This May be the Last Time

Film Review
ByJustin Gauthier

video cover Maybe last timeFilmmaker Sterlin Harjo’s 2014 documentary feature, "This May be the Last Time," is a finely tuned study on the power and presence of Muskogee Creek language hymnals. Harjo opens the film with the car crash and disappearance of his grandfather, Pete Harjo, in 1962. While the two subjects of Muskogee Creek music and his grandfather’s accident may seem far afield, the filmmaker utilizes family and community interviews, historical photographs, period journalism, academic testimonial, and finally the songs themselves as the strands he ultimately weaves into an informative and inspiring documentary.

As impetus for the documentary, Harjo cites a letter he received from his grandmother wherein she expressed her wish for him to return to his community and use his skills as a filmmaker to record the Creek hymns and their importance to his tribe. This request, tucked into the introduction of the film, is the key to understanding the director’s motives for approaching the project. Whereas a non-Indigenous viewer may chalk the mention of the letter up to Harjo simply introducing the genesis for the film’s inception, those of us raised in indigenous families know that this letter represents something more than mandate. The fulfillment of this project is both a love letter and a chronology. It’s a love letter in the way that it tells the story of a real historical event from the perspective of Harjo’s own family and tribe; it’s a chronology by way of delving into the harrowing and joyous past of his own tribe’s resilience through survival of a forced diaspora and attempted genocide with the help of song. As a living historical record, songs serve as the keystone in the archway of Indigenous culture.

The blending of ceremonial songs and hymnals is treated with reverence by the filmmakers. The American roots music revolution has largely ignored the foundational aspect of the music of its first continental citizens. This May be the Last Time serves as a reminder of the original taproot: those songs composed by the people who were already here. The convergence of cultures that occurred when Scottish missionaries preached to the tribes of the Southeast is the bedrock upon which the musical aspect of this documentary is built. In introducing their style of “line singing” to the Appalachian, African slave, and tribal communities of America, Scottish missionaries provided a musical template that survives to this day. Though culture is in a state of constant flux, the Creek hymns, which were sung on the death march of the Muskogee Creek from their homelands to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, are a concrete example of the power of music to instill strength and provide solace through the worst of circumstances.

The film conveys the timelessness of these songs through historical footage of Creek pastors leading congregations in song as well as interview footage of tribal members of all ages reminiscing about the songs and forecasting their hopes for the continued existence of this unique form of music for future generations. With the help of period newspaper reporting, eyewitness accounts, family photos, and lush cinematography, Harjo manages to layer time in captivating ways throughout the production. I was impressed by his ability to weave these elements with contemporary footage to lead the viewer clearly from 1962 to 2014.

The sound design for this film clearly soars. It’s a joy to watch, but if you only listen to the movie there is a soundscape quality to the production that becomes a character in the film itself. From ambience, to hymnals, to the original soundtrack this film could play as an audio podcast and the listener would be able to follow along without missing a beat. The singing is sonorous and emotionally formidable; the original soundtrack plays during short interstices and behind interview footage providing aural foot and handholds for the audience to identify with. Harjo’s sound department winnowed out a rich, layered audio experience which he artfully instilled into a visual tapestry to create a unique storytelling experience.

The disappearance and resulting manhunt for Pete Harjo served as the narrative backbone for the documentary. Through community and family interviews, we get a feel for the man on a more personal level. The grandson who never got a chance to meet the grandfather does an admirable job of winnowing away the mysterious details of the disappearance while carefully unfolding the story in a captivating way.

To be sure, this documentary is an exceedingly specific slice of Indian Country, however to call this film a specialty production is selling it and its effect short. The emergence of indigenous people in cinema, on both sides of the camera, is dependent upon stories like this being told. As a deep cut into a singular musical style, This May be the Last Time may be one of the most important music documentaries of the last five years. Truly, it’s content is invaluable in the way it truly reflects the roots of American music. Just as a documentary like Muscle Shoals illuminates the poignancy of place and sound, This May be the Last Time does very similar work on a much more nuanced and culturally specific level. As a story about a grandson honoring his grandmother’s wish, Sterlin Harjo has produced a satisfying narrative-driven documentary full of reverence for the past and hope for the future.

Menominee Tribal member Justin Eagle Gauthier has been featured in several literary journals. He is currently enrolled in the LoRez MFA program in creative writing, studying screenwriting at the Institute of American Indian Arts.