The documentary was screened on campus followed by a Q&A panel with the director and crew.
Local filmmakers Sterlin Harjo, Shane Brown and Kyle Bell visited the TU film department for a screening of their documentary “This May be the Last Time” about Muscogee-Creek hymns in Oklahoma. After watching the film, the guests answered questions and discussed their work and its implications.
Sterlin Harjo is a Seminole filmmaker and director of “This May be the Last Time,” a film based on the story of his grandfather. Harjo has shown the movie at Sundance Film Festival and received a fellowship for filmmaking from the Sundance Institute. Harjo also formed a popular Five Nation American Indian comedy group called the 1491s and the film production company Fire Thief Productions.
Kyle Bell is an Emmy Award winning cinematographer and has worked on numerous documentaries, including “Defend the Sacred,” a film about Standing Rock that recently won the Golden Space Needle Audience Award at the Seattle International Film Festival last year. Bell worked on filming in “This May be the Last Time.”
Shane Brown is a photographer who worked on the cinematography for “This May be the Last Time.” Brown started as a still-life photographer and developed a strength in composition that he has been able to apply to cinematography. He was in charge of shooting natural and serene scenes that set a peaceful and mellow tone for the film.
“This May be the Last Time” centers on the role that Muscogee-Creek hymns play in the spiritual and cultural expression of American Indian people today. In various interviews, the people sang their songs and told Harjo why they were meaningful. Wotko, an American Indian man heavily featured in the film, talked about how these were the songs that his father always sang in church and taught to Wotko. Although his father has passed away, Wotko sings these songs to feel connected to his father and community and believes they bring him good luck.
Harjo explores how these hymns tell the history of the American Indian people. They were brought from the British Isles and used to teach American Indians about Christianity. One man describes how he believes his ancestors “grabbed ahold of things that were thrown at them,” making Christianity something that could enrich, rather than break the American Indian community that it was forced upon. Another expressed disgust at how the colonizers “gave us the gospel and committed genocide at the same time.”
Harjo grew up in Holdenville, Oklahoma where “This May be the Last Time” was filmed. He narrated a part of the film, saying, “Our histories are not written, they are told through songs.” These are the songs that people sang to keep hope while walking along the Trail of Tears. They encompass a history of destruction of American Indian culture, but they also demonstrate the strength of it. American Indians were able to reshape and reinvent Christianity to maintain cultural individuality. Rather than singing about the gospel in English, they sing in their native languages with influences from traditional music.
Throughout the interview scenes, Harjo retold the story of his own grandfather, Pete Harjo, who went missing in the ‘60s. Pete Harjo’s car was discovered in a river, but his body wasn’t there. The American Indian community banded together to wade through the river for several weeks, singing the hymns as they searched for his body. His body was finally found after a combined effort of people searching, cooking and even damming the river. His friends carried him in a blanket to the roads where ambulances waited. A bystander described how they sang as they carried him and how he could “hear them echo through the forest.”
Hugh Foley, a music historian who lives in Holdenville and studied the Muscogee-Creek hymns, described why he thinks these songs are the “First American music” and should be taught in the canon of history. A Yale conference brought groups of people, including some from Holdenville, together because of the similarities in songs performed across the country.
They had found that Scottish congregations, African American churches and Muscogee-Creeks all sang in the same way. After the songs were brought from the British Isles by colonists, it was taught to and adapted by both African slaves and American Indians. Because of this, the final product represents the first kind of music that is a product of the three major cultural groups of the young country.
During the Q&A session, Harjo discussed why he continues to make films that center on American Indians. He believes that these are stories that are rarely told but incredibly important. Rather than living in places like Los Angeles where the film industry is larger, he chooses to stay and work around the communities where he grew up. He told the audience, “No one would tell these stories if I didn’t. Or if they did, they would probably screw it up.”