Exploring Indigenous Representation with Sterlin Harjo

November 14, 2023

Ever wondered how a ground-breaking show like Reservation Dogs came to be? Join us as Chris sits down with the extraordinary Oklahoma-based filmmaker Sterlin Harjo, the creator of this revolutionary FX series. Sterlin offers us a glimpse into his personal experiences growing up in Oklahoma that helped shape the narrative of the show, while sharing tales of assembling an all-native team both in front of and behind the camera. Discover how this show has been instrumental in pushing boundaries in Indigenous representation, collecting accolades including Peabody, Television Academy Honors and Independent Spirit Awards along the way. Reservation Dogs is a lot more than its accolades; it's a celebration of native life and communities. Sterlin unpacks the profound decision to weave Native history within the narrative, instead of simply explaining it away. We delve into the cultural significance of episodes like 'Deer Lady' in the third season, and the pride Sterlin feels in sharing this narrative with audiences who may not be aware of it. We take you behind the scenes of the casting process that discovered the incredible talents that make the main cast. Finally, we journey through Sterlin's personal and professional life, highlighting the moments that shaped his storytelling vision. He shares how his first job, his artist father's influence, and his time in college studying film and video studies all played a part in his pursuit of filmmaking. Through Reservation Dogs, Sterlin Harjo continues to use storytelling as a powerful tool to celebrate native communities, stir conversations and transform perceptions.

- Hello, everyone. I am Chris Hyams, CEO of Indeed, my pronouns are he and him, and welcome to the next episode of "Here To Help." For accessibility, I'll offer a quick visual description. I'm a middle-aged man with dark-rimmed glasses and a black T-shirt. Behind me is a bookcase with a collection of books and LPs. At Indeed, our mission is to help people get jobs. This is what gets us out of bed in the morning and what keeps us going all day, and what powers that mission is people. "Here To Help" is a look at how experience, strength, and hope inspires people to want to help others. My very special guest today is Sterlin Harjo, an Oklahoma-based filmmaker and the creator of the extraordinary FX series, "Reservation Dogs," which just concluded its third and final season. "Reservation Dogs" is the story of four teens in the fictional Native reservation town of Okern, Oklahoma. The show is groundbreaking on many levels, notably as the first and only TV series to feature all Native writers and directors, an entirely Native main cast, and an almost entirely Native production team. And while that fact is notable, what's more important is that "Reservation Dogs" is the most original, moving, hilarious, profound, and beautiful show in recent memory. Among numerous accolades, "Reservation Dogs" won a 2022 Peabody Award, Television Academy Honors Award, and Independent Spirit Award for best comedy series. Harjo co-created "Reservation Dogs" with his longtime friend, Taika Waititi. All three seasons are streaming now on Hulu. Prior to "Reservation Dogs," Harjo made five independent narrative and documentary films about the Native experience in Oklahoma where he grew up and continues to live. His most recent feature, "Love and Fury," is a documentary chronicling the work and intersection of over a dozen contemporary Native artists. His first feature film, "Four Sheets to the Wind," premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007 and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. Sterlin Harjo, thank you so much for joining me today.

- Hi, thank you for having me.

- I can't shake your hand, but I can say how much the show has meant to me and, clearly, so many other people, and we'll get into that. But I'd love to start with, you know, you've talked about the fact that "Reservation Dogs" was inspired by your own hometown of Holdenville, Oklahoma and your family and the community you grew up in, and of all the different ways to sort of choose to tell that story, how did you come to the lens of four teens as the way to tell this story?

- It's based on my upbringing in Oklahoma. You know, we didn't have a lot to do, and so you kind of create this world for yourself. And I don't know, like I just grew up with these stories and the influence of movies 'cause we were really bored, and all we had was pop culture to kind of escape. And it's sort, the show is about that, you know, it's about being in rural Oklahoma, and, you know, that's sort of why it's this vehicle, like, and it's why, you know, the title "Reservation Dogs" made sense. It's like, we sort of, you know, do a Tarantino homage fest, not for him, but for cinema and for the movies that I like, and especially '90s independent cinema. And what better way to sort of tip our hat than to the first homage that we give is to Tarantino, I guess. I mean, I could go through every episode and point out, you know, where it comes from in my life, you know, and then if it doesn't directly come from my life, it would be a writer in my writer's room that, you know, we would just kind of tell stories and kind of figure this out.

- Clearly then, given how personal and how important this whole world is in all of these stories, in building a show like this, the most important decisions clearly that you had to make was the casting of Elora, Bear, Willie Jack, and Cheese, so the entire show succeeds or fails based on that, so how did you find these unbelievably talented kids?

- I don't think it was just me, and my casting director, Angelique Midthunder, and Midthunder Casting, and Stacey. I don't think that it was just me because something else had to be involved. Like, it was like, you know, whether it's like spirits of ancestors or like the universe or whatever, something magical, there was another hand involved in what happened in creating the show 'cause it was happening fast. Like, I don't know, like, you know, FX doesn't hold your hand and tell you like a year later, you're going to get to like, develop it. And then like, you know, six months after that, we'll slowly do the casting. No, they're like, when they're ready, like when they tell you it's time to go, it's time to go. And you're like, "Wait, wait, like, that was, like in two weeks?" I'm like, "What do you mean?" Like, you know, like, it's fast, you know, and that's even fast, like that's fine if it's like a show that shoots in LA and you're casting, you know, 20-somethings, like you can find them, you know, like fast, you know? But this was Native kids in rural Oklahoma, shot on location in Oklahoma, and we didn't have a lot of time, and we hit the road. You know, I've known Angelique for a long time, and I've worked with Angelique Midthunder. Angelique's daughter, Amber Midthunder, was the star of "Prey" as well, like, so, you know, all friends and family, and her husband David, and I've known him, worked with him as well. And, you know, so we just, I was like, you know, I know Angelique would be the one to do this. And so she just hit the road with me, and we went around to different communities in Oklahoma, and then we got tapes from all these other different communities, and she did stuff in New Mexico. It was amazing, and, you know, without doing that, we wouldn't have found these kids. We didn't all get together till like couple days before shooting the pilot, and we just did a read-through. Like that's all we did. And I just had them, I just wanted to hear them say it and feel the dynamic and it just like, jelled. Yeah, I'm amazed that it worked, you know, still, to this day. And I say that, going through this process, so many things happened. That's why I'm like, I don't think it was just me. You know, COVID was a thing, and we would have an actor coming in to play a part, and then COVID would, they would get COVID, like, be at the hotel in Tulsa, get COVID. I would have to cast it, recast it, night before. And I usually end up casting a crew member. I have like multiple crew members that are playing speaking roles in this show, you know? Like there's a gaffer, Steve, that plays the cowboy that talks to Willie Jack and is like talking about acid, you know? Well, he's just this guy that like, is a gaffer on the show, and he is this kind of like old school, he's been on everything. He came out of retirement to work on this show because he's from Oklahoma, and I cast him like night before. Like we had a guy that couldn't do it, and I just cast him the night before, and it was, it worked out so well. And then, you know, like another one is the same episode, the spirit that is in the jail talking to Lily's character, Hokti, I'd written her a part. She was, that's Tafv Sampson, and she, a set dec for, she's set decorator for the show. And I had written her a part in honor of her grandfather. Her grandfather is Will Sampson, who is the Native chief in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." And, so we're in this jail scene coming up, and we were shooting people playing basketball in the yard, these women prisoners. And I was like, I want to kind of shout out her grandpa, so I want you to be in here playing basketball with Lily, and like, kind of like her grandpa and Jack Nicholson in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," so that's what she was going to do. One of our, the actress that we cast for that role got COVID in the hotel in Tulsa, and they were like, "Got to recast." I'm like, "Oh, shit." And so I just make the adjustment, and I cast her as the spirit. And so like, kind of worked out really great, you know, in honor of her grandfather, this kind of legend in our community, you know? But yeah, it was, it's beyond me how it worked.

- I want to talk about maybe another thing that won't be a short answer, but, you know, the show has a bunch of firsts, right? It's the first show, anything like it to have an all-Native cast, crew, writers, directors. And you've talked a lot about how important representation was in being able to tell these stories, but also that there's a burden that comes along with it, that everyone's eyes are on you, and you feel like the weight sort of you carry with you, but just given that story and all of these other stories, I want to also throw in there, one of the common things about representation that comes up, when you look in business or in arts and anywhere, is people say, "Well, there's just not that many people around there. Yes, we could cast more Native people, but there's just not that much talent." And you're just saying you're plucking people out of your crew who are turning unbelievable performances. So clearly, that's a line of bullshit, so like...

- Total bullshit, I mean like, I really wish I could say this person's name, but I'm going to be responsible. But there's a filmmaker, I had a TV show that I wrote, I mean, this is like 12 years ago or something. I had a TV show that I wrote with another person who's a really great friend of mine and a very awarded screenwriter. And he came to me sort of a mentor at first, but then had this idea, and we developed and wrote a script together, and we spent seven years on it. And, you know, this is the point of my life where I was a very poor independent filmmaker. So everything that I did, I, you know, was doing by the seat of my pants and trying to navigate a career when no one wanted to make Native stuff then, I mean, like, that's why I stayed in Oklahoma. And so we were writing this script, and it got sold, and a company bought it. And we had a pretty famous director who was the executive producer on that show. He was going to direct the pilot, and they bought the show, and this is how different the industry is, like, before diversity was cool. And they were like, "That's great, but we'll do it if Sterlin isn't writing it," which I'd already written it, you know, but they're like, "Rewrite it. Sterlin doesn't write this draft. You write it with the other famous director, executive producer, you all co-write it, and we'll buy it. Sterlin can be a consulting producer," and it was a Native comedy in Oklahoma, you know, about family, and I had to buy it. I had to like just eat it and say, "Okay, like I'll do it, just so the show gets made," you know? And they went off to write it, and in the middle of that, the director basically was like, "Yeah, I don't think this could happen. Like, there's no way we could cast a Native show." And then it killed it, like seven years of work just like blew up, you know? And so he's got a movie out this year, by the way, and I hope that he watches the show, or at least reads a review every now and then, goes, "Wow, well, they did do it," you know, so.

- Well, I'm going to try really hard here 'cause there are somehow still people out there who haven't seen the show, so I don't want to spoil anything for people who haven't made it through the final season, but in season three, episode five, you suddenly jump back to 1976 in this extraordinary episode, "House Made of Bongs," and we get this opportunity to meet the elders as teens, and at one point, young Irene says, "Our societies are stronger when there are elders and there are children." And so what seemed, up until, you know, that moment, to be a show about kids, suddenly, you know, there's this big circle and it's expansive, and my question is, did you know at the start of the show that that was going to be where you wanted to take it, or did you just sort of end up there, okay.

- That's where I wanted to take it, you know, and I didn't know how much pushback I would get with that, you know, but as the show slowly started getting more and more popular and the reviews and whatever, you know, like I feel like we were just, like we were trusted after that. And so when it came to season three, it was like kind of really stepping in and going all the way with this idea that they're, 'cause I, the whole, I would always tell people like, the "Reservation Dogs" aren't four kids, the "Reservation Dogs" is this whole community, you know, it's this whole community, and it's all of these elders, they're all the "Reservation Dogs." And I wanted to make that kind of apparent to an audience too. I wanted to show that in the show. I think it's a beautiful thing, and I think it's something that shows don't focus on, like that community aspect or like elders and young people and like kind of that relationship and like, I don't understand. Probably 'cause of the way I grew up, I don't understand why not. Like, to me, it is the most important relationship. And to me, having these things like death and life and moving on and getting over things and loss and like, all of that is like what we deal with, like, are we just ignoring it? Like, I'm not. Like that's the thing that I feel like I have to talk about, you know, like it's there, and I feel like we do ignore it as a society. And I think people felt that, fans of the show felt that, and I think people kind of felt it was refreshing, I think.

- Yeah, this is maybe just naturally how you did it, or whether it was, you know, a conscious decision or not, but you sort of blew off the sort of standard narrative, like, let me explain the history to you, and like these long expositions of, you know, you don't explain what IHS is, we just see, you know, everyone working there and the kids hanging out there, and there's only one exception that I can think of in the entire show, which is in season three, episode three, which is the absolutely brilliant "Deer Lady" episode, where you sort of take out of the complete narrative, and you tell this one, of all of the sort of Native history, you dive into this, you know, the brutal history of the Indian boarding schools, and you do it, and I heard you describe it, and this is exactly what it feels like, in the style of like a 1970s horror film. It's like this bottle episode. And, you know, I'll admit, first of all, that like a lot of, I think, Americans, because we don't, we aren't taught history, I was an adult of advanced age before I actually knew that Indian boarding schools exist and any of that story, and I was thinking, when I was watching this episode, I turned to my wife and said it was probably a lot like that first episode of "Watchmen," if you saw it, when millions of Americans, for the first time, you know, probably found out about the Tulsa race massacre. And so of all of the stories to tell, how did you land on this one and decide to tell it in the way that you did?

- I just felt the need to tell that story because like, but what was crazy is like when the reaction came, which was like a lot of non-Natives going, "Wow, I didn't know anything about this. Like, I can't believe this happened in our country." That was really surprising to me because I had grown up with it, you know, like you just grow up with it. Everyone in your family, everyone in your life are either like the kids of somebody that went through it, and they had to deal with it, the kids, or they had to deal with the fact that Grandma went through it, and that trauma that it brought into all of our lives, or like my older aunts and uncles and Grandma and everyone, all of them went. You know, they would tell stories about it, and some good, some positive, and it was so a part of my family narrative and like community narrative that like, I didn't even, I thought every, I don't know, it was really kind of surprising to me, which is like an added level of like, I'm very proud of that, you know, I'm very proud that I was able to share that with people that didn't know about it, you know, because it's important to teach like our history, you know, regardless of what other people say, but like, I also wouldn't just want to tell that story. It would feel like if I just told that, like a boarding school story for me, it would've felt like I was trying to teach a history lesson or I was trying to do something that the show doesn't do, but the vehicle in was through the Deer Lady, and I needed the Deer Lady and like the explanation of what she does. I think that what she does for an audience, they have to feel that, they have to feel like it's empowerment or that it's justified violence, you know?

- Right.

- That point of view is what allowed me to tell that story, you know, and it also like, whatever caused her to become part deer is it had to be something very violent and something very, like an atrocity, and that is the biggest atrocity, I think, in our history, in our communities, one of them, but it just disrupted so much. Like it disrupted so much of our community, and that's what this show is about, you know, it's about bringing community together and trying to feed that and keep it alive. And the boarding schools were a direct assault on community, trying to break up what we had. And there were many other versions of that, the Relocation Act, you know, I didn't talk about that. The Relocation Act was when we, you know, a lot of our, like my grandma and uncles, you know, they all went and worked in Chicago in factories because there was a program to send Native, younger Native, working, able people, to different cities to work. And it was kind of pitched as this idea of like, "Oh, yeah, you'll get a good job." But really, it was to break up the community, you know, like that's what they were doing. And it did, it broke up the community, you know? LA had a community, Oakland had a community, but they created communities in these cities, you know? All of my, Grandma and my aunts and uncles, they went to Chicago. They all ended up coming back, though, they didn't stay. But I'm part Italian because my grandma met an Italian man in Chicago and brought him back to rural Oklahoma, and that's my grandpa.

- So speaking of origin stories, I'd love to just hear a little bit about yours. I understand you did not grow up thinking you wanted to be a filmmaker, and since this is Indeed and we think about jobs, so like what was your first job? What did you think you wanted to be when you grew up?

- I think my first jobs were like Bear. I was like helping my dad and my uncles roof houses, and we would always get the shitty jobs for like $5 an hour and like tear off and throw away shingles and stuff. But I always knew I wanted to be an artist. Like, since I was like four, I remember drawing and just like, I was always good at drawing and painting and stuff, and I was like, I just remember, like from day one, going, "I'm going to be an artist." And my grandma, I feel like, you know, I was the son of a artist that didn't see it through, my dad. And he's a really good artist and, but he never did anything, never did anything. And my grandma would always say, "He would've been a great artist, he would've been really good, he could've done it. Don't ever give it up. You better, you know, see it through." And my dad would say the same thing, like, "I could've been artist, like, don't, just keep doing it." And it just, like, I never questioned it. I was just like, "Yeah, this is what I'm going to do. Like why would I do anything else?" Like, I want to be an artist. In the meantime, I didn't know that I could make films, and that that was an option. But I was such a fan of the movies and, you know, I've told this story a few times, but my dad's friend worked for a cable company and hooked us up with free HBO and Showtime. And it was the era of like "The Lost Boys" and "Stand By Me." All of that was out. And "Howard the Duck," you know, like "Platoon," and I just devoured those movies, like devoured them. And then, but it wasn't until I went to college, I went to college in the art school. I was going to paint, that's what I was going to do. And I actually, you know, you partied too much in your freshman year. And somehow, I didn't get the grade point average to continue in the art school. It was like you had to have a 3.0, and I had a 2., some, like six or something. And so I got put on academic probation, and instead of kind of going through that, I just switched majors, and I was like, "What else do I like?" And I was like, "Oh, film," and film and video studies, and you only needed a 2.5 in film and video studies. So I switched, and I had this really great professor named Nisha Nadakovic. He did intro to film and video studies, and he's this Hungarian guy, and his love of cinema was so contagious, and the way he talked about it, and through him, I realized like, oh, this isn't just pointing a camera at something, like there's language. Like you can talk with this and all of these elements, and you bring them together and it's like, it means stuff, you know? And like you can really like, like it's not just random. And that's when I fell in love with it, you know? And independent film was kind of hitting hard at the time, and I was like really into all of that. And then I got into like, you know, French New Wave and all of these things were swirling around me, and that's really what started it all. That and a good amount of naivete to think that I could just do it, you know? I remember telling friends like, "I'm going to make a film in two years." And they're like, "Yeah, whatever," you know? And I had like, my daughter at the time, a little baby, and like, I'm just like, "In two years, I'm writing scripts." I'm like, "In two years, I'm going to make a film." They're like, "Okay." And like, in four, I did, you know, I made a feature film in four years. It went to Sundance, but like, I just didn't know any better, part of it was that.

- Wow, so who knew that that, an obscure academic policy, like a minimum grade point average would lead to all of this, so we all benefited from that. We're running low on time, and there's so many things I want to ask, but let me just ask this then. I said I didn't want to give away too much about, but at the end of the show, Willie Jack loses someone who's very important to her, and she says, "I feel like I didn't get to spend enough time with him." And I feel like this is how we're all feeling at the end of the show, and that like, Hokti using the hot chips to explain that people aren't really gone when they die. Like, was that your way of like, trying to get us all okay with the fact that this thing was going away, and is it really going to be okay 'cause like, I'm not really sure.

- I think it will be okay, and I think that that last episode is sort of like, I mean, I dare anyone to find a more perfect finale. There might be something comparable, but like, it's a, like I think that's a really satisfying finale, and part of it is like, I feel like it's like a big group hug with the audience and the fans, you know? It's like, we're like, like we're going, but it doesn't mean we're gone. Like it's still there, and like, I think that like, people love the show because there is audience participation. Like, we don't spell every everything out. We don't go into the details of everything, the minutia. There's a lot of space in between episodes to go, oh, and then this happened, and then, and I feel like people are invested in it in a way that they help kind of create the narrative as well. And I mean like an example of that is like Jackie and Bear are a couple at the end, but you never really overtly see like what happened, you know, their first kiss or whatever. And that happened in between the episodes, you know, and I think that that really kind of makes people invest in that story, and I do think it continues, like I'm excited. I'm even excited to like, get away from the making of it in a couple of years and rewatch the whole thing, you know? I think that there's a lot of love put in that show, there's a lot of lessons, there's a lot of things that I think people can pull from and take and, you know, I had somebody crying to me yesterday, you know, just a random person coming up to me, nervous, at UCLA two nights ago, at UCLA, and like, very nervous to talk to me and saying like, "Hey," like, and I wondered what he was trying to get at, and then finally, he said, right before he walked up, he was like, "I just want you to know that I lost my dad. And then I watched this show, and it really helped me grieve and like helped me process all of that." And I've had so many people tell me that, you know, and that's very powerful, I think, 'cause like an artist, like that's what I feel like we're here, you know? That's what we all want is like, can we do something that's true to us, but then also impact people in a really positive way that leaves them with something, and I think the show does that.

- Yeah, and clearly, one of the great legacies will be, you know, what happens in the future with all of the people involved in this show, and especially your four leads, and one of the, you know, they're all incredible, but just, you were talking about Devery before, like what an unbelievable talent, not as an actress, but she directed season three, episode seven, she wrote the incredible episode nine. When you first cast the show, did like, did you have any idea like what you were going to find in this group and her in particular?

- With Devery, we were friends. We were friends before. I actually, she tells this story, and it's not as true as, it's not exactly how she tells it, but she, I didn't think, I was nervous about hurting her feelings because she was my friend. We hung out together, and I thought she was too old. Just on paper, she's too old. And I was like, "Yeah, I don't know." I just wanted to warn her 'cause we didn't, 'cause it's like not about her acting ability, it's about her age, and then she auditioned, and I was like, "I think this could work," you know, but she's brilliant. She was already writing and directing, you know, short films and things, and she was like, "Hey, just a pitch. You don't have to take it, but like, I feel like Elora would do this." And I'm like, "You're right." And then that just led into, "You're writing in season two," you know? She's brilliant, she's really, really talented.

- Well, unfortunately, we're at the end of time. I have like 50 more questions that I could be asking here, but I appreciate your time that I always close with the same last question, and that is, looking back, you know, we started this podcast at, right at the start of the pandemic, and so one of the things that I've been asking folks is looking back over the last few years and everything that the world has been through, what, and I think I might know what you're going to say, but what leaves you with some hope for the future?

- I mean, it's a scary, really scary time, obviously. I think that what leaves me with hope is, you know, I'm a believer in art. Like that's the church that I go to, you know, and I think that people are wanting more tangible things, and I think people are wanting to be less cynical, and I think people are moving into spaces where we are going to talk about the human experience. And I think storytelling is what always gives me hope. You know, that there are people out there that care enough to, I mean the foundation of like Native life and communities is story. You know, like you learn from them. You hear scary stories, you hear good, funny stories, and you just learn from them. I look forward to trying to share these stories from my community 'cause I think that they can help the broader community that we are all as human beings, you know? I think that there is knowledge that I grew up learning from people that I would like to put into these stories and these films and also kind of like make good art, you know? I mean I think that's kind of like, I think that if we were all artists, we'd have some psychos 'cause there's some psycho artists, but if we were all artists and more focused on art than money and land development or whatever, I think that we would be in a better place.

- Sterlin Harjo, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today, and thank you so much for these incredibly beautiful stories that you've brought into the world, and we can't wait to see what's next from you and from everyone involved in "Reservation Dogs."

- Yes, thank you so much, thanks for having me.