Sterlin Harjo can do a lot more than ‘Reservation Dogs’
By Laura Zornosa
Sterlin Harjo has had a year.
In August, FX on Hulu released the series “Reservation Dogs,” the acclaimed dark comedy about four Native American teenagers in rural Oklahoma that Harjo created with Taika Waititi. The next month, Harjo presented a prize at the Emmy Awards alongside the show’s four young breakout stars. Two days before I talked to him, “Reservation Dogs” won the Gotham Award for short format breakout series. (Was he expecting it? “I was not. I would have had less wine.”)
And to top it off, Netflix this month released “Love and Fury,” Harjo’s second documentary, about Native artists navigating their careers, both in the United States and abroad. What happens, the film asks, when they push Native art into a postcolonial world?
For roughly a year, Harjo and his crew followed more than 20 artists, few of whom were complete strangers: Members of the band Black Belt Eagle Scout, the recording project of Katherine Paul, sometimes stay with him in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when they are on tour. Tommy Orange, author of the acclaimed “There There,” asked Harjo to moderate an event he was speaking at. (Harjo then filmed the event for this documentary.)
Harjo, of course, is a Native artist, too: The Seminole and Muscogee Creek filmmaker directed three features (“Four Sheets to the Wind,” “Barking Water” and “Mekko”) and a documentary (“This May Be the Last Time”) before brainstorming “Reservation Dogs” over tequilas with Waititi.
These artists pass through one another’s orbits constantly, drawing closer and closer together. As he explained on a recent call, Harjo wanted to express that notion himself — but through the lens of community.
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Q: Why love and fury? How are those two concepts related?
A. As artists, I think collectively we have all of these different experiences and these different types of survival that we come from. And you can take that survival, you can take any sort of oppression and feel bitter and feel like things are hopeless. Because some of us are displaced, some of us have lost our language, a lot of us have, there’s a lot of abuse in boarding schools, a lot of things that happened throughout history. Not just Western expansion. It was also a lot of things, a lot of U.S. policies, that really did oppress our people.
And so you can take that and convert that into feeling bitter and angry. Or you can take that anger and turn it into love and creation. And I think that’s what each of these artists do. All of them are connected to community, all of them have community-driven work. And they take this history and try to make sense of it and express themselves in this way that people can connect to. And I think that that is love.
Q: The last film you made was in 2015. Does it feel different this time around, after “Reservation Dogs”?
A: I made this before “Reservation Dogs.” So I was making this very low-budget, and I just really wanted to tell a story that needed to be told. Contemporary Native art has not been looked at and presented in a way that I felt like it should be. There’s such a dated view of what Native art is in the world. I’m friends with all of these artists, and I’ve just known artists forever. It felt like an opportunity to show this world that hasn’t been seen and also help reframe Native art.
I wanted it to organically expand. So if I’m filming with one artist and then I meet a couple more artists, I would follow them and go do stuff with them.
I’ve done many documentaries where I do the sit-down interview with slow motion B-roll over it, and that’s great. But I wanted to do something different. I purposely didn’t do a lot of sit-down interviews. I was looking at a lot of Les Blank films, specifically, “A Poem Is a Naked Person,” about [musician-songwriter] Leon Russell. But you watch the film, and it’s really about this time period [the early 1970s].
We watched this documentary called “Heartworn Highways” that’s about Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, back in the ’70s. It was what it sounds like: It’s a visual document of what was happening. That’s what I wanted to do with this: film people doing their thing.
Q: Did you go into this with specific people you knew you were going to follow?
A: Yeah, originally it was [singer] Micah P. Hinson, [interdisciplinary artist] Cannupa Hanska Luger, [painter] Haley Greenfeather English and my friend Penny Pitchlynn, who has the band Labrys. Penny’s tour didn’t happen, so I didn’t end up going with her on tour. She’s still on the film, but [dancer] Emily Johnson becomes a bigger part of the documentary. And it was really following them and then organically letting it expand with other people.
I wanted to show this community: how everyone’s connected in this Native art world. If you look at “Reservation Dogs,” it’s similar; it’s about a community. I’m really interested in community-driven filmmaking and storytelling.
Q: What do you think the documentary itself, and these artists, have to say about endurance?
A: All of these artists have been working for so many years. And we’re in a time period right now, myself included, where people want to pay attention to Native art and Native stories, and there’s talk of inclusion and diversity. I think that they all just kept working, even though there was no money and no way of guaranteeing they would have careers. And the fact that they kept pushing and keep pushing to this day is just a testament to their endurance, but also their people’s endurance. I think that that’s what drives us: Our people survived a lot of things, and our endurance in this art world is connected to that.