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From ‘Reservation Dogs’ to ‘Love and Fury,’ Sterlin Harjo’s Goal Is to ‘Humanize’ the Native Experience

An unexpected career boost has provided the artist with a platform on which to counter a long history of purposefully maligned representation.

Sterlin Harjo attends the LA premier of "Reservation Dogs" at NeueHouse on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Sterlin Harjo attends the LA premier of “Reservation Dogs” at NeueHouse on Aug. 5, 2021.

Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

Just as colonists forcibly displaced Indigenous people centuries ago, Native Americans have also been long maligned by an American film industry in which ugly stereotypes have persisted. Even today, Native artists struggle to carve out mainstream spaces for expression. It is against that troublesome backdrop that filmmakers such as Sterlin Harjo operate, bent on taking control of the Native narrative and “normalizing” the variety within the experience, even if incrementally.

That’s certainly what he’s achieved in 2021, with both the successful first season of FX’s “Reservation Dogs” (already renewed for a second season) and freewheeling new film “Love and Fury.” The Oklahoma-based Harjo’s fifth feature film, it’s a globetrotting documentary that follows Native artists as they navigate their careers, finding camaraderie with Indigenous people everywhere.

“I think there is a humanizing that we as Native Americans have to do for non-Native people, as we’re trying to get an audience that might not know our world to meet us halfway,” Harjo said of his projects. “It shouldn’t be a radical thing to show Native people doing ‘normal’ things, but it turns out it is, because we just haven’t been seen that way in the media. Sometimes showing the mundane can be the most radical.”

Making the Native experience accessible to non Natives, as torturous as it might be, is a responsibility Harjo carries without hesitation. On the landing page of his website is the following quote: “It’s not up to Hollywood to change Native representation in the media. They have failed at it for decades. It’s up to us — Artists, Filmmakers, Storytellers, and Activists. That power is ours alone.”

It might be a controversial position to take by any BIPOC creative at a time when the ostensibly accepted approach is to place that responsibility almost entirely on the shoulders of mostly non-BIPOC, profit-driven industry gatekeepers. From Harjo’s perspective, to do so is short-sighted and self-defeating.

“I think that it gives too much power to a capitalist institution by relying on them to give you the power that you already have,” he said. “We have the singular power to change that narrative because we’re the only people who can do it. We’re the only people who value our stories. And instead of wanting something from an institution that doesn’t know or even care for our stories, we have to lead the way.”

Harjo did acknowledge that there definitely is room to be created for Natives within existing popular, if insular, spaces. He pointed to his experience with FX and “Reservation Dogs,” the critically acclaimed new series he created with Taika Waititi, as one example.

“They trusted me to tell this story and got out of the way,” he said. “That’s been a positive experience for me. In that instant, we weren’t looking for a handout, and we shouldn’t be. It’s proof that if given a chance, it’s just a lane to work in, then we can take it from there.”

He credits the success of Donald Glover’s unconventional “Atlanta,” also on FX, for paving the path to the existence of “Reservation Dogs.” Premiering in August, the series was swiftly renewed.

The response is still a shock to Harjo, and he remains humble. “I’m so used to just making low-budget films that very few people see, so to be able to do something at this level, and have it appreciated this way, was such a surprise,” he said. “But part of it was that I had nothing to lose. Native art isn’t about getting rich. You do it because you want to express something that historically you haven’t been provided a platform for, and to say it with a freedom that may make people uncomfortable.”

With documentary “Love and Fury” streaming on Netflix, Harjo is able to provide a platform to the film’s artists and their works. Featuring musicians, poets, authors, and comedians — including Laura Ortman, Raven Chacon, Joy Harjo, Micah P. Hinson, and Bobby “Dues” Wilson — the film shows creatives wrestling with what it means to be Native American, born and raised in a country that has curbed their history and displaced their traditions. Remnants are extant, but they have become part of a homogenized culture which poses questions of identity and authenticity — not being enough of one thing or the other, but more like an amalgamation.

“Documentaries about Native people have been so earnest, and are typically about a single issue, and I wanted this to be about everything, because we aren’t a monolith,” said Harjo. “I’m a Native American but I was born into this morass, this diversity. And all of that is who I am as well. Maybe I do not want to be just this one thing.”

Because he now speaks to a larger audience, there’s pressure to represent every Native experience. It’s not a tension he embraces, but he understands and accepts it, as his career boost opens doors for himself and others. There are new projects in development, but Harjo was mum on details, other than to tease the idea of a series based on “Love and Fury,” which was always his hope.

“There’s anxiety wrapped up anytime you are part of breaking a wall down, knowing that you’re going to get hit with expectations,” he said. “But it’s not like, ‘Woe is me.’ So many people benefited from the making of ‘Reservation Dogs’ that I do see it as progress. I love the position I’m in, but I’m also just a dad. I’m a kid who grew up in this country, and there’s no way to prepare yourself for any of it. It just is.”

“Love and Fury” had its world premiere at the 2020 Hot Docs International Documentary Festival, and was subsequently picked up by Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY distribution company this year. It’s Harjo’s widest film release to date, given Netflix’s global reach, which is a noteworthy accomplishment, the success of “Reservation Dogs” notwithstanding. But the runway remains long.

“I honestly thought that I would be making micro-budget films the rest of my life, and that would’ve been okay,” he said. “I never saw any of this coming. In the end, the ultimate goal is representation of Native people. We all have these common obstacles that we face in life. I don’t want to do that in a vacuum. I want non-Native people to enjoy my work. I also want to collaborate. ‘Normalizing’ nativeness is really just being human. And that’s what I’d like to see more of.”

“Love and Fury” is now streaming on Netflix.

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