjo and Waititi would meet for drinks and wind each other up and tell stories from home. They gelled, Harjo said, in a “community way.”
They’d already been friends for 15 years when Waititi told Harjo he had a deal at FX and asked if he had any TV pitches brewing, Harjo recalled. The two men traded a few ideas, and Harjo wrote up some notes, just the bare bones of a concept for a show. He sent them to Waititi, who pitched the idea to FX. The network said that they’d never heard of anything like it. Harjo had a deal for a pilot the next day. “It happened so fast,” he said. “I got a call from my agents. They were like: ‘What the fuck is Reservation Dogs?’ ” Waititi told me that there was no better person to direct this story than Harjo. “It’s so deeply personal to him,” he said.
I’m sure it’s true that FX executives hadn’t ever seen anything quite like Harjo’s pitch. For decades, onscreen depictions of Indian life largely consisted of a tragic Native man reining in his horse on a windswept southwestern plain or, worse, standing on a roadside crying at the sight of litter. On the rare occasions when a Native character had a speaking part, he was most likely astride a horse on a butte yelling “You’ll always be my friend!” to some white man he’d served loyally. Or explaining to an interloper, in a weird, stilted monotone, something like “You’re on tribal land and your white-man laws don’t apply here” while wearing an ill-fitting Pendleton vest and a bolo tie. In the 1950s, countless Westerns and Western-themed TV shows evoked hackneyed ideas, images, and myths surrounding Native people. In shows like The Lone Ranger and Gunsmoke, Indians were stoic, comically impassive, sphinxlike.
The years passed, but such images persisted. Indians in pop culture have long been there to embody suffering and to do so quietly. This stereotype has stood in for the real, wild contours of Native lives and personalities, altering even our own sense of self and place. When Native Americans have been afforded the opportunity to tell our stories, we have often succumbed to the pressure to perform a kind of cultural show-and-tell, to lift the buckskin curtain so outsiders can peer in. “The problem with many Native projects of the past,” Harjo told me, “is that they’re for white people.”
Over the years, I’ve felt tempted to apply something like the Bechdel test to depictions of Native life. To pass the Bechdel test, popularized by the graphic artist Alison Bechdel, a work of art must feature at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. My test would require a show to include at least two Native characters who talk to each other about something other than white people, or what it means to be Indian, or what the government has done to us. In the history of stories about Native people, only a handful would pass.
This is finally changing, thanks in part to a broader cultural reckoning about the importance of diversity and representation in art. The world seems to have woken up to the fact that there is more than one Native story to be told. We now have multiple series by and about Natives: Rutherford Falls gives us a toothless, feel-good sitcom. Letterkenny offers something close to Parks and Recreation. We even have, or will have, a Marvel superhero show with Echo.
But in this time of relative plenty, Reservation Dogs still stands out. The drama and humor of Indian life unfold through the relationships among the kids and, later, between the kids and adults, like the “grandmother” Cheese adopts at a health clinic or the “uncle” the kids claim (and who eventually claims them back). The show is more interested in the daily reality of Native experience than in signposting big themes about what it means to be Indian. “We’re not always referencing who we are as Native people,” Harjo told me. “We’re just being Native.” He was determined to have Reservation Dogs reflect that. “I didn’t want to explain shit.”
The four young leads are all Native themselves, and their intimacy feels loose and natural: D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as Bear, the self-appointed leader no one takes seriously; Lane Factor as sweet, gentle Cheese; Paulina Alexis, who plays Willie Jack with a kind of innocent world-weariness; and Devery Jacobs as Elora, whose pain animates much of the plot. Their friend Daniel’s death is explained in a slow reveal. It’s past halfway through the first season when we finally see him in a flashback, and eventually accompany Elora as she finds his body. Only then do we learn that he died by suicide. As Reservation Dogs develops Daniel as a character, we also gain a sharper sense of what he meant to the others, and what those four mean to one another.
Many of the little touches in this series seem specifically meant for Indian viewers. How the characters Deer Lady and Tall Man, both drawn from Native folklore, are introduced without explanation. How the kids react in horror to the statue of an owl—a bad omen for every Indian person I’ve ever known. How one of the first bits of dialogue, an exchange between Bear and Elora, is spoken in a kind of intertribal patois. “Skoden” (“Let’s go, then”), Bear says. “Stoodis” (“Let’s do this”), Elora replies.
And there are big touches, too—like the scene when the gang visits their “Uncle” Brownie in the woods and they find him tearing up his yard looking for a jar of 15-year-old ditch weed he buried. Elora asks him to talk about her mother, who died when she was 3. “You think you could tell me more about her, Uncle?” she asks. “I can’t,” he replies. “I can’t, because I’ll cry. It’s not because I don’t want to.” That scene floored me because Brownie, played masterfully by the Cayuga actor Gary Farmer, was so familiar to me: a strange, large Indian man, at once unapologetically crazy and tender. I know so many guys like that—older Native men who might seem tough and stern from across the room, but who will talk openly about their rawest feelings when you get to know them.
For all the subtle ways Reservation Dogs speaks to people who know what rez life is really like, it does not ward off non-Native viewers. Throughout the first season, for instance, Bear is visited by the spirit of a Lakota warrior named William Knifeman, who reminds the young man of his obligations to his community while at the same time lampooning the trope of the proud Indian warrior. (Knifeman died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn—when his horse stepped in a gopher hole.) “That character is so important because I think it’s what allows white people into the world,” Harjo told me in Beverly Hills. “What they’re used to is that image. We give them what they want and then we flip it right after.” This helps, Harjo said, to bring white viewers “in on the joke with us. Like, if you were to ask 99 percent of the people on this patio right now or in the world to draw a Native American, they would draw William Knifeman.”
Alienating non-Native people would be bad for ratings, but it would also have played into another hoary myth: that the Indian world is entirely separate from the world around it, that the disparity between these two worlds is fundamental and absolute. Real Native life is much more porous.
Reservation Dogs is packed with winking pop-cultural references. The show’s title, of course, is a nod to Reservoir Dogs; Harjo, like Quentin Tarantino, has magpie tastes and enjoys paying tribute to the works that shaped his own style. But the allusions are also a way of underlining the point that the rez is not sealed off from the rest of America.
Elora’s name is taken from the fantasy adventure Willow. The two characters played by the Native rappers Lil Mike and FunnyBone were inspired by the bike-riding Deebo in the Ice Cube classic Friday. When the crew has a confrontation with a rival “gang” and gets shot with paintball guns, Bear falls to the ground in slow motion, his arms extended in the air; I recognized the prayerful reach of Willem Dafoe’s Sergeant Elias when he is killed in Platoon. After Bear is gunned down by enemy paintballs, his spirit temporarily departs his body; Harjo told me that this scene is a “straight homage” to Rumble Fish, the Francis Ford Coppola adaptation of S. E. Hinton’s novel. (It’s no coincidence that these films come from the 1980s and ’90s and that most of them aired on cable. A friend of Harjo’s dad worked for a cable company and hooked his family up.)
Hinton’s work is a particular touchstone for Harjo. This is surely because she, too, is known for indelible coming-of-age stories. But it’s also because of her connection to Oklahoma. A few years ago, as we were driving through Tulsa, Harjo pointed to the small houses near Crutchfield Park. This is one of the settings for the film adaptation of Hinton’s novel The Outsiders. “You know, someone asked S. E. Hinton why she didn’t move away after her success,” Harjo said. “She was like: ‘I grew up here and my friends are here. There’s nothing wrong with here.’ I feel the same way.”
Harjo has lived in Oklahoma for most of his life. During a brief stint in Austin, he remembers, a film producer he knew said to him: “Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater planted their feet in Austin and didn’t leave, and made movies there. You should move back to Oklahoma and do that.” And that’s what he did. His three feature films were set and shot in the state, as was a documentary he made about the 1962 disappearance of his grandfather.
Oklahoma is a place of wild mixing and wild invention. As a result of the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830—the intention of which was to move all Native peoples from east of the Mississippi to what would be known as Indian Territory, resulting in the Trail of Tears—there are more than 300,000 Native people in Oklahoma who belong to nearly 40 different tribal nations, which is more Native Americans and more represented tribes than in almost any other state in the union.
Back in Tulsa, on the day we played pool, Harjo and I had also gone on a barbecue quest and wound up at some busy place on the north side. While we waited for our food, Harjo looked around at the motley crowd, a combination of teens and families and guys on their lunch break from work. “At least half of the folks in here are probably Native,” he said, “but you wouldn’t really know it.”
The radical tribal diversity of Oklahoma is reflected throughout Reservation Dogs. Some background characters “look” Native and some “look” white or Black, even in scenes where everyone is Native. The show also has a recurring character, White Steve, a member of the rival gang whose background is never explained (do they call him “White Steve” because he is white, or because he’s light-skinned?) and doesn’t need to be. Harjo said that it just felt right to represent the mix that is Oklahoma. People always seem to expect something else, something that looks entirely Indian—but a show like that, Harjo told me, “is not gonna be real.”
Harjo’s interest in capturing Oklahoma went beyond casting. During the production-design process, he made everyone watch Friday, which is set in South Central Los Angeles—a place outsiders might view as “the ghetto, and dangerous.” “I was like, ‘Look at the color palettes they use: it’s pastel, things are bright,’ ” he said. “And yeah, there are gonna be some houses that are trash, but the whole neighborhood isn’t.” Harjo wanted the crew to see how Friday treats its people “like humans”—and how even the way the scenes are shot and decorated shapes how we see the characters. In Reservation Dogs, some of the houses are dilapidated and others are “curated with flowers and stuff.” Some are painted in pastels. Each is different.
Most TV shows are written by committee: A group of people gathers in a room and creates the series together under the guiding sensibility of a showrunner or an executive producer. That’s true of Reservation Dogs, but there’s a deeper bond among the writers, too. All of them are Native, have spent decades living on reservations or in urban neighborhoods with other Indians, and are steeped in Native life. One reason the show feels different from other works by Native artists may be that so many of the writers are community people, as opposed to Indians who aren’t fully at ease around other Indians, or people writing their way into understanding who they are.
A sense of community runs through all of Harjo’s work. Whatever inner conflict his protagonists might feel about the rez or their heritage, all of his stories end in a final homecoming, or in a kind of communal embrace as his characters are reabsorbed into the places they came from. I wondered if Harjo ever worried that such endings could start to feel too easy, like a simplification of the intractable challenges many Indians face in charting life outside the reservation. But he doesn’t see it that way. It makes narrative sense, he told me, that so many Native stories would end like this. Community, to Indigenous Americans, is everything; for people who have long been disenfranchised, driven from their homes, community is “what’s at stake.”
The Reservation Dogs writers’ room is profoundly intertribal. The writers are Dakota, Ojibwe, Ponca, Muscogee/Creek, Seminole, Kumeyaay, Navajo, Paiute. And it’s partly for this reason that the show so effectively captures a shared, modern Indian experience—one characterized by poverty, trauma, crime, substandard housing, disenfranchisement, and high suicide rates, but also hope, success, and joyful connection.
The first season was written by Harjo, Tommy Pico, Migizi Pensoneau, Tazbah Chavez, Sydney Freeland, and Bobby Wilson, most of whom were new to writing for TV. Many of the writers, Harjo included, are members of the 1491s: a group of Native comedians, filmmakers, and actors who make comic shorts for YouTube. In my favorite, “I’m an Indian Too,” the comedian Ryan RedCorn dances around the Santa Fe Indian Market wearing a fake headdress and a dish-towel breechcloth—playfully mocking the way non-Natives often try to love us by pretending to be us.
I recently caught up with Pico and Pensoneau at the Thunderbird Bar on Wilshire Boulevard, in Los Angeles. Interviewing Native TV writers at an Old West–themed bar in Hollywood felt like it made sense. Pico grew up on the Viejas Reservation in San Diego County and is part of the Kumeyaay Nation. His father was the tribal chairman. He didn’t leave the rez until he moved to Brooklyn at age 18. Pico has had success as a writer, publishing several poetry books and getting featured in a New Yorker profile. But when COVID hit, he was struggling financially. Then he got a call from Harjo. The two had met in 2019 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival but didn’t know each other well. “I thought it was a butt dial,” Pico said. “It was two minutes. He was like, ‘Hey, we’re putting this room together, Reservation Dogs; we start next week.’ ” Pico remembers replying, “Do you wanna fuck around and make all my dreams come true?”
This was my first time meeting Pico, but Pensoneau I knew. I grew up with him around Bemidji. His stepfather and mother had a sweat lodge next to ours. I’d be watching TV with my mom and there’d be a knock on the door, and Pensoneau would be standing there holding two five-gallon buckets and asking if he could “borrow some water.” He is Ponca through his father and Red Lake Ojibwe through his mother. He was into tae kwon do and trained in the sport alongside my younger brother and sister.
After we ordered our food, Pensoneau turned to me. “Was that your car that we hit with the rocks?”
I was dumbfounded. “Wait. You were there?”
He explained that, when he was young, he and his buddies used to throw snowballs and rocks at cars, and only got caught twice. Once was the time they came after my blue Honda. I’d had no idea that Pensoneau was one of those kids. I told him I remember picking up Cheyenne and shaking him. We were quiet for a minute. “He was my version of Daniel,” Pensoneau said.
Cheyenne and Pensoneau had been best friends growing up. “He went wild for a while,” Pensoneau told me. He joined the military. Went AWOL. He was discharged. And then came back home and had a kid. “He was like: I better get my shit together,” Pensoneau said. Cheyenne called Pensoneau up one summer and told him things were going well. He’d gotten a job on a construction crew and was doing demolition at an old lumber mill. “That was our hangout when we were kids,” Pensoneau said. Three weeks later, Cheyenne was dead. “He died in the weirdest, stupidest way,” Pensoneau told me. He was working on the roof and he slipped and fell. It was only 15 feet, but he landed on his head.
So many Native people have a Daniel. Someone we grew up with, who lived hard and died too young. Pico had one, too. His was a friend and neighbor, he told me. They’d go down to a nearby creek together and play on the rocks. As they got older, they’d smoke cigarettes in their yards. “His brother died in a car crash, and he kind of fell off a little bit,” Pico said. Later, “he was going to the market to get beer, because he wanted to get there before it closed, and he hit a telephone pole.”
A lot of us die long before we should, and a lot of us die messy. A lot of us also become smaller, broken, somehow, by that loss.
Part of the kids’ journey in Reservation Dogs, Pensoneau told me, “is to not become the stunted versions of themselves that the adults are.” The kids are learning their way through grief, trying to figure out “how to deal with it in the healthiest way they can.” Hopefully, he said, “it’s all iterative: My grandparents were way less equipped to deal with the shit I dealt with; my mom and dad had better tools but still not the ones I had.” And hopefully the next generation will be even better.
Harjo himself had more than one Daniel. Each was a death that stunned him, he said, no matter how the person had seemed to struggle or self-sabotage in life. And in each case, others were left to “pick up the pieces,” to try to make sense of the suddenness and the waste.
In the Reservation Dogs pilot, the four kids hold a private memorial ceremony for Daniel; they smudge, burning plants to cleanse themselves. Before they shot that scene, Harjo told me, he took the kids aside. “I was like, ‘Look, we all dealt with this,’ ” he said. They sat around and told one another about the real people they’d lost. He played a video clip of a boy singing, someone he used to know who’d died by suicide when they were young. “Everyone was emotional, everyone was crying,” Harjo said. And then, before the scene where Elora finds Daniel’s body, Harjo shut down production and brought his cast and crew together into a big circle. They smudged, and an elder led them in some prayers. They talked about why telling stories like this felt important, and why they were making the series at all. But Harjo wanted to remind his people of something else, too: “Don’t take any of this shit with you,” he said to them. “Leave it here.”
One more story. My uncle Davey was the toughest man I knew, but also in many ways the gentlest. He had served with the 82nd Airborne but returned to the rez after he got out of the Army. He was a small, muscular man who always wore a folded-bandanna headband and often a denim jacket with no shirt underneath. Once when we were deer hunting, I saw a rabbit hiding behind a little growth of sumac. I whispered this to Davey, who was skinning a doe he’d shot. He looked at me, his knife in his hands. “You want him?” I shrugged. He took off his jean jacket and caught the rabbit and gave it to me to keep as a pet.
Davey liked his pot, and he liked his beer, and, later, he liked his harder drugs, a little too much. But I always felt profoundly safe with him.
When I was in grade school, Davey used to scoop me up from my parents’ house and drive me to Bemidji, where we’d watch movies at the Chief Theater. He let me get whatever candy I wanted. One night in 1980, he took me and my brother Anton to see Windwalker. Windwalker, an aging Cheyenne chief, tells his grandsons the story of how he lost his wife and one of his twin sons during a Crow raid. He had searched for his lost son for years but was unable to bring him home. After Windwalker’s funeral, his remaining son, Smiling Wolf, and family are again attacked by Crow on their way back to their village. The spirits take pity on the family and reawaken Windwalker, who leads his son and grandchildren to a secret cave, where he heals the wounded Smiling Wolf. They then fight the Crow together. At one point, Windwalker and Smiling Wolf capture one of the Crow leaders, who turns out to be Windwalker’s long-lost son. The movie was terrible, but we were rapt.
Davey put his arms over the backs of our seats. When the children lure a mounted Crow raider onto the ice and, as planned by Windwalker, the raider falls through and drowns, he murmured, “Ho fuck. That’s exactly what I would do.” I didn’t doubt him one bit. There we were: two Indian boys with their Indian uncle between them watching Indians win in the Chief Theater in the downtown of that dismal border town of my youth, on the edge of the Leech Lake Reservation. Thirty years later, Davey became my Daniel.
Of course, I didn’t know that back in 1980. I didn’t know there would be many hard things besides: a rack of losses, immeasurable heartbreak, pain too evergreen to touch or talk about, struggle after struggle after struggle. I also didn’t know that there would be, for all of us, improbably, a larger measure of joy and laughter and community than is anyone’s right. I didn’t know that, while watching the scene in Terminator 2 when Schwarzenegger immolates himself in a pool of molten metal to protect John Connor, my 11-year-old daughter would glance over at me and ask, incredulous, “Are you actually crying right now?” And that, with tears streaming down my cheeks, I’d try and fail to say, “You don’t know what it’s like to be a father and to be ready to sacrifice everything for your kids.” I didn’t know that I’d have the chance to watch Reservation Dogs with the same daughter and her brothers, and that they’d be able to see themselves on-screen along with their uncles and even their father. I didn’t know any of that, sitting in the Chief Theater. What I did know was that there, in the dark, with my brother and my uncle, as we watched the Cheyenne kids run across the ice, I would never die. None of us would die. We would live forever.
This article appears in the September 2022 print edition.