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‘Reservation Dogs’ creator talks diversity and low-budget filmmaking

Sterlin Harjo visited Williams Hall to talk about low-budget filmmaking. During the session, he answered students' questions about diversity in film and television.
Sterlin Harjo visited Williams Hall to talk about low-budget filmmaking. During the session, he answered students' questions about diversity in film and television.

“It’s the best show on streaming right now.”

At least, that’s what Joe Sampson, senior clinical lecturer of journalism, said about “Reservation Dogs” right before its creator, Sterlin Harjo, graced Miami University’s Williams Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 8.

Many Miamians seemed to agree, squeezing into the Rick Ludwin studio in Williams during the afternoon and Hall Auditorium at night to hear Harjo talk.

“I actually skipped my psychology class to come here,” said Hackett Rascher, a sophomore English literature and film studies major.

The event was big, mainly because of the success of “Reservation Dogs.” The FX on Hulu show, which is about to start production on its third season, has won multiple awards, including two American Film Institute awards for TV Program of the Year, a Film Independent Spirit Award for Best New Scripted Series and a Peabody Award.

“Reservation Dogs” follows four teens, all played by Native American actors, as they navigate life on an Oklahoma reservation. 

The series was created by Harjo, who also grew up in Oklahoma on a reservation, and is produced by his friend Taika Waititi. Harjo gets to work with some of his other friends, too, including some of the members of his comedy troupe, The 1491s.

Before Harjo started working on “Reservation Dogs,” he went to film school at the University of Oklahoma, after he couldn’t keep the grades for art school. After college, he made his own low-budget films in Oklahoma, which he would often premiere at film festivals.

Photo by Luke Macy | The Miami Student
Sterlin Harjo's lecture in Hall Auditorium went over his and his family's life and his inspirations for writing.

During his talk, Harjo gave advice to students making low-budget films.

“Don’t try to make it look like a big budget film,” Harjo said. “Embrace your budget, lean into it. There’s things that you can do with a low budget that they can’t do with a big budget.”

Harjo also advised that students don’t only aim to become directors, talking about the many roles needed to create a film.

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“Being a director’s important, but there’s so much more,” Harjo said. “You can have a whole career being the person that pumps gas for the production vehicles. There’s so much to do.”

Some film students, like Rascher, were grateful for Harjo’s advice and insight into making films.

“All the things he said, just to hear that from a professional, is really encouraging,” Rascher said. “Whenever I hear any sort of director, someone in that position, they give me more hope that it’s a possibility for anybody.”

Harjo also discussed the role of race in films, especially in the context of Native Americans.

Harjo, who is part Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, writes Native American comedy for his comedy troupe and “Reservation Dogs,” which he says is different from other types of comedy. However, this doesn’t always translate well with non-Native audiences.

“We have to give them permission to laugh with us,” Harjo said. “People hold Indians in a very precious place … There’s a bit of guilt; there’s a bit of a guard.”

In his discussion of race, Harjo also called out traditions in film that have restricted Native Americans.

“It’s ridiculous that we haven’t had better roles,” Harjo said. “Native people have been a part of cinema since the beginning, and we’ve only been zombies for the most part, like in westerns, sort of faceless monsters that are in the way of westward expansion.”

Francis Smith, a senior in the Myaamia Heritage Award Program majoring in computer science, said Harjo’s Native American background was a major factor in their attending the event.

“It was really important for me to meet somebody of Sterlin Harjo’s background to see not just only where they came from … but also how that’s influenced their life and their work,” Smith said.

Harjo didn’t leave Miami without giving his audience a gift. During his visit, he shared some details about the upcoming season 3 of “Reservation Dogs,” which he said will include a black-and-white origin episode about one of the show’s mythological beings.

“Don’t blink, because we get moving pretty quick,” Harjo said. “Stuff gets darker. It’s not hopeless, but there’s some darker stuff.”

Season 3 is expected to release sometime in 2023.