Sterlin Harjo visits the Myaamia Center and Miami University

Sterlin Harjo recently visited Miami University in Oxford, Ohio on February 8th, to discuss his career as a Seminole/Muscogee writer, director, and producer in the film and media industry.  

Sterlin Harjo stands at a podium wearing a brown hat and shirt with his arm outstretched towards a screen out of the shot.
Sterlin Harjo presenting in Hall Auditorium at Miami University. Photo by Scott Kissell, Miami University

Most recently, Sterlin has gained increased visibility as the co-creator of the Hulu series, Reservation Dogs. Our Myaamia readers who participate in Aatotantaawi! ‘Let’s Talk About It!’, a community discussion group, have discussed multiple episodes of the series during their group meetings.   

Before his lecture, staff at the Myaamia Center welcomed Sterlin to Oxford and our Myaamia homelands over lunch. We got to chat with Sterlin about his career, storytelling process, and our favorite moments from his show.

A group of about 15 people stands in front of the sign for the Myaamia Center outside on a cloudy day.
Sterlin Harjo and Myaamia Center staff pose for a photo in front of the Myaamia Center sign. Photo by Karen Baldwin, Miami Tribe of Oklahoma

Reservation Dogs, set in rural Oklahoma, features four Indigenous teens who are trying to go to California for a self-prophesized “better life.” During his lecture, Sterlin explained that the show, and the rest of this work, are heavily influenced by his own life experiences and upbringing. 

Sterlin grew up in Holdenville, Oklahoma a border town of the Seminole and Muscogee-Creek reservations, raised by his parents who he described as “southern country hippies.” 

Growing up, Sterlin heard elders in his family tell stories about the forced removal of their community and the Trail of Tears, but it wasn’t until his young adulthood, when he started studying at the University of Oklahoma, that he fully understood the implications of these stories. 

“It’s a miracle any of these tribes survived,” Sterlin said. “The people who die first [during forced relocation] are the elders and the children- the generation who knows the stories and the generation that carries them on.” 

It was around this time Sterlin found himself enrolling in the film and cinema program at the university. Like many new writers, Sterlin was taught to “write what you know.” This got him thinking about the representation of Native Americans in the media. He started to watch the films coming out of Hollywood through a more critical lens. 

Sterlin found that while he could enjoy these Hollywood films, he couldn’t relate to them. He felt as though he was watching programs “about” Native people for non-native audiences. Whether he was watching the scary, drunk, illiterate, Indian, or the peaceful, precious, “do-no-harm” Indian, he was disappointed to find how dehumanizing these characters were often portrayed. This realization inspired him to change the narrative. Sterlin found a desire to tell stories about his own community and to tell the truth about where he was from. 

In order to tell these stories, Sterlin explained that you have to talk about the light, as well as the darkness, and most often, he does this through comedy. As a member of the comedy group, “The 1491’s,” Sterlin learned a lot about Indian Country and the importance of making people laugh. 

Since he had flipped the typical experience by writing about Native communities for Native communities, he wanted to invite non-native audiences to feel a part of the experience being played out on screen. He found the best way to do this was to get the audience laughing and let them in on the jokes. By doing this, Sterlin had done what many assumed was impossible; creating a meaningful piece of media starring complex, interesting Native American characters, that was not only accurate but widely enjoyed by a larger audience outside of Indian Country. 

Stelin’s presentation was a part of Miami University’s 2022/2023 Focus Initiative: Tribal Sovereignty. Staff at the Myaamia Center have been working with groups across campus to host various educational programs throughout the Spring semester. Check out the Myaamia Center website and social media (Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter) to participate in more Tribal Sovereignty related activities and programs. 

Last updated: February 15, 2022

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