Tribal Verite: Filmmaker Sterling Harjo on the Art of Storytelling

It’s not clear to me that Indian Territory, nearly two centuries into it, knows how to think about Indian people. I’m Ojibwe/Chippewa. Two of my great grandfathers signed treaties that saved our people from Removal from Michigan Territory along with our cousins...

story by Veronica Pasfield | photos by Ryan Red Corn

Oklahoma filmmaker Sterlin Harjo on the art of story

It’s not clear to me that Indian Territory, nearly two centuries into it, knows how to think about Indian people. I’m Ojibwe/Chippewa. Two of my great grandfathers signed treaties that saved our people from Removal from Michigan Territory along with our cousins, the Potawatomi and Odawa/Ottawa. History, identity, and an audience that usually has no referent for the issues you address—these things are ever-present for Native artists, even in a place that is named for them.

Some Native filmmakers spend a lot of time bringing their audiences up to speed. Sterlin Harjo, a four-time Sundance Film Festival artist, deeply roots his movies in the interior narrative of the film. Yes, Harjo’s films are informed utterly by his identity and the history of his Seminole and Creek communities. But it is the integrity of the story, and how it’s told in the language of cinema, that Harjo serves first. 

Harjo’s new feature film, Mekko, premiered at deadCENTER Film Festival. He shares with Territory insight into the themes of his impressive canon, most notably last year’s documentary, This May be the Last Time. Both examine loss, tragedy, resilience, and the ever-present complexity of Oklahoma. Humor also finds a permanent place, especially with his Native comedy collective The 1491s, whose sardonic silliness has been featured on TedX, The Daily Show, and Huffington Post. (And if you missed the deadCENTER screening, most of Harjo’s work can be found online, including a download on Last Time’s website.) 

In your films, the past, the present, the living and the dead all swirl around and affect one another so strongly. This also seems true of Oklahoma; I sometimes think Oklahoma is the most haunted place I’ve ever been. 

Personally, I don’t think it’s necessarily haunted, but Oklahoma has always felt very magical to me. Within that is the connotation of haunted, but other things as well. I think when you get that many tribes and cultures in one spot—people who are very faithful and cultural—it creates a hotbed of energy.

I grew up with superstition and magic, and in that is darkness and things like that. Even non-Indians feel it and are a part of that conversation. I always thought all people were like that, and then I traveled and realized they aren’t.

In a sense, that gave me the courage to be a filmmaker. I realized I had a perspective from home that a lot of people didn’t.

You’re Seminole and Creek. That history, distant and recent, offers an intensely rich perspective.

I hesitate to use the word “storytelling” because that word has been so co-opted by pop culture. But my perspective is informed by our language, our culture—by everything. It’s about rural Oklahoma, too.

Our stories are about the way you get along and go about your day. I feel like teaching is so different with indigenous people. It’s not, ‘here’s the facts.’ It’s more ‘here’s what happened to me, and you can learn from that what you want to.’ It’s very different.

The stories that I grew up with, I didn’t know I was learning from them. But now I do. I was always the kid sitting in the kitchen listening to what the old people said. I still am.

You use some Muskogee, the Creek language, in almost all of your films. You’re easily one of the most ambitious Native filmmakers in that regard.

Our languages are going away, and I think that’s sad. A couple of my films use a Creek narrator, in others the characters speak it. It feels good to be the first person to put Muskogee in films. It’s a storytelling device, too—Muskogee’s a language people are not used to hearing. It’s like a foreign film; what I love about foreign films is that I get sucked into the stories, really pay attention, because of the language difference and the subtitles. 

Your films explore death a lot. Characters are facing death, escaping death, dealing with a death

The first words Charlotte wove to Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web were “Greetings and salutations.” Wilbur was a pig in E.B. White’s classic, and he was on his way to slaughter before the spider saved him by crafting messages in her web. The idea, of course, is that pigs are people, too.

The notion seems quaint outside of vegetarian circles, but White’s story points out a remarkable problem with America’s industrialized food system: to wit, we rarely have any information about the animals we eat, and we certainly don’t know them as beings.

Commodification strips products of their stories and presents them as goods to be consumed. Two Oklahoma filmmakers, one a chef, are taking steps to fill in connections between farmer, animal, and consumer. Course of Food tells the story of Andy Bowen, a Waynoka pig farmer who believes that happy pigs make for better eats and a better world. Course debuted at deadCENTER Film Festival.

Bowen’s hogs often appear on fine tables such as those at Ludivine and other discriminating eateries in OKC. Located near the eastern edge of the Oklahoma panhandle, farms such as Bowen’s dominate Waynoka country. In addition to raising free-range pigs, Bowen also serves as mayor of his small town. Christopher Hunt, the film’s director, explains Bowen’s appeal: “As a director, you want someone who can convey a story and keep an audience engaged. Andy is extremely smart, articulate and passionate. He’s a great explainer.”

Until very recently, people thought it was important to raise and kill their own animals. There was a sacred exchange between human and animal, wherein the human recognized and appreciated the animal’s sacrifice; death had an emotional cost for both. Bowen elucidates the importance of sustainable agriculture, both for animals and humans, in Course of Food.

“Things that we don’t value just deteriorate,” explains Bowen. “I want to give people the opportunity to eat an animal that lived a happy life…I hear it all the time: ‘That’s the best pork chop I’ve ever had in my life.’”

Dunham serves as director of The School of Culinary Arts at Francis Tuttle Technology Center. “I wanted to highlight the food community,” says Dunham, “to show the connections between communities, and to show that how the producers of our food go about their business shapes who we are.”

Dunham and Hunt hope to produce many more videos together. “We have ideas about future shows,” Dunham said, “but right now we are also looking for sponsors to help create the whole series.”

The film is the first time Hunt has directed a 20-minute documentary, but he is excited about the possibility of working with OETA public television. “As an artist, you are always looking for a canvas to paint on,” Hunt said. “I like the idea that OETA could be that canvas.”

I feel like it’s more about looking at life through death. When someone passes away, people get more honest; they get closer to each other. You become real in the face of death.

You studied film at the OU. How did someone from the little town of Holdenville, Oklahoma first become interested in cinema? 

My dad and I used to watch the same movie over and over. I remember watching the pacing and the art of it. At OU, my Film & Video Studies professor had an enthusiasm for cinema that was super contagious.

But what made me fall in love with filmmaking was when I realized cinema is a language, and that everyone can’t do it. At OU, I was introduced to foreign films and that’s when I really fell in love. I had mostly seen Hollywood films, but it wasn’t until independent and 

foreign films that I could really relate. For example, in Spanish films, the women were really strong, and I could relate to that from my own family. French New Wave cinema was about going into the street and saying something beyond ‘catch the bad guy.’ I also felt like they were slower-paced, and there was something about that storytelling that I liked.

I’m from a really small town. I was naïve about this. When I found out people do this for a living, I was like ‘I’m going for it’.

Who are you cinematic influences?

Werner Herzog is my favorite filmmaker. I really like how he handles cinema overall, and what he does with the camera. I like the spirit of Cassavetes’ films—how he gets actor friends together and they talk about things most people don’t. For American films, Good Will HuntingAmerican Beauty, and Smoke Signals were big for me because they were personal stories that had a lot of impact. 

Tell me about the film that’s showing at deadCENTER: Mekko.

The film is sort of dark, and it’s kind of going back to a (contemporary) Western. It’s about an Indian man named Mekko that ends up on the streets of Tulsa after being imprisoned for 19 years. He was born with the ability see things before they happen, and so Mekko starts seeing this darkness that’s there and he devises his own plan to get rid of this darkness.

Is Mekko a Muskogee word? And what is the significance of naming him that?

In our ceremonial towns and traditional ways, Mekko is basically the chief of the ceremonial grounds and he runs it. He’s a protector and a humble person trying to keep people doing the right thing. In this film, Mekko is a street chief. I love the photography of Richard Way Whitman, and his series on urban Indian “street chiefs”—check it out online.

I’m a huge fan of your comedy company, the 1491s. It shows funny, goofy Indian people. It complicates that whole stoic, tragic thing.

Humor is why we’re still here. People get so earnest about our history, and (it) makes us who we are. But in the 1491s we laugh at ourselves and keep each other honest, and that’s a huge part of the appeal.

Tackling stereotypes is very counter colonial, too.

I guess. But I think we’re just as guilty of stereotyping ourselves. I feel like (the idea of) decolonization is out there so much I don’t even know what it is anymore. I could easily jump on that, but it’s not why I make films. My work is in conversation with that theory, but I don’t like anything that gives the other side power. I feel like the 1491s make fun of everyone, and that’s powerful. 

How have your communities responded?

It’s always been really positive. I remember I showed one of my shorts at home, and I was nervous how people were gonna react. The character drops an f bomb, and I knew a preacher uncle of mine would be there. I was like, “Shit, he won’t like the cursing.” But they all loved it. I realized that as long as you’re telling the truth and you’re genuine, people respond to it.

There are a lot of Harjos in Oklahoma. What's up with that??

It’s really common. Basically, Harjo is a descriptive word. It means “crazy in battle,” or “brave.” Traditionally, when you get a name for ceremony, you’re often named for your clan and then you add Harjo. Also, if people didn’t have a (sur)name when they were signing up for Dawes (land allotment rolls), Harjo was used a lot. I don’t know if they were being confrontational—maybe they were.

You’ve talked about the intense frustration of trying to raise money to keep making films. I was shocked to read you’ve not made money on any of yours. How can Territory readers support you?

The only thing they can do is go see the films. That’s it. Go to local film festivals; go see Oklahoma films. It’s a business that relies totally on likes and views. You can also watch and buy my movies online. {$8.99–12.99 at www.thismaybethelasttime.com, and others on Hulu.}

Is it important to have Native-made cinema—and/or Oklahoma-made cinema?

Indigenous stories and life are important. The scales of privilege are tipped. Oklahoma is rich with story. It’s up to (Native filmmakers) to make good work that makes people care. It’s not up to Adam Sandler to portray us accurately; it’s up to us to tell our stories so well that no one can ever misrepresent us again.

This May Be the Last Time, Harjo's award-winning documentary, can be downloaded or viewed for $3–$12.99 from thismaybethelasttime.com.