Meet the Filmmakers: Sterlin Harjo and Matt Leach

by This Land


The first feature-length documentary from This Land Films, This May Be The Last Time, made its world premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

This May Be the Last Time is a documentary about Native American music from Oklahoma-based filmmakers Sterlin Harjo and Matt Leach, to be released by This Land Films. The film focuses on the ceremonial music of the Creek Nation dating back to the early 19th century that combines Creek, Scottish, and African influences. The film tells stories of members of the Creek Nation and the influence of music.

Recently, Harjo and Leach sat down with This Land’s Abby Wendle for a behind-the-scenes peek at the making of the film. Click here to listen to Abby’s interview with Harjo. (Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.)

This Land: How did you guys decide on the Creek hymns as the subject for your first feature-length documentary?

Matt Leach: This was a story that Sterlin wanted to make into a movie for a long time—before we even met. Once we started making documentaries, the hymns kept coming up.  This Land TV just wasn’t long enough to give the hymns the attention we thought they deserved, though, so when we were trying to think of how to take the television show to the next level, this idea came up again in the form of a feature film. The more we dove into it, the more it seemed like it had all the elements of a good film: It had mystery, a great soundtrack, and a history component that were all kind of sitting there, ready-made.

TL: Sterlin, you’ve been making films for quite a while, but this is the first time you’ve used your own story into one of those films, correct?

Sterlin Harjo: I think with all of them I’ve put my own story into them, but this is the first time that I’m addressing it as me.

TL: What do you mean? Your voice is in it, and your image is in it?

SH: Yeah, and I’m talking about family members. It wasn’t until after I made Four Sheets to the Wind (my first film) that I realized it was about me leaving Holdenville and going to Norman, Oklahoma. But in this one, I’m directly referencing myself and directly referencing my family. So it’s almost, in a way, like I’m a guide into this world a little bit. For me, it’s something I knew needed to be done, but it’s also really nerve-wracking to put yourself in a film.

TL: There’s a specific story about your family that’s in the film. Can you tell me about your grandfather’s death?

SH: My grandfather wrecked his car off of the Little River Bridge outside of Sasakwa, Oklahoma. And, you know, I never knew him; it was in 1962, before I was born. My dad was a kid. And they couldn’t find his body. It’s just a story we grew up with; I knew that’s what happened to my grandpa. And every time my grandma would tell the story, she would always mention that they sang Indian songs when they were searching for him. And she always said that when they found him, they sang Indian songs.

TL: And what was the significance of the Creek hymns to your grandfather’s story?

SH: Well, it’s obviously not a huge part of the story, but it’s the thing that everyone remembers. It’s the thing my grandma remembered. It’s the thing I remembered. So it demonstrates, for me, how these songs are used in the community.

Muscogee people are not going to sit down and tell you the history of these songs, and they’re not going to tell you the history of their people, but they’ll tell you little bits of the stories they’ve heard along the way. And that’s kind of how making the film was. And in my life, I got little bits of stories of my grandpa, and my grandma would always mention these songs. So for me, the story of my grandpa wrecking his car into this river was directly connected to the songs.

ML: The history (of the hymns) is really interesting, and I think it’s interesting for people outside the community. But the power of the songs is not the history; it’s this really personal connection that the songs have with people.

SH: That’s why the film’s made the way it is. We would talk to people about the songs, and all you get are stories or (their) connections to the songs. There’s nothing telling you the history of the songs at all. You would even ask, “Where do these songs come from?” And people would say, “Well, you know, I always heard we got these songs from God. People would go out and fast and they’d get a song.” You get little anecdotes and stories that were passed down about the songs, but that’s it. Which proves to be a tricky situation when trying to make a film about something as abstract as songs can be. So we almost had to make a film in the same way that (the Muscogee) people talk about these songs: It’s just little stories about the songs that happen to connect and tell one sort of overarching story.

If we made a documentary about the history of these songs, it would be lame. It would be not interesting to me as a filmmaker to make that film. Bu the cool thing to me is you have people who still sing these songs and live these songs and practice them. And it’s not a big dal to them. It’s just their way of life.

TL: So the film itself is a glimpse into this way of life?

SH: Yeah. And you know what? The film can’t even scratch the surface of how deep it goes and how complex it is. It gets so much more complex; we would need ten films to tell every story—of these songs, of the people, of the history.

TL: For Sterlin, the story of the Creek hymns was a sort of personal journey. How did you approach the subject, Matt?

ML: Well, it was a very personal film for everyone involved, I think. It was a very small crew in small churches and people’s homes, and it all just had a very personal feel from the beginning. So, for me, it was an opportunity to have access to a whole world I never would have had before. But everyone was so welcoming and friendly that I was made to feel like a part of the story from the beginning and happy to play any part I could in preserving the stories and songs and doing them justice.

Producer Matt Leach. Photo by Shane Brown.

Producer Matt Leach. Photo by Shane Brown.

TL: Who else worked on the film?

ML: We had lots of help on the film. Christina D. King, who’s from Oklahoma and Native American, produced from New York and was really instrumental in keeping things running smoothly. Royce Sharp recorded audio on almost all the shoots and really did an incredible job bringing these songs to life and making world-class recordings of these songs, not only for the film, but also as a way of preserving the songs and stories forever in a way they really hadn’t ever been recorded before. Shane Brown, who has taken photographs for This Land for years and shot for Terrence Malick while they were in Oklahoma, shot so much great footage for the film, spending weeks out in the middle of the woods getting some of the prettiest footage of Oklahoma I’ve ever.

Claire Edwards did a great job as an assistant editor helping get all the footage and stories wrangled so we could finish this film in the short amount of time we had. We were also just able to pull from a lot of great talent in Oklahoma to help bring it all together. Charles Elmore, Chris Long, and Ryan Weaver all brought their talents to film. It was nice to make a film that’s going to Sundance that was made about Oklahoma by a bunch of Oklahomans.  It really feels like what we were setting out to do with This Land from the beginning, and I’m really happy we were able to get so many people involved.

TL: Sterlin, in the film you say that the songs echo throughout the community, through your stories, in death, in worship, in sadness, in joy. And then you say “they encourage us.” How do they encourage?

SH: Specifically, the lyrics of the songs are encouraging. They’re usually talking about a journey, or they’re talking about moving forward or not giving up, praying—you know, things like that. So the songs are almost mantras of encouragement.

TL: Can you give us an example?

SH: There’s one called “Momis komvke hvlwe tvlosvn,” and goes, “Patiently endure to that heavenly city.” And it just sort of repeats that: “Patiently endure to that heavenly city.” And one of the interesting things about the songs is, some of the songs were sung on the Trail of Tears, so “heaven” would represent getting to the end of the Trail of Tears to see their family. And sometimes it would just mean heaven and seeing your loved ones, because there was so much loss.

TL: I want to back up a little bit and talk about where the music comes from, and Christianity and Native American culture coming together. So these songs are taught in Indian churches. Did you grow up going to an Indian church in Holdenville?

SH: I grew up going to a number of Indian churches in Holdenville.

TL: What was that like?

SH: I mean, it was just your life. I don’t think that it was ”like” anything; it’s all I knew. And I didn’t know until I left my hometown for college that there was anything different. You just don’t realize how unique the place is until you leave. It was around the year 2000 that I got a letter from my grandma when I was living in Oregon, and she said, “You should write about some of these Indian churches when you come back home.” And it really was like a light bulb went off, and I thought, “Wow, that’s really smart.” It was the first time I really realized that not everyone has this in their communities.

TL: But what is an Indian church?

SH: It’s just an Indian church. The usually have “Indian” in the title, and it’s a church that is founded and run by Indians. And everyone in there is Indian. At some point, the Christian church was adapted into Muscogee life and became a part of it. There were divisions in the tribe between people who were traditional and people who were Christian, and every Muscogee family that you meet is going to have someone who is involved in the church and probably someone who is involved in the ceremonial ground.

TL: And the hymns, they’re Christian hymns that have been translated into the Creek language?

SH: No. There may be one or two that were translated, but most of them were completely original songs that were composed in the Muscogee language. They’re Christian hymns, but they’re not translated. They’re original songs written by the Muscogee creeks about Christian concepts.

TL: Matt, you did a lot of filming in the documentary, and you’re not Native American. So what was that experience like for you, gaining access into this community that’s not really accessible. And there’s even, Sterlin said, a little bit of resistance to let this sacred knowledge out.

ML: For me, it was a really great experience just being able to go and hear these songs firsthand in people’s homes and churches. At the same time, it was the kind of thing where, once people started to figure out what we were doing—you know, we were kind of afraid there was going to be this resistance—but really, I felt like people were excited about someone taking their music seriously, and taking their culture seriously. And trying to capture these songs before they’re gone.

SH: Almost everyone would thank all of us at the end for doing this. And it would usually be in a prayer. It wouldn’t be specifically to us—I mean, sometimes it would be—but for the most part, people would pray at the end of (filming) and basically give thanks that we were there to record these songs.