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A photo of Sterlin Harjo. He is an Indigenous man. He is standing outside, he is wearing a cap and glasses. He is smiling.

Season 3: Episode 1

Sterlin Harjo

Maori talks with filmmaker Sterlin Harjo, the brilliant co-creator and showrunner of FX’s breakout hit Reservation Dogs. Filmed in this home state of Oklahoma, the sitcom follows the lives of four Native teenagers living on a reservation who are on a mission to head to California while dealing with the death of their friend. He is also the director of the short films Goodnight, Irene (2005) and Four Sheets to the Wind (2007), which premiered at Sundance. Maori and Sterlin discuss working in Oklahoma, how he runs his sets, and which “Rez Dog” character he most identifies with.

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A photo of Sterlin Harjo. He is an Indigenous man. He is standing outside, he is wearing a cap and glasses. He is smiling.

Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Muscogee) is an award-winning filmmaker and the co-creator of FX’s Reservation Dogs, a comedy series following four Indigenous teenage friends living on a reservation in Oklahoma. His films Goodnight, Irene (2005) and Four Sheets to the Wind (2007), premiered at Sundance. Harjo is also a founding member of the Native sketch comedy troupe, the 1491s.


Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations.

Produced by BlackStar Projects in partnership with Rowhome Productions.

Executive Producer and Host — Maori Karmael Holmes

Producer — Kayla Lattimore

Associate Producer — Irit Reinheimer

Managing Producer — Alex Lewis

Executive Editor — John Myers

Music Supervisor — David “Lil Dave” Adams

  • Theme song composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by Lil’ Dave.
  • This episode features additional music by Mato Wayuhi.
Show Notes

The Cut with Sterlin Harjo 

Reservation Dogs (created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, FX, 2021-present)

Trail of Tears

Atlanta (TV show)

Louie ( created by Louis C.K.*, FX, 2010-2015).

ALF (created by Paul Fusco and Tom Patchett, NBC, 1986-1990)

Martin (created by John Bowman, Martin Lawrence, Topper Carew, Fox, 1992-1997)

FX Networks

Better Things (created by Pamela Adlon, FX, 2016-2022)

Fleishman Is In Trouble (created by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, FX, 2022)

Taika Waititi

Willow (1998), directed by Ron Howard

Friday (1995), directed by F. Gary Gray

Tazbah Chavez

Migizi Pensoneau

Bobby Wilson

Brit Hensel


Chris Fisher 

The Magicians (created by Sera Gamble and John McNamara, Syfy, 2015-2020)

REZ LIFE, article by David Treuer (The Atlantic, 2022)

Ryan Redcorn

Barking Water (2009), directed by Sterlin Harjo

Dallas Goldtooth

Between Two Knees (written by the 1491s, 2019-present)

Alicia Keys

*In 2017 Louis C.K. was accused of sexual harassment by multiple women for incidents that took place throughout his career leading up to the production of this show.


[00:00:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: As part of their enduring commitment to justice, equity and expression, the Open Society Foundations are proud to sponsor Many Lumens. 

You’re listening to Many Lumens, where we talk about and find meaning in the intersections of art, social change, and popular culture. I’m your host, Maori Karmael Holmes. In this episode, I have the pleasure of speaking with filmmaker and proud Oklahoma native, Sterling Harjo. Harjo is the brilliant creator behind FXs breakout hit, Reservation Dogs. The sitcom follows the life of four friends living on a reservation in Oklahoma, who are on a mission to head to California while dealing with the death of their friend.

This touching and beautifully crafted series examining daily life of, quote, “res” kids is not Harjo’s first foray into television. He’s been directing episodes of other series for quite some time after experiencing success as an indie director with his short films: Goodnight Irene in 2005, and Four Sheets to the Wind, 2007, both of which premiered at Sundance. Something I find intriguing about Harjo’s work is his ability to infuse depth and sincerity into his characters while still finding room for levity and joy in the dark moments. Harjo was at home in Tulsa during our conversation.

[00:01:26] Maori Karmael Holmes: Can you talk a little bit about how you got started out as a filmmaker?

[00:01:31] Sterlin Harjo: I started out as a filmmaker in college doing music videos for my friends. I never knew that it was even an opportunity that I had, or an option for me growing up in rural Oklahoma. And so, whenever I was in college, I was in the art school and I kinda partied a lot in freshman year and I didn’t make the GPA for art school, but film and video studies was five points less of a GPA, so I switched to film and video studies. And I’d already loved movies, but I just didn’t know it was an option until I saw like, “Oh, film and video studies.” I took this class and I was taught Intro to Film and Video Studies by this Hungarian guy named Misha Nedeljkovich and he had a really contagious, infectious love for cinema and it just clicked in. Once I realized that it was not random, it was kind of a language, I knew that I was going to do it and I just kept trying then after that.

[00:02:36] Maori Karmael Holmes: What made you study art? Had you been drawing as a kid?

[00:02:40] Sterlin Harjo: I was always that kid that was drawing. Everyone would get me to draw things. My cousins would always get me to draw things and I knew I was good and I just thought I’d be a painter, and I think it’s a viable option for a Native person. A lot of our uncles and aunts and fathers and mothers. There’s a lot of artists, I think, in our communities. It’s an option for getting out and making a living.

[00:03:09] Maori Karmael Holmes: What did your parents do and what impact of their work life influenced your career path?

[00:03:18] Sterlin Harjo: My mom worked for the Seminole Nation, so it connected me a lot to the governmental side of my tribe and I was involved a lot. But she also cut hair, and for a while that’s mainly what she did. So, she had her salon at our house and so there’s a lot of people coming over and getting their haircut and perms. So, she quit and then she started working for the tribe after that. My dad, from the time I was four until even now, he’s taught martial arts, which was good, I think, for someone my age. I was traveling and competing in martial arts a lot and he also coached and drove a bus and stuff like that.

[00:03:57] Maori Karmael Holmes: What’s the martial arts form that you practiced or practice?

[00:04:00] Sterlin Harjo: Tae Kwon Do was what he taught, but he started mixing martial arts early on, before it was cool. Brought in kickboxing and Thai boxing and different things like that, and some grappling. It was my dad’s own kind of invented martial arts that was based out of Tae Kwon Do.

[00:04:18] Maori Karmael Holmes: And are you the only child or did you have a lot of siblings?

[00:04:20] Sterlin Harjo: I have two brothers and two sisters, but they’re all younger than me. My next brother under me is nine years younger than me, so I was kind of an only child for nine years. And then, quickly after that, learned how to change a diaper.

[00:04:35] Maori Karmael Holmes: So, you had a lot of responsibility, I imagine. It’s interesting to think about that. I always love asking people about birth order and also how some things are the same and some aren’t but that you were able to study art in college, I think, is really important because so many people feel like that’s not a possibility for them.

[00:04:56] Sterlin Harjo: My family very much encouraged it. My dad’s a good artist, and my grandma would always tell me to never waste my artistic talent because my dad could have been an artist and he gave it up.

[00:05:10] Maori Karmael Holmes: My paternal family is originally from Oklahoma, although they migrated to California after World War II and I’ve never been there, but I’m really transfixed by the idea of it. And I think watching two seasons of Reservation Dogs, of course, has made me really curious about what it must be like. And I just wanted to ask you where in Oklahoma are you from?

[00:05:32] Sterlin Harjo: I’m from a town called Holdenville, Oklahoma, which is sort of south central, southeast Oklahoma. And yeah, you know the country and the hills, and it was pretty where I grew up, and a lot of trouble to get into. It was a very small town.

[00:05:50] Maori Karmael Holmes: On your podcast, The Cut with Sterling Harjo, you talk about being inspired to use settings in Oklahoma similar to Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez using Austin. And I also want to ask something that people say about like Woody Allen using New York. Would you say that Oklahoma is a character in your work?

[00:06:09] Sterlin Harjo: Yes, I would think so. I have romanticized where I grew up a lot and that romanticism and sort of magic, I think, I incorporate into my films. And I don’t know how true the mythology is that I’ve built, but it’s mine. It’s what’s in my brain and my version of it. So, I very much make Oklahoma a character.

[00:06:32] Maori Karmael Holmes: And I’ve read that you still live there.

[00:06:35] Sterlin Harjo: Yeah. I’m in Tulsa, Oklahoma right now.

[00:06:36] Maori Karmael Holmes: And what made that decision?

[00:06:39] Sterlin Harjo: I mean, I like it here. I like it better than most places. I’d say next on my list would be New York, but there’s 32 tribes in Oklahoma. There was just more exposure, more diversity in where I came from, which isn’t necessarily typical for a more southern state, but it was very much here. I love the history, I love the landscape, I love that it’s not too populated. I don’t like being surrounded by people that do what I do. I like being surrounded by people that don’t do what I do. We have Starbucks, Whole Foods, all the normal things that people… And then, I have friends and family here, so I think that it’s not really been a big decision for me to stay. A lot of people told me that I would have to leave, but I was always like, “No, I don’t.”

[00:07:29] Maori Karmael Holmes: I mean, it definitely seems to be an option, I think, for our generation in ways that it wasn’t before because of digital technology.

[00:07:37] Sterlin Harjo: I almost moved to LA right before the pandemic and right before I got Reservation Dogs, but I’m not going to leave if I get to shoot a show here. I get to shoot in my backyard now.

[00:07:48] Maori Karmael Holmes:  Do you know if Reservation Dogs is the first sitcom to be filmed in Oklahoma? And if it isn’t, excuse my ignorance.

[00:07:54] Sterlin Harjo: I think it was the first show that we shot here. Yeah, I think so.

[00:07:59] Maori Karmael Holmes: When you were growing up, I’m curious, just as many teenagers are and the teenagers in your show, did you want to leave? And if you did, what ended up changing?

[00:08:09] Sterlin Harjo: I did want to leave, and then I left, and then I missed it and I started writing more about home. I missed my family. I think I grew up in a very tight, big community of people and I missed that a lot. It’s not worth it. I mean, I could have been gone the last 20 years and not been there with my family through ups and downs, but I got to be here for the last 20 years and still have my career. So, I don’t know. Also, just the history of it and… I don’t know. I think something about the fact that my ancestors were forced out of their homelands in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and had to walk to Oklahoma and a lot of people died. And once you know that, it’s like a lot of those people that passed would’ve loved to have been here, you know? And I like trying to be a part of my community and keeping it alive.

[00:09:07] Maori Karmael Holmes: I want to talk a little bit about Reservation Dogs. Which television shows, specifically, I know people have asked you a lot about film, but which television shows inspired you formally in making Reservation Dogs?

[00:09:18] Sterlin Harjo: I mean, I think that I wouldn’t have made Reservation Dogs without Atlanta. I don’t think Atlanta would’ve been made without Louie. This trajectory of those two shows into mind that broke a lot of what 30 minute comedies could do. And I very much was inspired by that structure of both. And especially, once it got to Atlanta, how they would break off and see other characters. I mean, I think Atlanta‘s a bit darker than my show, obviously, but I think that Reservation Dogs and Atlanta are really cool side by side piece because it’s these reflections of communities within America, and told from that perspective where all the writers in Atlanta were African-American, all the writers in Reservation Dogs are Indigenous people. And so, my show wouldn’t have been made without those shows.


[00:10:14] Sterlin Harjo: But I grew up watching Alf, and one of my favorite shows of all time, though, was Martin. I mean, Martin… I could probably quote all of Martin. We watched it religiously at my house.

[00:10:27] Maori Karmael Holmes: I do have a question about FX because they’ve been… I mean, I’m glad you referenced Atlanta and Louie, but Better Things and Fleishman Is in Trouble… I mean, it definitely seems like something’s going on over there that is not happening at other networks. And I’m wondering if you knew that the show needed to be made with them? Do they give you carte blanche? I can’t imagine that a network does that, but how is such good television being made?

[00:10:50] Sterlin Harjo: I imagine that it’s most comparable to the 1970s with cinema. They kind of handed over the keys to the creative people a bit. And FX doesn’t just hand over the keys, but they give so much freedom in what you do and they really are creator-forward. They get with people that have clear visions and then they support that, never detracting from it. Only supporting it to make it better. So, in a way, it is carte blanche, but they’re there for your support, they push you and you need to be pushed. They also sit back and go, “I don’t get it, but go for it.” You know what I mean? It’s amazing. And I’ve told stories like this to other people that have worked with other companies and no one has that experience. They can’t believe that that’s the experience sometimes.

[00:11:49] Maori Karmael Holmes: I know that you worked on the show with Taika Waititi, and I was curious how your collaboration with him came to be.

[00:11:57] Sterlin Harjo: We’re old friends. We came up together and I watched my friend take off, become this superstar. But we were always just friends and I never… I saw a lot of people trying to get things from Taika and I never wanted him to feel that way about me. So, we never talked work other than reading each other’s scripts. And so, he brought it up one day, he said he had an overall deal at FX and if I ever had any ideas, let him know. And so, that was all I needed to hear. Then, I brought up two ideas that he and I had talked about before and we just put those together and came up with it that night. And then, really, Taika opened the door for me and then split, and not in a negative way, but he’s a very busy person. So, he just sort of handed me this show and I took it and I’ve got to do everything since then. So, yeah. He really opened the door for me.

[00:12:53] Maori Karmael Holmes: I know there are also some filmic references in the show and the name of the character Elora comes from Willow and the bike riding twins are inspired by Deebo in Friday. I know there’s some references to Rumble Fish. What is the purpose of referencing these things? Is it just they’re your favorite works?

[00:13:11] Sterlin Harjo: No, I think the purpose is that it’s a show about young, Indigenous kids in rural Oklahoma. And if you’re from a rural place, sometimes you end up, especially in the 90s, you live through pop culture and you were exposed to MTV and all this stuff that’s out there. And I remember all of my friend group basically trying to emulate Dazed and Confused when it came out and that’s all we did. We smoked a lot of weed and things like that. It wasn’t all positive, or maybe it was positive, but we were too young. So, you just live through these pop culture references and I wanted to show that in this show. And Friday was a big one because you look at the neighborhood, the way it’s set up is similar to Friday. And Friday brought levity and light to what would be otherwise known as a very dark place, especially in most other films at the time. And that’s the same situation. Reservation life is always depicted as poor and run down or whatever. And I wanted to show the other side of that.

[00:14:24] Maori Karmael Holmes: This is a loaded question, but I wanted to ask you, which one of the Reservation “Dogs” is your proxy? Is it Cheese, is it Willy Jack?

[00:14:33] Sterlin Harjo: I mean, to be honest, I think that I’m a bit like Elora Danan, I think, more than others. But I am parts Bear and Willie Jack and Cheese. So, it was a way to, I don’t know, to express myself through all of them. And then, a lot of the characters have… Tazbah [Chavez], there’s a lot of Elora Danan that is Tazbah. There’s a lot of Cheese that is the other writer, Migizi [Pensoneau]. When Cheese goes to the boys’ home in season two, I mean, that’s straight from my other writer friend, Bobby Wilson’s, life. He wrote that episode. So, we justkind of  pour ourselves into a lot of the characters.

[00:15:17] Maori Karmael Holmes: I think Willie Jack is my favorite. She’s such a force.

[00:15:24] Sterlin Harjo: Yeah, she’s great.

[00:15:25] Maori Karmael Holmes: You bring up Tazbah, and there are a lot of poets in the room. What does having poets, and I think a lot of them are first time television writers, what has that done to the process of writing the sitcom?

[00:15:38] Sterlin Harjo: Yeah. I don’t know that having poets necessarily changed anything. I think that poets are good screenwriters, though. I think screenwriting and poetry are very similar. You aren’t spelling everything out for people like in a novel. You leave a lot up to audience participation and filling in gaps. I think poets just make good writers for the screen. It’s a very poetic medium, I think.

[00:16:02] Maori Karmael Holmes: What can we expect from next season at all? If you can share. Where’s it going?

[00:16:07] Sterlin Harjo: It’s still a comedy, but there’s some darker areas that we go. I think we actually address history a little more in this one than we have in others. I feel like we’re comfortable in doing that in season three, since we’ve had two seasons for people to get to know the characters. Now, we can sit back and take some different roads, I think. So, that’s what we’re doing this season.

[00:16:28] Maori Karmael Holmes: What does downtime look like for you? How do you seek refuge?

[00:16:32] Sterlin Harjo: I have some land and I go and take a hike. I shoot a bow and arrow. I go hunting. I hang out with my kids. I will go to the movies. I will eat an edible. I will watch a movie and listen to podcasts and try to read. All of that.

[00:17:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: What do your kids think of your work?

[00:17:01] Sterlin Harjo: They’re very proud of it. They’re very proud that people come up to me and want to take photos and things. My son always jumps in the photo. Yeah. They’re very proud. I mean, they understand that it’s there. They understand that it’s important. My son will watch me edit sometimes. Yeah. They’re super proud of it.

[00:17:21] Maori Karmael Holmes: Your partner, Brit [Hensel], is also a filmmaker. We’ve shown her work at BlackStar. And I was wondering if you all collaborate or give feedback to each other, or do you keep that separate?

[00:17:31] Sterlin Harjo: No, we do. We give feedback all the time. And I will try to… There’s things that I’ve… I don’t know. There’s times where she’s telling me stories and I’m like, “You should make that. That is a show.” Or, “That is a short film.” And then, she might be into it and then we’ll just discuss it, and sometimes she’ll come to me with questions about it. I let her read my scripts and I get feedback from her. We watch movies together. We always end up planning to watch some serious Ingmar Bergman film or something and end up watching some crime show. But yeah. We’re good at separating it, but also good at helping each other and trying to inspire each other to do stuff.

[00:18:19] Maori Karmael Holmes: You are listening to Many Lumens will be back after a short break. 

[00:18:24] Midroll: Hi, I am Jessica Ramirez, and I’m the host of Seedcast from Nia Taro. It’s a podcast that tells stories of Indigenous peoples celebrating our cultures and healing the planet from our perspectives and we just launched season three, and we really want you to listen. You’ll hear stories about indigenous artists, land  guardians, people who care about the planet and their communities. You can find Seedcast on your favorite podcast platforms. Bye for now.

[00:19:00] Maori Karmael Holmes:You are listening to Many Lumens. And now back to our interview with Sterling Harjo.

[00:19:18] Maori Karmael Holmes: Where does politics show up on your work, and is it important for you to include them?

[00:19:23] Sterlin Harjo: Yeah. I mean, for a while I was always like, “I don’t do politics in my stuff.” But I think the fact that I’m even doing it is political because I think that when you come from a people that were almost wiped off the face of the continent, there is a political statement to be had when you’ve succeeded and the people that came before you fought to get you here. And I think that, same with African-Americans in our country, and same with Jewish people, it’s the fight through oppression. And almost every other people that come from somewhere fought through something. But I think that there is something political with how few Native people have been in some spotlight or mainstream media situation. And there’s been such bad representation and a lack of representation for Indigenous people that I think that that’s very political. And like I said, I think next season gets a touch more political. But I never want to feel like I’m preaching to anyone or telling my side of my politics. I never want that. I just like keeping it buried in the story and making sure the story comes first and the characters come first.

[00:20:48] Maori Karmael Holmes:  You’ve made documentaries, narrative features, and been part of a comedy troupe, The 1491s, and are, of course, obviously having a lot of success in television. And I was wondering, what are some of the benefits and challenges of working in episodic form?

[00:21:03] Sterlin Harjo: There’s a lot of work to be done. It’s a heavy load. And it feels like independent films, so it’s also physically hard because you’re going so fast with a little amount of time. So yeah, I think it’s just a lot of work in a small amount of time. That’s the hardest part.

[00:21:23] Maori Karmael Holmes: So, what is the window for shooting a season?

[00:21:27] Sterlin Harjo: Like three months and you’re doing 10 episodes. So, I’m shooting four to five days for each episode. It’s just a lot to cram in there. I think we’re doing five days this season, so it’ll be a little helpful. Or it’ll just hurt more, I don’t know yet. We’ll see by the end.

[00:21:46] Maori Karmael Holmes: Do you bring in different directors for each episode?

[00:21:50] Sterlin Harjo: Every two episodes. Usually, directors direct two episodes at a time, so I’ll bring them in for that, different directors in. And I direct some of them as well.

[00:22:02] Maori Karmael Holmes: And are a lot of your directors first time television directors?

[00:22:05] Sterlin Harjo: They were, a lot of them were. I was really… A lot of friends of mine, and it was pretty cool to give people their first opportunity in TV, I think. Yeah. Because I had people do that for me. I tried to get into TV and it was hard, and it’s known to be hard. There’s a guy named Chris Fisher who produces and works on shows and direct shows, great filmmaker and friend. And he really pushed for me to be a director on a show that he was producer/director on called The Magicians. And that was my first step into TV. A lot of people just need an opportunity to shine, and so I wanted to give people that same opportunity.

[00:22:53] Maori Karmael Holmes: Is there a central theme to all of your work or anything that you find yourself returning to between the films and now the television shows?

[00:23:01] Sterlin Harjo: I focus a lot on people picking up the pieces after someone passes away. I find it an interesting place in people’s lives. I think that people are very different than they would be otherwise, they may be more honest or angry or whatever. Just different. People change, I think, because of someone close to them passing. And I’m always interested in that time period after that.

[00:23:29] Maori Karmael Holmes: Is there a reason for that? Did you lose someone early?

[00:23:34] Sterlin Harjo: Like I said, it’s great being in a big, close, large, tight family, but you also lose people a lot more. And I’ve been a pallbearer, I think, 12 times. And it’s not just random pallbearer, it’s people that I was close to, that were my family. And countless funerals other than that. But through that, I saw the beauty of this coming together to honor a person, and family taking care of each other, and the ups and the downs, and the dark sides and the light. And that’s what I like to… I think that’s why I like to focus on it. I lost a lot. When I was five, my mom lost a baby that was premature and lived for six hours and I just remember how devastated everyone was. And I was five, so I didn’t understand, necessarily. But it was a lot, I remember. And even though it was only six days old, I saw the family come together. And there was no treating it like it was something that wasn’t here long or anything. Everyone came together and it was just like an elder died. And everyone took care of my mom and my dad and made sure everything was good and there was a funeral. And I remember being there and being a part of that and it was beautiful.

[00:25:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: I’m personally invested in and BlackStar generally as a project is invested in finding ways of so-called decolonizing. We’re overusing that word, but thinking about the ways in which we do things in film sets, and production practices is one of those. And I wondered if you could talk about Reservation Dogs as a production and what is different about that than other sets you’ve been on?

[00:25:27] Sterlin Harjo: It’s something that I just brought into the production, it’s a big family. And I worked on a show once before, I was a consulting producer on it, and it was with a lot of Native people and extras that were Native. And I saw the way that they were treated, they couldn’t eat at the same time and things like that. And that is just a normal production thing. But what they don’t realize is, culturally, that’s very offensive to people because the way that you honor people in our communities is you feed them and you feed them first. And so, a lot of these extras weren’t actors or professional, or in it for that. They were in it for other reasons. And then, you bring them and then you treat them like that. They feel like you’re being offensive to them. So, I just made sure that that changed. I don’t want that culture. The extras get treated like they’re… Everyone on my crew knows these are… My mom and my aunts will show up and they will be extras. You got to treat them right. And so, everyone knows that, and that culture just spreads and people get taken care of. It feels like a safe, fun place to be and to express yourself.

[00:26:44] Maori Karmael Holmes: Are there any other practices that you’ve incorporated? I mean, in terms of… I know sets, they need to be hierarchical, which I’m for hierarchy, because it brings clarity. But are there any other ways that you can think of that you’ve just radically attempted to be different?

[00:27:02] Sterlin Harjo: At the end of every director’s shoot, I blanket them, which is I give them a blanket, wrap them in it and talk about them and thank them for being there. And I gather the whole crew to send them off, and they usually say something. And that’s just a practice that I want to do. I think it brings people together. Also, if we’re doing something very dark, I’ll have someone speak about it, a spiritual leader or something. And usually, they’re burning cedar and people can smoke themselves off. We’re very sensitive to that stuff and people’s needs as far as that goes. Our medic literally carries sage and cedar and anything people need. All of these different things. So, I think that that’s part of the practice as well.

[00:27:59] Maori Karmael Holmes: Have you had an experience on any of your previous films or on Reservation Dogs where spirit has entered the set? And I say that however you take spirit to mean, but sometimes people have talked about mystical happenings in their productions where a camera stops or starts, or people all of a sudden have language they didn’t know or a skill they didn’t know they had, has anything like that happened?

[00:28:28] Sterlin Harjo: Yeah. I mean, lots of things I think. I mean, I think that you can feel stuff. And with Reservation Dogs, it’s always felt blessed, like this was going to happen no matter what, like this was always going to happen. And I think everyone on the set can feel it, and the crew and the actors can all feel it. And you just know that you’re making something that’s meant to be. And was not created by one person, it was created by generations of people. And also, things that we don’t know and the cosmos, or whatever, it was meant to happen. And I think we can all feel that. And there’s been many instances where I think that comes through even more. A lot of beautiful moments. Even with the 1491s, the first time we did a comedy video, I felt it. This was meant to happen. I felt was an outsider watching it because it was just… We came together, but something else manifested all of this. And I don’t know, something really special, a feeling that you get about that.

[00:29:52] Maori Karmael Holmes: In your profile in The Atlantic, the writer David Troyer talks about the typical role afforded to Indians as being, quote, “There to embody suffering and to do so quietly.” End quote. And that is an act of erasure, and one that flattens the depictions of Native life. And I know you know this, but I was wondering, have you felt like it’s your responsibility to address this flattening head on or is that impossible? Your work seems to be avoiding a kind of “show and tell” performance. So, I’m wondering what you feel like your goal is.

[00:30:23] Sterlin Harjo: The only thing I can do is tell the best story possible and that will bring people to watch it and that will fix all of these things that we’re talking about. Show the truth, show real characters. And after that, no one can do less than that. So, after this, if you’re going to be successful, it’s at least got to be this good or close to it. We can’t go backwards. That’s the best I can do, is just do something truthful and tell a good story.

[00:30:55] Maori Karmael Holmes: One of the things we’re also trying to do at BlackStar is get beyond representation and really try to shift cinematic practices. And so, not just on the set, but I think the work that we’re really interested in is pushing the form, which is still so young. And I really love… I just think about episode nine from season two when Willie Jack is held by the ancestors. And I think every episode, like you said, and also other FX projects, are really experimenting with what television can do. And there’s no question — I just wanted to just say that I’m really excited by the level at which you all are experimenting.

[00:31:40] Sterlin Harjo: I mean, I think that… I don’t know. I think that partly to express Indigeneity on screen is part of that experimentation. I don’t know, this needed to be punk rock as well. We needed to show up, kick doors down and just be like, “Here we are and we’re not apologizing.” And part of that is in the experimentation of what we do. So, I don’t know. It’s almost like the content feeds the style, which feeds the experimentation, which feeds the story. I don’t know. It needed to feel fresh, it needed to feel young, it needed to feel new to have the impact that I think that it needed to have.

[00:32:32] Maori Karmael Holmes: What kind of music do you listen to on set or while writing?

[00:32:36] Sterlin Harjo: I usually make a playlist for each project. So, what I’m listening to on set is usually what ends up on the soundtrack of the show. It’s also what I was listening to while I was writing. And that could be anything from country to Hip Hop. I mean, you know the soundtrack of the show is very spread out. You’ll have Wu-Tang Clan and then Tom Petty and then Sturgell Simpson. Anything goes. And I think that Native people in the middle of the country just get influences from everywhere. And that was the point. 

[00:33:15] Maori Karmael Holmes: Are there other disciplines you’d like to return to or take up?

[00:33:19] Sterlin Harjo: I would love to not have a production schedule to get to. I would love to paint and I would love to write short stories. That’s my goal.

[00:33:30] Maori Karmael Holmes: How did the comedy troupe, The 1491s, come to be formed? And also, the name is brilliant, so thank you for that.

[00:33:37] Sterlin Harjo: Well, it was formed by… It was random. I mean, I met Migizi Pensoneau because I was a mentor of his first screenwriting thing, which we were very much contemporaries. And then, I met Ryan RedCorn and we were friends in Oklahoma, cast him in my film Barking Water. Ryan and I were showing our film in Santa Fe. Met Bobby Wilson, who was just kind of a graffiti artist bumming around at the time who, but he lived in Minneapolis. And then, Ryan had been online buddies with Dallas Goldtooth, who lived in Minneapolis. Turns out Dallas Goldtooth is brothers with Migizi, who I knew, who lived in LA. And so, they knew we were going back and we contacted them and said, “Let’s do a funny video.” Because they had been doing videos, and me and Ryan had been doing videos. And so, Migizi came back to Minneapolis, we went up there and we just made our first round of videos, just fast friends. I mean, we all wanted the same thing and were able to work together really well. And it’s crazy because we’re still friends. We’re still great friends. We never had a big breakup or anything.

[00:34:54] Maori Karmael Holmes: Well, is it over, that project?

[00:34:57] Sterlin Harjo: No, we have a play right now that’s in Seattle, and then go to New York, called Between Two Knees and it’s a traveling play. It’s the last thing that we did together, other than writing Reservation Dogs together. I don’t consider it done. I just consider that we’re getting paid and we’re on a bigger level now.

[00:35:16] Maori Karmael Holmes: I want to ask you, who are some of your artistic north stars?

[00:35:22] Sterlin Harjo: Alicia Keys.

[00:35:24] Maori Karmael Holmes: Really? Why?

[00:35:25] Sterlin Harjo: Just people that have managed to go through this business in a healthy way and focus on family and make sure that their family’s taken care of and you’re a part of their life. Instead of some of the rock stars that I admire their work a lot and they weren’t there for their family. I think it’s more important in this life to be like Alicia Keys and try to keep bettering yourself while you do the work. And also, I think that her work is healing in a way that I strive to have my work be as well.

[00:36:01] Maori Karmael Holmes: That was a surprise. Thank you. Well, thank you so much. This was really lovely.

[00:36:07] Sterlin Harjo: Yeah. This was fun. Thank you.

[00:36:57] Maori Karmael Holmes: It’s now time for this week’s installment of “Ask Maori”. This is where you, our audience is given the chance to ask me, Maori Karmael Holmes, your burning questions about the film world, artistic practice, or really anything you would like to have my perspective on. Here’s this week’s question. 

[00:37:10] Mariam Dembele: Today’s question is from Carmeleta. They ask, “Is Hollywood ever going to be truly equal for all?”

[00:37:24] Maori Karmael Holmes: This is a great question and I think about something Mos Def says when talking about hip hop. People say, “When is hip hop going to be better? And it’s when are the people going to be better?” And I think about, is our society going to be equal for all? And Hollywood would reflect that. I don’t think that Hollywood is going to have equity on its own without our larger culture being closer to being equitable. And so, Hollywood is by and large a commercial marketplace that responds to the market. And so, as society has changed and shifted, in many ways so has Hollywood. And so, as we continue to shift, ideally, towards liberation for all, then Hollywood will be equal and liberated. But I think it is a reflection and not always the driver, it is also a kind of reflexive relationship there.

That’s it for this week’s segment of “Ask Maori”. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram @ManyLumens for information about how you can submit a question

[00:37:40] Maori Karmael Holmes: To keep up with more of Sterling Harjo’s work, you can follow him on Instagram @SterlingHarjo. This season of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations. It is produced by BlackStar Projects in partnership with Rowhome Productions. The host and executive producer of Many Lumens is me, Maori Karmael Holmes. This episode was produced by Kayla Lattimore. Associate producer is Irit Reinheimer. Managing producer is Alex Lewis. Executive editor is John Myers. Our music supervisor is David “Lil Dave” Adams. Our theme song was composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by Lil’ Dave. This episode features music by Mato Wayuhi.