The Tulsa Library Trust honors a filmmaker of increasingly impressive renown this week, as it presents Sterlin Harjo with its Festival of Words Writers Award.
Harjo began making a name for himself in 2005, when his film Goodnight, Irene played at Sundance, and he received Special Jury Recognition that same year at a film festival in Aspen. Since then, he has received a United States Artists Fellowship, won the Creative Promise Award from Tribeca All Access, had a second and third (both full-length, as opposed to the short that Irene was) film play at Sundance, and had a film entered in the Berlin International Film Festival. Not bad for a kid from Holdenville.
The question hanging over this, though, is: isn't this guy a filmmaker? Writer's award? Huh?
"I think that a big part of what I do is writing, so it didn't throw me for a loop too bad," Harjo said. Given that he's not one to make films that he didn't write, the award seems to make more sense.
"I think it's cool, because I don't ever get to talk about the writing side of it, so it was good to get recognized for it," he said. "And there have been some pretty big names before me get this award, so it's kind of good company to be in."
Teresa Runnels, who heads up American Indian Resources for the Tulsa City-County Library, added that it wasn't just the writing, but that the process that writers go through is largely the same, whether they're writing books, plays, short stories, or movies.
"We realize he's a filmmaker, but he also writes the scripts," she said. "He has to do the same research and the same process as a book, but it just comes out in a different form."
She called the award itself part of a pair that is intended for those who make the Native community better.
"This is the American Indian Writers award, and it's given on odd-numbered years," Runnels said. "The American Indian Circle of Honor Award is given on even years. That's usually for someone whose work has been dedicated to improving the American Indian community.
The award came as a surprise to Harjo, he said, for the most part, because he wasn't all that aware of its existence.
"I didn't know I was up for it. They just called me and said that I got the award," he said. "I didn't even know the award existed."
And while the library knew he existed, they had a bit of time finding him.
"The library was trying to find me for a little bit, and I think they finally found my cousin," Harjo said. "I don't know how they ended up finding my cousin, but they did, and it's not every day that you get a call saying, 'We're going to give you a $5k award for something you do.'"
While a lot of filmmakers might pour that money back into a new project, Harjo has more pedestrian plans.
"I'm going to pay taxes with that money," he said. "If there's any left over, I might buy a pair of boots. Maybe pay rent."
A writing award causes one to wonder if Harjo considers himself a writer, or a filmmaker, or some combination, or something else entirely, and his answer to that involves going back to his early college days.
"I started out wanting to be a painter," he said. "I was at OU to get a fine arts degree. But I took a class there after I wrote a script. I got introduced to a lot of films, like independent films and Eastern European films and stuff, and I kind of fell in love with it."
Perhaps for little more reason than not having to pay a writer, Harjo continued writing his scripts and filming them, and he has continued making splashes in the cinematic world.
He credits his initial passion for painting with assisting him with his cinematic vision.
"I think the painting background helps," Harjo said. "You learn composition, and any of that helps with framing shots and lighting and shooting stuff."
Runnels outlined the process of Harjo's selection, a rather arduous process.
"There's a selection committee, and they go through a list of people that have been nominated, and then they just kind of look at background information and their writings and things they have done," she said. "And we just sort of dwindle the list down until we have a winner. It usually takes three or four months to make the decision."
Harjo's award is only a part of the library's activities planned for the weekend -- one devoted to Native American culture and education about it.
"It's a festival," Runnels said. "It will start off with the award presentation, and immediately following is a three-hour festival in the Central Library. We've tried to present programs that honor the traditional culture of the American Indians, but also show the contemporary side. And we also want to highlight some of Sterlin's work."
Along those lines is a showing of Barking Water, arguably Harjo's most successful film, at 7:00pm on Thursday evening at TU's Lorton Performing Center
"It's free and open to the public," Runnels said. "And throughout the day, we're going to show a few short clips of his stuff at the library."
Harjo will be on hand, as well, not only to accept the award, but to do whatever the library might ask of him, regardless of how uncomfortable it might make him now and again.
"I think I'm giving a speech. I have a little schedule, but I'm going to be there as much as they need me to. I might just play it by ear, but I'm supposed to give a speech at a breakfast," he said. "I think it's just going to be like, 'Well, what do you think?' I think it's just getting up and talking about the award and thanking them. It's honestly a little strange. I'm from Holdenville, and if there's one thing you're taught there, it's to be humble. So a weekend honoring me is kind of weird."
One imagines that the $5,000 award will soothe any anxiety.
In addition to the award and the speech, Harjo pointed out that the list of activities offered during the three hours on Saturday relates to his interests.
"They've incorporated a lot of things I'm interested in -- cultural things, like a Stomp dance, and they're showing some videos of mine. So yeah, it's pretty cool," he said.
Runnels outlined a number of those activities, which range from dance exhibitions to kids' hands-on craft projects.
We have a Stomp dance exhibition with Sam Proctor, who has dedicated his life to carrying on the Muscogee culture," she said. "He and his group will be doing the Stomp dance demonstration, and there will also be a powwow dance. We have other dances in our culture, but those are probably the two most popular kinds."
Joy Harjo (no relation), who won the very first Festival of Words Writers Award, will be leading a program on creating comic book stories and comic art, as well.
"Then we'll have Gerald Wofford from Native News Today, which is a weekly news program," Runnels continued. "He'll tell the history of the show, how it got started, and how they find topics."
Carrying on with the comic book theme will be graphic artist and writer Dustin Mater.
"He's going to kind of sum up the comics stuff -- you have all this stuff, and now what do you do," Runnels said. "They'll touch on that in the Joy Harjo thing, and Dustin will sort of build on that."
Finally, on the Library's third floor will be come-and-go activities (mostly kid-oriented) revolving around storytelling, children's crafts, and Native American cultural demonstrations.
Harjo will accept the Festival of Words Writers Award on Saturday, March 2 at 10:30am at Central Library, located at Fourth and Denver. The three-hour festival follows, running from 11:30am to 2:30pm. More information found by phone at 918-549-7323 or at guides.tulsalibrary.org/airc.
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