Filmmaker Gets Real About Native American Stereotypes in Hollywood

Sterlin Harjo, director of "Mekko." (Photo: Sterlin Harjo)
Sterlin Harjo, director of “Mekko.” (Photo: Sterlin Harjo)
Rod Rondeaux in "Mekko." (Photo: XFINITY)
Rod Rondeaux in “Mekko.” (Photo: XFINITY)

If filmmaker Sterlin Harjo had one wish, it would be that Hollywood would stop resorting to stereotypes when depicting Native Americans.

“I’d get rid of the flute music that white filmmakers think needs to be playing when an Indian comes on screen. It can be the smartest, brightest filmmaker and they still fall into these weird, old clichés. I don’t understand it,” Harjo, 37, said.

Instead, Harjo, whose tribal affiliation is Seminole and Muskogee (Creek), suggests filmmakers approach the storytelling the way he does.

“I’m going to bank on the fact that you’re human and going to connect with the human emotions and the humanness of this story. And the culture stuff you’re going to get because I’m going to show it to you,” he said.

The Oklahoman does just that in “Mekko,” his latest film about a homeless Native American parolee who seeks to rescue his community from impending danger. “Mekko” showcases the beautiful and chaotic complexities affecting many Native communities.

“I had elements of the story kicking around in my head for a while. One day the story came to me and it all clicked,” he said.

Harjo, who studied film at the University of Oklahoma, received a fellowship from the Sundance Institute in 2004. His first feature film, “Four Sheets to the Wind,” premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival where it was nominated for the grand jury prize.

I continued my conversation with Harjo, who talked more about “Mekko,” Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans and the Dakota Access oil pipeline protests.

Be sure to celebrate Native American Heritage Month by watching XFINITY’s film collection featuring Native American filmmakers.

WATCH: “Mekko” trailer

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Why did you decide to focus “Mekko” on the Native community in Tulsa?

STERLING HARJO: I had been paying attention to this community in Tulsa for a few years. I was drawn to them because through all the pain and adversity they seemed to take care of each other. They seemed to be a family. I wanted to show how hard it is on the streets but also the beauty of survival.

Why did this particular story need to be told in this particular way?

HARJO: I like the idea that if I didn’t tell this story no one would. I used a lot of people that really live on the streets as actors. It needed to happen that way to make it real. I didn’t want to be an outsider with a bunch of actors in makeup exploiting real people from the streets. I needed them to help me make the film. They did.

How do you think the media treats Native people?

Rod Rondeaux and Sarah Podemski in "Mekko." (Photo: XFINITY)
Rod Rondeaux and Sarah Podemski in “Mekko.” (Photo: XFINITY)

HARJO: Well, it’s no secret that Native representation has been poor throughout history. Even today if you read CNN’s coverage of the situation at Standing Rock, the news organization tries to paint them as violent. But, Native people have survived despite the bad representation and propaganda, and we will continue to survive.

If there’s one thing that you’d like to change about how Native people are portrayed in film, what would it be? Why?

HARJO:  Native Americans in popular culture have been identified through white people. If you look at dime store books from the 1800s or whenever, it’s this idea of the noble savage and the Native princess that needs saving. Oh, and everyone looks like they’re Lakota Sioux, forgetting that every tribe has their own culture, way of dressing, way of being and way of making music. Not all of them played the flute, probably the majority of them. There are all of these identifiers that white people have to put in place and it’s like Hollywood wants everything spoon-fed to you. It’s like they believe people won’t know it’s Native American unless a flute’s playing and drums in the background. But that’s not the audience’s fault, that’s not Americans’ fault; it’s the people making the films fault. They are assuming that the audience isn’t educated, isn’t smart and doesn’t have a brain in their head to think on their own. I choose not to do that. I choose to meet my audience in the middle and know that they’re educated and that they’re going to help tell the story with me. It’s a give and take.

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What was the last mainstream film featuring Native people that got it right? 

HARJO: By a non-native filmmaker, it’s “Dead Man.” Though, I don’t know if it’s considered mainstream. Jim Jarmusch researched the characters and made sure they were correctly representative of the communities in which they belonged. The native characters were also complex and three dimensional. That’s all we ask for: some honesty in portraying us.

Why did you feel it was important to include mysticism in this film?

HARJO: I don’t consider it mysticism. I think that’s a very western idea. The way that I grew up, these conversations about witches were real. It wasn’t this other world. It was a part of our conversation. So I included it because it’s something we discuss and deal with in our lives. When I show this film to Native audiences, no one ever asks why I included it because they all have it in their lives.

Rod Rondeaux and Zahn McClarnon in "Mekko." (Photo: XFINITY)
Rod Rondeaux and Zahn McClarnon in “Mekko.” (Photo: XFINITY)

You mentioned Standing Rock Sioux Reservation earlier. What are your thoughts about the Dakota Access oil pipeline protests?

HARJO: The government is turning a blind eye that the Morton County Sheriff’s Department is attacking unarmed peaceful citizens of the United States. I think that’s something that happened throughout the history with Natives. They will have to do something about it because people are getting hurt. If it were happening to a bunch of white people in Florida [the response from the government would be different].

I have a lot of friends who are either on the frontline or coordinating efforts there. I have friends that have been shot with rubber bullets. They are all really educated, smart people and, right now, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department is trying to act like they’re a bunch of hooligans or writing them off as inciting the violence. And mainstream media will not talk about it. Whenever anyone reports about it, they pretty much sound like a Morton County Sheriff’s Department press release. It gets really complex. I can’t imagine what would be happening up there right now if people didn’t have cameras in their pockets and they were filming what the cops were actually doing. Actually, I can imagine because we look throughout history and see what happened to people.

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Do you think there will ever come a time where Native people and the U.S. government will mutually agree about how land in this country should be utilized? 

HARJO: I live in Oklahoma and there are earthquakes all of the time. I didn’t grow up with earthquakes but [they exist now] because of fracking and our dependency on fossil fuels. You just can’t keep taking things out of the earth without putting something back. It’s easy arithmetic and Americans—the world— we’ve ignored it for a long time. But, we’re starting to see results, we’re starting to see physical manifestations on our planet whether it’s global warming or earthquakes. It’s only so long that we can ignore it. Somethings going to have to be done.

What are your thoughts about the complaints that Colonial American events, including Thanksgiving, are whitewashed and romanticized?

Rod Rondeaux in "Mekko." (Photo: XFINITY)
Rod Rondeaux in “Mekko.” (Photo: XFINITY)

HARJO: I don’t have a big problem with Thanksgiving, just because I think it’s a holiday where you’re giving thanks. I think that’s important, no matter where you’re from. Obviously, if you read your history books, you know that the history between settlers and Native Americans was very, very complicated. That’s the least I can say.

Some people believe that Native Americans are pretty much nonexistent.

HARJO: Well, first off, if someone thinks we’re extinct, they’re a moron. Second, it doesn’t help that Native artists and Native Americans in general are pretty marginalized. The only time you see us represented in the media is if it’s an Indian mascot or something else that’s ridiculous. It’s really hard to be a Native filmmaker because I don’t get my films funded that easily if I want to get films made about Native Americans. The things you hear are, “You can get your films funded if you have named white actors in roles and have some Natives on the side.” Basically, they’re saying, “We’ll fund your movie if it’s ‘Dances with Wolves’ and we can get Kevin Costner to kind of be the white savior and lead the charge with all of the Natives around him.” The reasons I make films is because I love filmmaking as an art form. I love the expression of yourself through film and I love artists who express who they are through their films. That’s what I want to express and the stories I want to tell are about Native people, but it’s a hard thing to balance because there’s not a lot of funding for it. So, it’s pretty clear why people don’t know about all of the pretty rich Native culture that’s around the world and in America. We’re not represented very well and the stuff that is represented is whitewashed and flat-out racist. It’s no wonder people don’t have a connection to who we really are or know of are existence.