Photo: Shane Brown
We recently spoke to filmmaker Sterlin Harjo, creator of the acclaimed television show Reservation Dogs. He told us the story of how Vincent Neil Emerson’s music appeared on the show, and then graciously engaged us in a broad conversation about the music of Rez Dogs, the show itself, and what it meant to Indigenous people.
SMP: Music is a big part of Rez Dogs. Was that your vision from the beginning?
Sterlin: I’m just such a big fan of music. I write to music. I make playlists when I’m working on a project that kind of get me in that mode, in part because I do things that are different in tone. And I usually make a playlist that fits the tone of whatever I’m writing at that time and I just kind of surround myself with that playlist.
I always just have these ideas for songs to use in the shows. My entry way into making films was through doing music videos for my friends. That’s how I learned how to shoot and edit. And also, I’m a disgruntled musician, you know. It’s my way to connect with music is by putting it in my show, or doing a music video for someone. It’s kind of like my way of feeling like a musician for a little bit. And music helps tell a story. So I always kind of come in with an idea of what I want, music-wise.
SMP: Among other things, your show drew an enormous amount attention to Indigenous music. But it also showed that Indigenous music is not confined to any single genre or style of music.
Sterlin: That’s right. Each episode feels like it’s own genre as well. And as part of that, the music and tone and style of the episode, I’m trying to not even make it a question anymore. People are always trying to define and identify narrowly, but it’s like, well, here’s how diverse it is, and just to try blast that out into the universe and maybe we can move past that.
SMP: And from a traditional television standpoint, Rez Dogs refused to be defined narrowly as well.
Sterlin: Correct, for sure. It was trying to show what all is possible. We’re capable of all these things. We’re gonna show a little bit of horror, broad comedy, very grounded comedy, Robert Altman-style episodes. Giving homage to all these stories and styles was important.
SMP: You were good at the homages. Obviously, the pilot episode and calling the show Reservation Dogs was a nod to Tarantino. But you were so good at placing Easter Eggs throughout series that connected the show to cultural moments, even the “crying Indian” commercial from the 1970s.
Sterlin: (Laughs). Yeah, yeah. Lots of moments like that, and some that I don’t think people recognize, and some that they do. We just wanted to show that Native people are part of this culture, and this world. And we have been, and we have been paying attention, and we are artists and musicians, and filmmakers and visual artists and all of this stuff is at our disposal. Without making a big deal about anything, just showing it all. I want the first song you hear on a Native show to be, “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by Iggy and the Stooges. Basically, the corner that we painted ourselves in, and the box that people put us in, I wanted to show that we can easily break all that, and that we’re not confined to anything.
SMP: Before the final season aired you were asked in an interview why you were ending the show, and you said, “We find these characters in a very transitional period of their lives. You can’t keep transitioning forever in life. You either learn something or you don’t.” What did you learn about yourself in the process of making this show?
Sterlin: I keep learning the same thing, but that same thing keeps getting me closer and closer to where I want to be. And the same thing is to trust myself more. I think that, as an artist, we’re always questioning ourselves, which I think is good. The constant questions of, am I good enough, can I do this, am I even saying what I think I need to say, is this even important, do people even care? That’s constantly going through my head, and I think in a lot of artists’ heads. But through making Rez Dogs, it’s like I closed my eyes and dove off a cliff. And I was like, I’m gonna go for it, and make this show as good as I can make it. And I have no guide ahead of me to tell me which way to go, or to tell me if I’m doing something wrong. So I just have to trust myself. And with the results of the show, I kept trusting myself, and it kept paying off. And so I constantly learned to trust myself more. And FX really gave me the freedom to do that, and they trusted me, which was very helpful. That’s for sure what I learned, which I learned before, but as artists I think we have to constantly remind ourselves that.
SMP: It’s like the musician whose biggest song is the one they didn’t expect anyone would like because they just said, “fuck it, I’m gonna write the song I need to write,” but that’s the one that breaks through.
Sterlin: That’s exactly what happened with the show. I didn’t know what was gonna happen, or if it was going to be successful, but I knew I had one opportunity, and I needed to not waste it. I just tried to do things the best that I could, and I did them for me and my community. I wasn’t thinking about an audience or anything like that. I was just thinking, what would we want to watch on a Native show? What have I always wanted to see? I really just stuck to that, and because of that, I think it paid off.
SMP: I’ve heard other creators say a similar thing about their shows—I was basically making this for my group of friends.
Sterlin: Right. Exactly. And you know, for me it was all Indian Country. That’s who I was making it for, because I couldn’t leave it to someone else to make a real show about us. My guide was to tell the truth about us, and tell something that is realistic. And because of the response, I know that I succeeded in that.
SMP: You did. And let me say what so many others have said to you, thank you. As an Indigenous person, I’m so grateful and relieved you succeeded because—and I’m curious if you felt it at the time or if it hits you now, a sense that you were carrying a weight for all of us. Because if the show isn’t a success, how long is it before someone else gets a chance?
Sterlin: I felt that everyday (laughs). It was heavy. It was heavy. But you know, we have a tradition of sacrificing to help our community, that’s what this was like. I’m happy I get to see my kids now, but at the time, it was like, I gotta do this. I had the opportunity, and I always felt like I had the answer, which was very simple, to tell the truth.