Sterlin Harjo and the Real Indian

by Joshua Kline


When he was young, Sterlin Harjo wanted to be a painter.

“I had no idea that I could be a filmmaker,” Harjo said. Growing up in Holdenville (pop.4792), the Seminole-Creek didn’t see a lot of movies. A friend who worked at the local cable company fed the family free HBO, but Harjo preferred the canvas to television. When he would watch movies, he was sometimes confused by what he saw, especially in Westerns.

Neil Diamond’s documentary Reel Injun, which recently played at the Circle Cinema, addresses this confusion by looking at the history of American Indians in Hollywood. I spoke with Harjo over the phone about the film’s subject matter and Harjo’s own career as an indigenous filmmaker.

“It was always weird, a Western would come on, there would be Indians, and the family would crowd around the TV,” Harjo explained. “It’s really sort of conflicting- on the one hand you’re excited because you’re seeing people that are what you grew up knowing that you are, and to see them on film is sort of a rare opportunity. And on the other hand, it’s kind of ridiculous, the stuff that you’re seeing, because it’s not really representative of who you are.”

Harjo couldn’t relate to Hollywood Indians. He didn’t wear a head-dress, he didn’t have a mohawk, he didn’t wield a tomahawk. In his mind, he wasn’t an Indian. “The only image that any of us have ever been allowed is of someone with dark skin speaking in poems. Even as a Native kid, I was disappointed in myself. Honestly, I was disappointed in my tribe. When I found out what we dressed like, I was like ‘wow, we don’t even look like Indians.’”

Despite all the misrepresentation, Harjo became obsessed with movies. He eventually attended the University of Oklahoma to study Film. He quickly proved to be a raw talent, and made students across campus–myself included– envious when his short Goodnight, Irene was accepted into the Sundance Institute Filmmaker’s Lab. There, he workshopped a script for what would become his first feature– Four Sheets to the Wind. He shot that film in Holdenville and Tulsa, and returned to Sundance to compete in their film festival. The movie was well-reviewed and garnered actress Tamara Podemski a Special Jury Prize for her performance. It also made Harjo an important figure in changing La La Land’s image of the Native American.

For many years, Sundance had a special Native showcase for films like Harjo’s. However, thanks to Native Initiative director Bird Runningwater, that program was struck from the festival shortly before Harjo’s arrival. “It got in a rut, because you could get by making crappy movies and they’d still show them… I wouldn’t have felt good if my film had played in that section. It would’ve cheapened everything.”

Though Harjo acknowledges that Sundance has always been important to Indian filmmakers (“Probably 90% of the films about Natives would not have happened without Sundance”), he believes the festival’s Native showcase was a form of counterproductive segregation. “It was basically like reservations,” Harjo said. “You were separate from everyone else. And people that were interested in Native American films, they went and watched this section. But people that weren’t interested were never exposed to it.”

Lack of exposure is still a problem, and Harjo believes the reason goes all the way back to America’s founding.

“Our American Government has never publicly apologized for anything—they’ve never really fessed up to exactly what happened: the fact that they wiped off a race of people and tribes from the face of the planet. If your governing body can’t (apologize), then the people can’t do it, and there’s going to be guilt from the top down.”

This guilt, Harjo said, makes many people avoid films about Indian culture. “It’s this subtle thing— you have movies about Indians, and it’s like ‘aw fuck, I don’t wanna see that.’ Because you feel like you’re going to get a guilt trip, and you’re going to feel bad.”

Though his success has awarded Harjo the heavy role of Minority Artist Speaking for His People, the director balks at the idea of agenda-driven filmmaking. “I don’t think I’ll ever have the desire to make an agenda-driven film. There are Native filmmakers out there that make films that are trying to tear down stereotypes or whatever, but to me that almost keeps it alive, stokes the fire.”

And yet, over the course of his answer, Harjo admitted that Four Sheets did exactly that. “Every step of the way, I did what I was not supposed to do. I showed an Indian man drinking a beer, and didn’t make the film about alcoholism. I showed an Indian man falling in love with a white girl, and didn’t make the film an issue-driven interracial relationship story. I was doing that on purpose–I was just trying to do all of this stuff that you weren’t supposed to do. It was very reactionary, I think.”

Like Four Sheets, Reel Injun transcends its heavy subject matter through humor and optimism–something Harjo thinks is important to his cultural heritage.

The film’s most telling moment comes when Diamond visits an old Navajo couple who, as young adults, fell in love when they met as extras on the set of a Western. Diamond films them as they watch the movie for the first time; they laugh and smile throughout, and look for themselves like “where’s Waldo?” amidst the hordes of extras dressed to look like the Plains Sioux.

“That’s the real Indian,” Harjo said. “That’s the real experience–this love story that happened on set.”