Sterlin Harjo is a filmmaker and a member of the Seminole and Creek nations in his home state of Oklahoma. He is the director of two feature films, Four Sheets to the Wind and Barking Water. Both films premiered at the Sundance film festival, and both portray Harjo’s background through fictional narrative. For his newest film, This May Be the Last Time, Harjo has turned from fictional film to documentary, using film to document the Christian hymns that are sung by the Seminole and Creek nations. His evocative film weaves together music, interviews, and personal narrative into a complex meditation on loss, culture, and the meaning of tradition.
Andy Boyd: One of the things that really interested me about the film was that it was a film; film is not the most common medium for historical research. Why did you decide to tell this story as a film rather than, say, a historical monograph?
Sterlin Harjo: I chose to tell the story this way because that’s how we have always told stories. Our histories aren’t written. They are passed from our voices. From our breath. That’s how our stories are passed down. I think film has a very natural connection to oral storytelling.
Andy Boyd: I also wonder about how analysis of slave songs can give us windows into how we might interpret Creek hymns. Historians of slave songs often write that tying earthly suffering to a next-worldy salvation narrative helped slaves cope with physical, emotional, and spiritual pain. Is the same true of Cherokee hymns? Do they work by pointing a way towards a world without pain? Or is it more about expressing that pain in this world?
Sterlin Harjo: I think the songs are more practical than that. They are about lifting you up when you are down. They do point to a world without pain, but it’s more about being reunited with loved ones that you have lost.
Andy Boyd: Another thing that interested me about this film was the way it deals with religion. These hymns are explicitly Christian. I think this complicates a lot of our narratives about religion and social change. We often either consider Christianity as a force that destroys traditional religion, or as a sort of fake religion overlaying the “true” native religion (Mexican veneration of the Virgin is “really” about Tonantzin, etc). Your film seems to suggest another analysis. How do you see these Cherokee and Creek Christians negotiating between native and Christian identities?
Sterlin Harjo: Christianity is looked at a lot in a negative light. The truth is that a lot of tribes have a Christian faction to them. In a lot of instances Christianity is approached with as much passion as the traditional religions. I see it as a whole, Christianity and these songs has helped keep certain aspects, like community and language, intact. Without both forms of religion the communities would have been decimated. The Indians were able to take Christianity and use it as a positive thing. Like Brian Hosmer says in the film, they were able to take Christianity, that in some cases was designed to break the community, and make it into something that sustains community. It’s all about survival.
Andy Boyd: I also want to explore how these songs relate to removal. Often we think of the religion of Native Americans as importantly tied to land. We hear a lot about sacred mountains, streams, or forests as a locus of spiritual power. In these songs, we don’t seem to find a specific geographical referent. Is that part of the reason they have been able to survive so long?
Sterlin Harjo: I think these songs were more about the internal struggle. There are references to the river of death… meaning the Mississippi river where a lot of people died during removal. These songs are more about lifting your spirit.
Andy Boyd: From the title screen onward, your film has a strong sense of a vanishing tradition. And yet, the trope of the vanishing Indian has been repudiated time and time again by the resilience of Native peoples in the face of traumatic change. What do you see as the future of these hymns?
Sterlin Harjo: I think the film is a story of things not vanishing. It’s a story of survival and of keeping things alive. It’s about keeping the community alive. Keeping the songs alive. As I say in the film, as long as we keep singing these songs and telling our stories then they will never die.
Andy Boyd: An important part of your film is its relationship to your own personal stories, most notably the disappearance of your grandfather. How does your story relate to the larger story you’re telling about these songs?
Sterlin Harjo: I think the story of my grandfather is an example of how these songs are used in a practical way, in a modern context. During removal, the Indians sang these songs to encourage each other, and to honor those that have passed. As far as my story, we discovered during editing that to make the film work I would need to be the bridge for the audience to cross over into this unique world. My story supplies a back story and context to these songs.
Andy Boyd: One of the figures that really drew me in was the white man Hugh Foley who had taken time to learn these hymns. This raises a larger question for me: to what extent do you feel a tradition can be learned? Do you have to grow up with it for it to be “yours?” What does it mean for a culture to be “yours” at all?
Sterlin Harjo: Hugh Foley’s story is very unique. It doesn’t happen a lot where I’m from. He was married into this church and spent a lot of time there. In a way the songs became his just like they are mine. He didn’t begin going to the church as a musicologist. He began going to the church as someone there to worship. The songs spoke to him, but the academic stuff came later. This was the key in the more academic side of these songs. I didn’t want to make an academic film. In telling Hugh’s personal story we were able to tell the history of the songs because discovering the history is Hugh’s personal story.
Andy Boyd: Sterlin, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us.
This May Be the Last Time can be viewed or purchased at thismaybethelasttime.com. All images and film are the property of Sterlin Harjo.