Sterlin Harjo Explains Why He Makes Films About Poor Indians

By Aura Bogado Nov 10, 2014

Sterlin Harjo’s latest film, "This May Be the Last Time," seamlessly weaves together two stories of family and music. On one hand, it explores the 1961 disappearance of his grandfather. On the other, it traces the origins of the Native hymns search teams sang as they looked for him. Harjot traces these hymns, which are the result of the Native, African and European influences, back to the early 1800s and learns that they may be the earliest of American songs. "This May Be the Last Time" hit the festival circuit in January. It will available on-line and on DVD, VOD and iTunes this Tuesday. Colorlines spoke with Harjo about the film, the hymns, his hometown and why he chooses to put the stories of poor Indians on the screen.

How did you set out to make this film?

I always wanted to do a documentary on the songs. I started shooting it without a plan, just started interviewing people. Once I started doing that, I came up with the idea of opening and closing the film with the story of my grandpa. [Through] interviewing people, I found out that [the songs] were actually there when they searched for my grandpa, and that developed into a bigger part of the story. it made sense to do it in that way because the best way to talk about these songs, and the way everyone talks about them, is through stories. My grandpa’s story highlights the way these songs are used in a modern context.

I could probably make the case that African music is part of every music of the Americas–including in indigenous musics. Why do you think that’s so obscured?

You can hear the blues in our traditional music. The women make music with turtle shells and there’s call and response singing. It’s there. I think that America is so culturally into itself, and the Europeans [who] took over this country wrote the history. They left out indigenous peoples and brown people and a lot of people today don’t realize it. We all grew up in a really racist country–that includes musicians. I live in Tulsa, Okla. One of our popular music styles is known as the Tulsa Sound and it was basically white guys [who] would cross over to the black part of town as young kids who fell in love with R&B music. And they then mixed that with rock’n’roll and country and it became this thing. But remember that this was going on in a segregated town. No one talked about going to those clubs because you weren’t supposed to.

What’s the reception been like for your film back home?

There was a lot of talk about it back home and it was in the newspapers. Everyone [talks] about my grandpa and people who remembered [him] would stop my dad and talk to [him] about it. One of my best compliments that I got on my film was when my dad said that he felt like he knew his dad better now. [His] was a story that I always heard, but I never knew my grandpa. It was never anything that emotionally touched me that much; it was just a good story I grew up hearing. But once I made the film and saw how it affected my aunt, my grandma and my dad, I realized that this person was real. It brought up all of these old feelings–and I think that was the most surprising thing for me.

Stories can be told in a lot of ways. Why do you choose to work in film?

I think that film is the most exciting medium. It reaches people that I could never otherwise reach. On an emotional level, there’s poetry involved, there’s writing and there’s music and images. For me, it’s like any good book–the reader fills in the empty spaces. That’s how it is with filmmaking–the viewer fills in the empty spaces in the cuts with their own experience. I think that’s what makes you relate to something even if you have no idea culturally or are not connected to it in any way. You can relate to people’s pain and people’s stories.

What about the broader reception–not just at home, but for wider audiences?

Everybody [who] sees it is really happy with it. They’re crying and they’re touched by it. As far as the industry goes, it’s still a pretty weird place to be in as a Native filmmaker trying to make films and get them out there. There’s a lot riding against you: There’s not a lot of funding or support once your films are finished. It’s an industry that’s not interested in Native stories. You have obstacles in your way. Whenever the film gets in front of people, it touches them–no matter what race they are. It’s not a film that will be played in major theaters, but for the people [who] do get to find it, it’s a special thing that I think they get to take with them.

Hollywood didn’t fund this film. How did it you get support for it?

A company that I was making a television show for in Tulsa called This Land Press funded it. Hollywood would never fund this. I haven’t even been there in eight years; they couldn’t care less. When I went there for meetings, I felt like people were checking off their brown person quota of the day. And for a 24-year-old filmmaker I thought maybe I could get funding for my film. But you realize it’s not like that and that there’s a lot of backlash. A lot of people tell me, "You’re making films about poor Indians, quit doing that and maybe you’ll get funding and make money off of your films." When you’re faced with that attitude, it’s really hard to keep doing it until you spend time with other people who are doing it and then you’re reminded, "Oh. I’m doing this for something better than just money. I’m trying to tell stories from a group of people who have been marginalized and misrepresented throughout history, especially in cinema." When you’re reminded about that, you feel OK about everything.