INTERVIEW: Sterlin Harjo Talks Oklahoma & Music


Sterlin Harjo  (Seminole/Creek) who is well known for his feature film work also enjoys the poetry of making music videos.

RPM: Tell us about Holdenvillle, Oklahoma where you grew up.

Sterlin Harjo: It's a rural town. Farmers and oil fields... roughnecks. It’s on the border of the Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole Nations.  I'm both.  Most of the natives in the area are both. Oak forests.  It's pretty laid back.  It's a pretty magical place when I think back on it.  A lot of that magic I think had to do with the Native folklore and hanging out at my Grandma’s house.  She passed away last November so I feel like a lot of that stuff has been hiding lately.

The white people and black people in the community get along with the natives.  There's not a really closed reservation so I think there is more of an understanding of native culture. The natives either go to church or belong to ceremonial grounds... or both.

RPM: Were you a “both”-er?

SH: Yeah, I would say so.  I got more involved in ceremony when I was older.  At the same time my grandma and my mom would take us to ceremony.  But church was a big part of it.  The Indian church is very rural and took a lot of things from the ceremonial world.  Church songs are sung in the Muscogee language. Most people know what church they belong to and also what ceremonial grounds they belong to.

RPM: Does the church have a strong general presence in Oklahoma?

SH: Oh yeah. We are the buckle on the bible belt.

RPM: Who fostered the artist in you?

SH: I would say my whole family fostered it. I have a huge family. Uncles and aunts were like parents. Cousins were like siblings.  Great uncles and Aunts were like grandparents. My dad had a big part in it.  He is a really good artist, but he never did anything with it.  From a young age when he and my grandma knew that I could draw they would always tell me not to waste it.

I just remember always hearing older people tell stories.  It’s what you do in rural communities… sitting around and telling stories.  Not like story time, but real stories.  Everyday life.  And a lot of stories about superstitions and magic.

As a kid I was always the one that wanted to hang out for hours with the elder people in my family and listen to their stories.  Sometimes it was the same story over and over but I loved how they retold it.  I think I learned a lot about storytelling because of that. Two people can tell the same story with different delivery.  One person will tell it and it will be uneventful but the other will make it exciting and funny.

RPM: When did you first pick up a camera?

SH: I used to use my parents VHS camera.  It was as big as a TV. I used to make skits with my cousin. I had this one TV show that we did where I made him wear a coonskin cap. It was called Hero John. He would be held captive by bad guys.  Enslaved.  Working in mines.  Then he would fight his way out and kill them all with a whip. I sang the theme song while filming "Hero john, hero john, saves the day any day, fights off the evil.... blah blah."

RPM: At what point did you decide to pursue film more seriously?

SH: I went to college for painting.  At some point in college I started writing. I showed a script to a professor and he encouraged me to take an intro to film class. After that I fell in love with it.

RPM: What kept you going?

SH: Not sure, it just kept happening for me. I was naive enough that I thought I could make it happen. I kept plugging ahead. When I saw Smoke Signals I thought, "Wow, I could tell stories about where I'm from".

RPM: Did you ever doubt your path?

SH: No, not really.  I think coming from a small town made the world small for me.  In Holdenville I was always the kid that would draw things for people.  If someone needed something drawn they would come to me.  I kept that with me.  I felt like the world was small.  It felt like it would be no problem to make films. I look back on it and I'm surprised myself.  I was very fortunate.  A lot of people crossed my path at the right time.  I took advantage of it.

RPM: How would you describe your purpose in this life?

SH: Um... The more I go I think that my purpose in filmmaking and life is to help people deal with loss.  It's also to hold a mirror up to Indian people/Seminole and Creek people and show them that they are pretty amazing.  They don't need to mystify themselves to be interesting.  The way that they exist is beautiful.  I like finding beauty and complexity in things that seem like they are not that complicated. And that last part goes towards all people, not just native people.

RPM: What does working with musicians give you that your other projects don't?

SH: I'm telling a story based on someone else’s work.  I'm re-envisioning someone else’s vision. It also has a time limit... as in I only have so long to tell a story and it feels more like a poem than my feature films.

RPM: How do you choose the musicians you work with?

SH: I don't know. It's just a feeling I get from their music.  It’s a selfish thing.  I hear someone’s music or a song that I like and I don't want anyone else to make the video for it.  That song becomes a part of me and my work. Music really inspires me and it makes me want to put images to it.

Right now Sterlin is making mini-docs for based out of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is also working on a new music video with Samantha Crain. Catch it here first.

Check out a playlist of Sterlin's current music video collection.