Grief, Love, and Legacy with Tafv Sampson

Tafv wears the Chanson Dress, photographed by Karen Garro

As the daughter of a journalist mother and a Native actor and activist father, photographer and set designer Tafv Sampson was exposed to the power of storytelling from a young age. Reeling with grief after losing her father in 2019, she accepted a job offer as set decorator on Reservation Dogs, an all-Native series set on a Muscogee Nation reservation in eastern Oklahoma, where her father’s family is from. That led her to a deeper connection with her Muscogee heritage—and with her father.

We followed Tafv (which means “feather” in Muscogee) to her grandmother’s property on a former dairy farm in upstate New York—a place she’s been visiting since childhood, and where she often heads between jobs to escape the hustle and bustle of Brooklyn. Below, she shares an essay she penned exploring the complexity of grief and the new sense of home she found through her work on Reservation Dogs.

“When I was ten years old, my dad began writing a script about his time spent at an Oklahoma Indian boarding school in the 1970s. The weekends that his 1969 Cougar was making too much mysterious noise to make it farther than the video store, we’d hole up with B-list horror movies and In-N-Out as he’d type long into the night at his TV tray desk. His teen years spent at a corrupt Indian boarding school during a time of Native political outcry were still beyond my level of understanding, but I sensed that to him it was big and he had a deep need to tell it.

My dad was most often creating. Whether it was painting, drawing, playing guitar, or writing, he had a natural creative ease and an enviable focus that I loved to spy on as a kid, and even more as an Adult. Having spent his youth playing basketball, he had no real education beyond 8th grade. “Still a teenage knucklehead,” he used to call himself, but that’s not where his intelligence lay. Standing at a strong 6’5 with long dark hair and cowboy boots, he had deep sense of wisdom and curiosity about the things we cannot see, and a striking regal presence that was soon softened when he spoke. With a signature brand of goofy that belongs to the Rez, it was clear from the day I was born that I belonged to him, and he to me.

For twenty years he worked on his script, perfecting it, until he passed away in July 2019. Having been mainly an actor his whole life (following in the footsteps of his father, who played the role of Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), he had sent it around to a few agents and producers when he first began, with the feedback all being the same. It was beautiful, funny, quick, and heart-wrenching, but there was no sellable place for a story like this in Hollywood. Natives people’s stories had close to no representation in the film world, and the depth of roles and plotlines for Native people were kept in what could comfortably fit inside a Halloween costume box.

When my dad passed on, I ungracefully fumbled my way through grief. I felt absolutely changed when I never intended to be, like my heart was tasked to swim across an ocean in no particular direction. I was lost and felt an urgency to go find him, although I did not know what that meant. It was a year into Covid, and only a little more into my life without him, and the only thing that was calling me in any direction was where he began. His family, his past, where parts of him never left, things he wanted me to know about who we are and not to get too far away from. I did not yet have the clarity to map this overwhelming plan, but it wouldn’t be long before I’d get the call to come work on Reservation Dogs, an all-Native show set to film in Oklahoma.

Day one of filming our first season, the entire crew gathered outside to honor and recognize what it was we were about to embark on. This wasn’t just a TV show to us; this was something much bigger. We didn’t want to speak it, but there was a spark zipping around the parking lot that morning that carried the feeling: ‘this will change everything.’ Sterlin Harjo spoke while Elders sang, and I said to my dad ‘Look, look at what we’re doing,’ and buried my face in my hands and cried. This moment he waited for his whole life, and all our relatives before us, and now here we are, their children, getting to make it happen. We all felt proud, ready, and utterly terrified.

The explosive success of Reservation Dogs created a cultural seismic shift that even we did not see coming. For the first time, Indigenous people, once deemed too obscure and too full of tragedy to explore, were inviting you into their homes and showing you that what really outlives and outshines here is community, pride, and humor. Where there are tough teachable moments, there are also familiar bumbling adolescent growing pains, and an intergenerational teasing love that gives people permission to laugh. It is golden and joyous, and bigger than anything our relatives could have dreamt for us.

The people I’ve met on this show are more than my friends, they are my family. And as life gets bigger, and we walk into new opportunities, and babies are born, this family just keeps growing. The night before our final day of filming, I drove home and put on one of my dad’s favorite songs, “Try and Love Again” by The Eagles. I thanked him for the love he gives me every day, for holding me through the tough parts, and for the new sense of home I’ve found through this experience. I know it was him all along, leading me where I needed to go, further showing me how vast and unending this love is.”

—Tavf Sampson

Tafv wears the Chanson Dress

Tafv wears the Leighton Sweater and the Chieri Skirt

[Reservation Dogs] wasn’t just a TV show to us; this was something much bigger. There was a spark zipping around that carried the feeling: ‘this will change everything.’”


Tafv wears the Bellamy Dress

Tafv wears the Fauna Coat

A cherished photo of Tafv with her father

Published September, 8 2023