Society & Culture

OK’s Indigenous Filmmaker brings Authentic Stories to the Screen

Lei Rumley reviews Sterlin Harjo’s Reservation Dogs & This May Be The Last Time.

Modern indigenous culture of Oklahoma has made it to the television screen with the critical hit Reservation Dogs, created and executive produced by Oscar winner Taika Waititi and native Oklahoman Sterlin Harjo. Reservation Dogs is a half-hour comedy with a little dramatic edge that follows the exploits of four Indigenous teenagers in rural Oklahoma who steal, rob and save in order to get to the exotic, mysterious and faraway land of California.

Sterlin Harjo is the writer of this series, drawing on his Seminole/Muscogee Creek roots, the series was filmed in and around Okmulgee where the Muscogee Nation is located. The plot of Reservation Dogs begins one year after, Daniel, the fifth member of the Reservation Dogs, died. Struggling to make sense of the loss, the remaining four blame their boring, small town and its ability to crush the spirit. They decide to honor Daniel by adopting his dream of getting to California as their own. To succeed, they will have to save enough money, outmaneuver the meth heads at the junkyard on the edge of town, constantly dodge a conspiracy-obsessed Lighthorseman, and survive a turf war against a rival gang.

Indigenous superstitions, native rappers, and a variety of characters who color this vibrant world are woven into the series. The landscape of the Muscogee Nation is as much a character of the show as the people. Critics are calling the heart-felt series groundbreaking in Indigenous representation on television both in front of and behind the camera. Every writer, director and series regular on the show is Indigenous. Sterlin Harjo’s style of Native American storytelling is long overdue on television. With no stereotypes, good humor, and real heart, it’s refreshing programming that has been renewed for a second season. Reservation Dogs is available to stream on Hulu.

While Harjo’s series is a hit across the country and beyond, here at home in Oklahoma, Native Americans are experiencing a deep connection to the series. Many, including myself, have been watching Harjo’s career and feel pride to see his creativity and authentic, indigenous storytelling be recognized by the world. 

I met Sterlin when we worked together at the Chickasaw Arts Academy in 2010. At that time, he was an independent filmmaker that had premiered his first feature film at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. He was working on a documentary that combined the story of a mysterious death near Sasakwa, Oklahoma in 1962 and the stories of America’s first music. 

The documentary, This May Be the Last Time, is Harjo’s look at the songs our ancestors sang on the Trail of Tears, the hymns that are sung in Indian churches in rural Oklahoma, and how the songs bring Native American communities together in times of death, worship, sorrow, and joy. 

Harjo takes us inside Indian Baptist churches where Native language is passed down by elders through hymns and where culture is valued. It also gives insight as to how American Indians used Christianity for survival following their migration. Often it was through the power of music and songs. To discover the origin of these songs, the documentary takes you on a fascinating journey through music history where the common threads of Creek hymns, African spirituals, and Scottish Psalm singing meet. This May Be the Last Time is available to rent on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, and YouTube Movies.

Lei Rumley is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and the Worship Producer at All Souls, helping broadcast our services to members and friends, from wherever they are joining us! Lei is a long time member of All Souls and has served the Chickasaw Arts Academy for over a decade, engaging youth in performing arts education, through the STAR summer theater program.