‘Reservation Dogs’ co-creator Sterlin Harjo hopes Indigenous kids make art without asking for permission

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For Native American filmmaker Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Muscogee [Creek]), looking forward might be more important than looking back. After all, that’s where the co-creator of hit series Reservation Dogs and director of new documentary Love and Fury has sharpened his focus, zeroing in on modern Native life instead of the one that Hollywood keeps trying to trap in amber.

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“I think that we’re in this pivotal time in Native representation,” Harjo told In The Know by Yahoo about his new film, “and there’s been decades where we have had to really kind of fill shoes that were not created by us.”

In addition to redefining what Native representation means on-screen, Harjo, 42, is also showing young Gen Z Native filmmakers and artists that it can be done — and done their way.

In Love and Fury, Harjo follows several Native artists around the world who are telling their own stories, in their own words, without the filter of colonial interpretation. Ava DuVernay’s distribution company Array Releasing acquired the film in November with plans to release on Netflix and in select theaters on Dec. 3.

Whether it’s the music of Micah P. Hinson (Chickasaw), the paintings of Haley Greenfeather (Ojibwe) or the words of author Tommy Orange (Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma), Harjo captures the vibrancy of modern Native artists who aren’t bound by perceived rules.

“There was a punk rock streak to this work that was coming out, and people weren’t asking permission from non-Native people or institutions on what work they could create or if they could create,” the Oklahoma-born filmmaker said. “They were just creating work and leaving it up to the institutions to catch up.”

Telling modern Native American stories

Harjo champions that attitude for young artists, too. While the award-winning Reservation Dogs addresses many of the issues that Native American and Indigenous people face, such as the effects of colonization, it’s also a story about teenagers who want to ditch small-town Oklahoma for the supposedly greener pastures of California.

While the FX on Hulu show, which he co-created with filmmaker Taika Waititi, isn’t an in-your-face activist approach, activism, Harjo said, paved the way to telling a variety of compelling stories like his.

“All of the activism has afforded us the freedom to tell stories about our experience or about our fantasies,” Harjo said. “And we have to also encourage that.”

And those stories share a snapshot of life that lots of Native American people can relate to today.

“I think Reservation Dogs is a really close portrayal of what being Native is like,” he said. “And people think it’s surreal and fantastic, and it’s a comedy and all these things, but it’s also just life. It shouldn’t be that radical to show teenagers in a small town wanting to get out. But because you’ve never seen Native kids do this, it is.”

Just like Reservation Dogs, Love and Fury offers multiple new perspectives. In a statement, Array president Tilane Jones said, “This lovingly made film explores the complex artistry of multiple Native American artists while offering texture, nuance and insight into Native identities and perspectives.”

Harjo was just as complimentary about DuVernay and Array. “What I really loved about Ava and her production company and what she was doing was it felt very community-driven,” Harjo said. “And I’ve just always had respect for Ava.”

So much respect that he emailed her company cold to see if she would be interested in the documentary.

“I didn’t know what to do with this film, and so I literally just wrote them, Array, cold. And I said, ‘Hey, I have this film I would love to submit for your consideration’ because I just love the work that they do,” he said.

“There is a fear of going outside of our communities.”

(L-R) Devery Jacobs, Lane Factor, Paulina Alexis, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai and Sterlin Harjo (Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)
(L-R) Devery Jacobs, Lane Factor, Paulina Alexis, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai and Sterlin Harjo (Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)

What Harjo doesn’t want to encourage is for young artists to wait on permission — to write, to film, to submit — although he admits that taking that risk can be frightening.

“It’s a little scary to try something new, because there is fear, and I think that’s wrapped up in genocide and also the history and just the way that Native people were treated,” Harjo said. “There is a fear of going outside of our communities. There’s a fear of trying something new. And I think that we’re in a place now where we can encourage our young people not to be afraid because there’s people like these artists that are out there paving the way now.”

For the producer and showrunner, it’s simply about going out and doing it.

“So with youth, they don’t have to wait on me or anyone else to represent them. They also have the means and the power in their pocket, their phones, and they can tell stories and they can take advantage of social media. And they can have their voices be heard.”

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation even recently launched the Sterlin Harjo Scholarship funded initially with revenue from the series to help young tribal citizens who are interested in a filmmaking career.

But Harjo isn’t the only Native American creator who’s gaining more of a platform this year with the popularity of shows like Reservation Dogs, Rutherford Falls (Peacock) and more. Mainstream audiences are seeing more face time from actor-writers like Dallas Goldtooth and Bobby Wilson, who along with Harjo, are members of the sketch comedy troupe the 1491s; plus Sierra Teller Ornelas, Jana Schmieding and Michael Greyeyes. That’s in addition to Bird Runningwater, who recently left the Sundance Institute to become a producer, and many, many more.

“It feels like it was a movement now, but really, it was just people hungry for the same thing and hungry to tell our stories and to express ourselves,” Harjo said. “And we happened to find each other because I think people with similar goals of like-mindedness find each other, and we all found each other. And we looked around, and the things that we wanted to see done weren’t being done. So we did it,” he said. “So it wasn’t necessarily planned, but it all fell into place.”

And now that the door is finally open, there’s no going back.

“We’ve all been doing the work,” Harjo said. “And we’ve all been waiting on these opportunities. And now that we’re here, we’re not going to go anywhere. We’re just going to keep creating.”

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