Power of the Song
This May Be The Last Time documents history of Muscogee hymns
Review by Elena McLaughlin
Stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans are still abundant in contemporary media, and too often American Indians do not have control over their representation. Yet the number of Indigenous filmmakers who seize the power of creating their own image of Indigenous communities has been growing; they are exercising visual sovereignty through the imagery they create and taking back the narrative.
Sterlin Harjo, a member of the Seminole nation with Muscogee heritage, has been telling the story of his Indigenous Oklahoma for a number of years now and is well known among those interested in Native cinema. He keeps it local and focused on home, on the land he grew up knowing. He confesses that he can’t imagine working anywhere else. Harjo has three feature films: Four Sheets to the Wind (2007), Barking Water (2008) and Mekko (2015).
His feature documentary This May Be the Last Time (2014) pieces together the story of the filmmaker’s grandfather’s disappearance after a car wreck, using recollections of family and community members through the lens of Muscogee hymns that accompanied the community search for his grandfather’s body. The film explores the power of the songs that have been passed down from generation to generation, sustaining the community. In one of his interviews, Harjo suggests that, although the songs do address history, their power is in the personal connection they create for many people. Harjo stresses that while tribal songs document the past, they also define the present through intergenerational ties. The songs serve as a mnemonic device that helps establish kinship, as a link between the individual and the community.
Harjo acknowledges he never knew his grandfather, but he had heard the story about his disappearance hundreds of times when he was a kid. The songs that community members sang while searching always stuck with him, his grandmother and others. “It’s the thing that everyone remembers,” he says. “It’s the thing my grandma remembered. It’s the thing I remembered.” Harjo says this seems to be the way storytelling works in his community; bits of stories fit into a web of larger overarching stories, and it is difficult to separate one story from another.
Harjo says his documentary partly aims to preserve the songs and discover their hidden history; it shows them to be a vital piece of American music history. He explains that the songs have a rich history of three cultures coming together, and they “echo throughout our community; they echo throughout our stories, and as long as we keep telling them, they will always be here, in death, in worship, in sadness, and in joy, encouraging us.” Dr. Hugh W. Foley, Jr., a professor of fine arts and the author of the Oklahoma Music Guide II on New Forums Press, argues in the film that the Muscogee hymns are truly the first American music, the existence of which has been left out of the grand narrative. In a way, the hymns memorialize Muscogee history, contact with the Europeans and later with African slaves, and the history of colonization and the Muscogee nation’s perseverance.
The documentary notes the similarities between Muscogee singing and the line singing characteristic of Scottish hymns, which is also practiced by religious groups in Kentucky and Alabama. Historically, Scottish missionaries, who were sent to civilize the tribes, brought along their style of singing. Muscogee hymns developed in the context of such missionary work. While the hymns discussed in the film are a product of historic encounters and changes, they are unique. Before the Removal of the Muscogee-Creek nation to Indian territory, some tribal members adopted Christianity and developed the hymns discussed in Harjo’s documentary. Alvin in the film explains that although the missionaries tried to make his people give up their traditional beliefs, many Native Americans integrated them into their practice of Christianity. “The hymns originally were a tool of assimilation, designed to rid Native nations of their Indianness and break the community, but instead,” as one of the interviewees points out, the community transformed them into “instruments [of] Indianness. So, the hymns become Muscogee; they become Creek, even though they were intended to be something else.”
While Sterlin Harjo, like many other Indigenous filmmakers, attempts to upset stereotypical representations of Native Americans with his films, his work’s focus is always the Indigenous community itself, both as the subject and the target audience. Harjo says many American Indians complain about the misrepresentations of Native people, but there is also lack of material that would fill the void of positive images of Native Americans; so he attempts to fix that. He explains that it is important to show the genuine complexities of Indigenous people. His position as an insider, who understands and respects, allows him special access, but also responsibility to the resources provided by the community. The hymns featured in the documentary appear sung by the community members in the Muscogee language and, with the exception of a few lines here and there, are never translated into English. The community members provide contextual stories for the hymns, but the film values and respects the sacredness the songs hold for the community.