Sterlin Harjo comes to TU for Presidential Lecture

TU’s Presidential Lecture brought award-winning filmmaker Sterlin Harjo to campus last Wednesday.

The University of Tulsa had a special visitor for its Presidential Lecture series at the Reynolds Center on Oct. 19.The visitor for this particular event was none other than Sterlin Harjo, who is perhaps most known for his work as the co-creator of “Reservation Dogs” along with Taika Waititi. “Reservation Dogs,” which can be seen on the streaming service Hulu, is a critically-acclaimed series about four Native American teenagers hoping for a better life outside of their rural Oklahoma town, and it has received numerous awards and nominations, including a Peabody Award and an Independent Spirit Award.

Of course, Sterlin didn’t just talk about “Reservation Dogs.” He gave the audience a look into his life and the events that led him to where he is now. He talked about his mother being a hairdresser who gave him perms in Holdenville, OK, and his father being a bit of a reclusive hunter who also taught martial arts classes and was a 10th degree black belt. He told us about the events in his life that had inspired portions of the show, and how certain parts were even inspired by pop culture, such as one story he gave, where his friends planned to break into a house of a woman who made pirated movies, because what she was doing was also illegal. He also talked about how he had been influenced by a variety of things, such as his mother taking him to culture festivals or the music he would listen to.

He discussed his struggles in the film industry and how, for quite a while, he struggled to even get noticed, including how he accidentally switched a film that he was supposed to send in to the Sundance Film Festival with a wedding he had filmed for a friend. He talked about how he had helped develop the 1491s, a sketch comedy group that Sterlin helped create and, as he describes, was started as a way to put out funny videos for native people on sites like YouTube.

He even discussed the sillier parts of himself, such as knowing way too much about the Battle of Little Bighorn and how he and a friend took part in a dance battle against two Navajo men on two separate occasions, tying in the first and winning the second. He would explain how he met that friend, Taika Waititi, before he ever became famous and internationally known, and how he didn’t want to seem like he was taking advantage of his friend, and how the two became close friends as they developed their sense of humor. Harjo would then go on to mention that, when they were discussing shows to pitch, Harjo thought that he would be waiting at least a year to hear back, but two days later, he received a call from Taika and another from his agent informing him that the show had been greenlit.

He then finished the lecture by going into some of his future projects. According to Harjo, Season threeof Reservation Dogs will be a darker, more serious one than the previous seasons, mentioning that he doesn’t want the show to appear stale or boring. He didn’t want to mention much, but did state that “all the usual suspects will be back.”

He also has a post-apocalyptic piece called “The History of Barbed Wire” that is in the works. Finally, he announced that he recently acquired the rights to a story of Jim Thorpe, the famous Native American athlete and Olympic Gold Medalist, and he is excited to get a chance to tell the story right.

Following the lecture, there was a Q&A moderated by Jeff Van Hanken, a professor at TU’s Department of Film Studies who was also revealed to have been one of Harjo’s professors at the University of Oklahoma. When asked what was the best advice he received, Harjo stated that one of his teachers had told him this: “Whatever you do, don’t have a fallback plan, because you’ll fall back.” The lecture that Harjo gave can be described as funny, uplifting, serious, intelligent, and honest. It gave us a look into the mind of the man who has helped create one of the most well-liked shows of 2021 and 2022. It did a good job at showing that Harjo hasn’t forgotten where he comes from. He’s also hopeful for the future of Oklahoma, and that Oklahoma can become a place where everyone feels safe.

Post Author: Thomas Jackson