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‘Reservation Dogs’ Co-Creator Sterlin Harjo on How Native Storytelling Kept Him Going Through Hollywood Rejection

·5 min read

Sterlin Harjo is a Native filmmaker and a name you might recognize — he’s directed an episode of “The Magicians” and he’s the mastermind behind FX’s popular “Reservation Dogs.” Harjo is a Native creative bringing Indigenous stories to life.

It’s something he’s always been doing, though Hollywood hasn’t always held its doors open for filmmakers like Harjo… until recently, thanks to the advent of streaming.

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As part of Native American Heritage Month, Harjo spoke with Variety about how Hollywood wasn’t always so receptive to his ideas and how he found the inspiration to keep going through Native storytelling.

What was it that inspired the move as a filmmaker to Los Angeles?

I went to the Sundance Writer’s Lab and then the director’s lab. It was all about the art of writing and filmmaking. It was like a boot camp for me because I didn’t have a lot of set experience. It opened a lot of doors, that quickly closed.

This was the early 2000s, but post ‘90s heyday of indie film, coming out of that decade. So, I was thinking I’ll be able to get my first feature made and came to L.A. with that mindset.

But that wasn’t the case, right?

It became apparent after the first few meetings that no one wanted to make Native films — and this was before streaming. People would say, ‘Native films don’t sell,’ or ‘This isn’t Native enough.’

Once someone said, it was a great script, but if there was any way to get Phillip Seymour Hoffman on the poster then it could get financed. That was just a reflection of the industry at the time. This talk of diversity was not around.

I also worked on a project and sold it to a company. It was going into development, and they said, ‘Well you can do it, but you have to do it without Sterlin.’ And I had to swallow that.

That was my experience going in, so I decided I needed to keep making independent films in Oklahoma and that I wasn’t going to take anything too hard. I took the approach that if I keep my head down and keep working and making good films, then I’ll be ready when the industry does change. There were a lot of good people, non-Native people in the industry who helped me and were mentoring me along the way. I tried to remain positive and just create work and hoped that the industry changed. And I really watched that happen.

Eventually, it did. It did change.

I got hired as a producer on “Scalped.” They hired me as a consultant and creative partner. Doug Jones was a creator and showrunner on that. They were making shows that didn’t have to star white people with names. Doug was helpful and talked to me about how the industry was working at the time.

Chris Fisher, who was working on “The Magicians,” had helped me early in my career also reached out to me. He pushed for me because I don’t think people wanted to hire me, but I got to direct one episode. In the meantime, I was selling my projects and getting development deals and around that time, streaming was opening up this new avenue and that’s where my career came to life. Right up until “Reservation Dogs,” I was making feature films for $200,000 and lower.

What kept you going and having this faith that the industry was going to change? What was that beacon of hope for you?

I wasn’t in it for the money. I wanted to tell stories. I come from a community that has such good stories, so many stories and that’s what I wanted to do. That replaced the monetary game. I was getting to tell stories about people that are misrepresented. That doesn’t mean I was trying to tell positive stories. I wanted to tell the dark stories, and I want to tell the funny stories. I wanted to tell every story that makes us human.

I remember hanging out with Sierra Teller Ornelas (“Rutherford Falls”) and both of us didn’t have shows at the time. I remember saying, ‘I might be hanging it up.’ I was really serious about that, and it’s funny to think about it. But at the end of the day, it was about telling these stories and lifting up my community, and that is what kept me going.

What is it like to see the shift and also know there is an audience that wants to see the show, not just a Native one?

When I was making “Reservation Dogs,” I knew that people would like it, but I didn’t know it was going to be so popular. The only thing that I can chalk it up to is having the room to fail and not be afraid of failing throughout my career, and there was the frustration of not getting films distributed. Then I had the opportunity to do a show. I looked around and said we had to swing for the fences. It was a combination of that and FX giving us the room to do that and to let me tell it with Indigenous writers. We could tell the story we wanted to tell. We could really go for it and it allow us to make something beautiful.

What is it like now being able to create opportunities for those entering the industry after you?

That’s one of my favorite things to do – being able to open doors for younger people. It was so beautiful to see kids dressed up as characters from the show on Halloween… Usually, Halloween was always a wried time because you’d see kids and people dressed up as Pocahontas or fake warriors. [Instead] you got to see Native kids dress up as these characters. A Native girl dressed up as Paulina from the show. She dressed up as her favorite Native actor and it was so beautiful. That is enough for me to live off of for the rest of my life.

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