"I'm bringing emotional resonance to the story," says Mato Wayuhi, composer for the series Reservation Dogs, about four teenagers on a reservation in Oklahoma. "That's been really rewarding for me. I'm not too much older than the kids who are in the show," he points out about the FX series, available for streaming on Hulu. "So I can relate to what they are going through. I grew up similarly."
Wayuhi, an Oglala Lakota, was raised in South Dakota, going back and forth between Sioux Falls and the western half of the state. "My family is from the Pine Ridge Reservation," says Wayuhi, who also goes by the name Mato Standing Soldier. "So I spent a lot of time going to ceremonies and hanging out on the rez and whatnot. Not a lot of Indigenous people have that connection to their culture. To me, it was just normal."
While he grew up learning Lakota songs, Wayuhi also loved popular music, including Green Day. "I wore mascara to a bat mitzvah when I was eight years old, and I got in so much trouble," he recalls. "I wanted to be like [Green Day frontman] Billie Joe Armstrong."
As a teenager, Wayuhi learned how to rap and started producing his own music. He continued to record tracks while pursuing cinema and media studies at USC. To date, he's put out three albums — Part-Time Indian, Scatterbrain and Pleasure — with another coming in June. He's also worked on a feature film, composing the music for War Pony with Christopher Stracey (Maid). Codirected by Riley Keough and Gina Gammell, War Pony, which is set on the Pine Ridge Reservation, won the Caméra d'Or for best first feature at the Cannes Film Festival in 2022.
Keough introduced Wayuhi to Reservation Dogs cocreator Sterlin Harjo, who hired him as the show's composer. Over its two seasons, Wayuhi's soundtrack has mined influences as diverse as '90s hip-hop and blues music specific to southeastern Oklahoma. Up next: in addition to scoring the final season of Reservation Dogs, which wrapped in September, Wayuhi, who was featured in Forbes ' "30 Under 30: Hollywood & Entertainment" Class of 2023, will compose the music for Marvel Studios' upcoming Disney+ series Echo. With all of these projects under his belt, he still manages to approach his craft with a good dose of humility.
"I'm here to be a vessel for folks who preceded me and folks who are coming next. To me, everything is borrowed — my singing abilities, my rapping abilities, my abilities to organize and collaborate," Wayuhi says. "That's something I thank my culture for instilling in me."
The original version of this article appeared in emmy magazine issue #7, 2023, under the title "Culture Jams."
Read more on Native American inclusion in the television industry.