Small Town Talk by Sterlin & Spring

February 14, 2010

My BFF Sterlin and I are both from the tiny, rural town of Holdenville, Oklahoma. And we both now live in the thriving metropolis of Tulsa. The difference is that lately he wants to move back to that small town lifestyle. He is happy in Holdenville; he is inspired there. He has almost 100% fond memories of his life there. But me? The thought of living back there makes me queezy and limp in the knees and hyperventilate a little. I mean I love, love, love some things about the country (see my last post). But, I just want to visit Hville, not live there. I never felt completely comfortable there; some of the discomfort was, to be sure, just the universal awkwardness of growing up. But some of it was an indescribable stifling that I blame on my particular small town experience. Anyway, Sterlin and I got to talking about our different experiences of growing up in small town, OK, and here is what was said:

Me:  Okay. We both come from a small town, but you have a much rosier picture of the small town lifestyle than I do. Don’t you?

Sterlin:  Yes. We have very different versions of the same place… I think.

Me: What do you mean?

Sterlin: I mean, we both grew up in the same place and knew some of the same people, yet you could let it get sucked into a hole in the ground whereas I would move there tomorrow.

Me:  Well, I always felt suffocated by the lack of opportunities and by the lack of diversity. Take religion. I mean, there are absolutely no Jews or Buddhists. There are hardly any Catholics. Pentecostals but everyone makes fun of them. I read about different religions and cultures in magazines, but that was it.

Sterlin: I don’t know… I feel like I had a lot of diversity religiously speaking.  My family always held native beliefs and held the traditional ways in high regard.  I spent most of my youth at an Indian Baptist Church (more than one, actually), and I was also an altar boy at my Grandma’s Episcopal church when I stayed the night at her house.  Lighting candles, carrying crosses, and drinking wine.

Me:  Hmmm. I guess my time in a Southern Baptist Church really tarnished my view of the space for freedom of religion. Going to Falls Creek and hearing preachers talk about how abortion was murder and a moral sin then going home where my dad was a doctor and kinda a health nut telling me that, no, an abortion was a medical procedure and a very private ordeal. It was a very conflicted environment for me. Quite uncomfortable, as far as morality, religion, spirituality, and all that goes.

Sterlin:  Yeah, but you were also REALLY into religion for a while.  I feel like me and my friends always held it at a safe distance… just enough to keep us in check but far enough so that we could do what we want.  Yeah, so that reminds me.  All the Indian churches go to a different Falls Creek.  We called it Indian Falls Creek.  But we always wondered what “white Falls Creek” was like. I got my first kiss at Indian falls creek. It was a girl from Weleetka.

Me: You’re the devil. White people didn’t do anything at Falls Creek but worship the Lord. Gaw.

Sterlin: I also had friends that lost their virginity at Indian Falls Creek.

Me: Aaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh! How did you handle that guilt? The guilt that is like ‘Oh, God is watching me, and I might burn in hell or at least seriously disappoint Him for this action that is really just funny kid stuff’?

Sterlin: Didn’t worry about it too much.  It was a badge of honor if you came in late at Falls Creek.  Especially if you had a hickey.  You were talked about for years.  I do remember, though, that it was right when AIDS awareness was huge and I was scared you could get it from kissing.

Me: Do you think, then, that some of your positive small town experiences had something to do with you being Indian, or you being male?

Sterlin:  Yes, for sure Indian. I don’t think being male made a big difference though I’m sure you would disagree.  I, of course, don’t have the perspective of being a girl growing up there.  I mean, on the whole, you have to find people that have your similar interests, which can be hard in a small town.  I think I was lucky.  I also remember you having a lot of fun there.  The Indian thing helped for sure.  It’s just a different way of growing up and relating to people.  My family was my community.  Everyone watched out for each other… entertained each other.  It kind of breaks my heart that a lot of that doesn’t exist back home anymore.  My cousins are gone all over and elders are dying.  It gives me a huge urge to want to be home and to not be a part of that community’s demise… I want to be a part of it’s strength and continuation.

Me:  Gotcha. I think you were lucky, too. I remember you always looked so comfortable socially. So free.

Sterlin:  I love city living. New York City is one of my favorite places in the world but as I get older I feel like the guy standing on my rooftop looking towards the country.  I want chickens.  I don’t want to shop at Whole Foods anymore.

Me:  Whatever, you love Whole Foods, and you wouldn’t know WTF to do with a chicken!

Sterlin:  Yeah, but I’d learn. I would need an internet connection for that, though. And the thing is, my Grandma who raised chickens her whole life is still alive!!! But she lives in Holdenville, and I’d need to be there to learn from her.

Me:  So what do you think about raising a 21st century daughter in a small town? Do you think that you would have to pre-emptively prepare or do some padding or work harder to create a positive environment for her? Or to create healthy, sustainable, and fulfilling opportunities for her?

Sterlin: Yes, I think that you would have to work hard to raise a 21st century daughter in a small town but it’s the same in the city.

Me: ‘Cause she’s gonna grow up and leave us someday and become the 1st Native female President of the US, ya know?

Sterlin:  Yes.

Me:  I’m sure you have a more positive vision of our daughter being in a small town. I tend to think of the problems that could arise like methamphetamines, lack of comprehensive sex-ed, etc.

Sterlin:  The thing about having a kid in a small town… or specifically my hometown is that there are things that a parent can never teach a kid.  I’ll never be able to teach her what my parents can teach her.  I’ll never be able to teach her what her great grandma can teach her.  It’s not like they are having lesson time or anything… it’s just that kids can get a lot from their grandparents by just observing them and being around them.  I think that’s a very Indian way of community.  Not just their grandparents but also their cousins and Aunts and Uncles.  I feel like my Aunts and Uncles are second parents.  I also think that there’s something educational about growing up in the country. When the shit hits the fan and our whole society breaks down I want to be surrounded by people that know how to manage in the woods.  I don’t want to be stuck with lawyers or real estate agents.

Me:  I’m with you on that one.

Sterlin:  For instance, this past hunting season I butchered my first deer.  Now, that’s knowledge that I need to survive.  I also recently learned how to start my own blog… and I’m learning how to use my Wacom tablet and draw in layers on Photoshop.  The last two don’t amount to a hill of beans compared to butchering a deer.

Me:  A hill of beans?

Sterlin: Wouldn’t you agree?

Me:  Yes, but I also think that you can learn those survival skills no matter where you are. That’s what’s so fascinating about urban gardening and farming or all these community gardens around Tulsa or building a garden in my very own backyard. Slowly learning these skills, putting in the manual labor and getting paid in food. THAT’S AWESOME! That’s a survival skill that all of us can do no matter where we live. And no matter if our parents and grandparents are still alive or not. Also, you can raise a few chickens in your own backyard in Tulsa. There’s no ban on backyard chickens here.  And don’t knock beans.

Sterlin: True.  I never trust the soil of the city though.  It’s weird, but I worry what’s in it. Just paranoid.  I love Tulsa but it does rank pretty low as far as environmental health goes.  I guess we just have to plant more trees and make it more like the country… or… I don’t know.  I’ll just move to the country. I’m also paranoid about tap water.

Me: Don’t you remember when the tap water in Holdenville was making people sick?

Sterlin: Yeah, but that’s ’cause the city folk came in and made the water filtration system because in their city, they were polluting the rivers with chemicals. It’s the joys of capitalism: cause a problem and then pay people to maintain it… not fix the problem.

Me: Oh. Thanks for the insight.

Sterlin: There are ups and downs of both the city and the country… I just think that the country suits me.

Me: Well, when you find a place in the country, will you report back and let me know how things are going?

Sterlin: Yes, I’ll bring you eggs fresh from my chicken and milk from my cow.

Me: Will you get our daughter a pony?

Sterlin: Of course.

For more musings from filmmaker, writer, dad, and countree-boyee Mr. Sterlin Harjo, you can check out his new blog (!) here.

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15 Responses to “Small Town Talk by Sterlin & Spring”


  1. Ha ha, this is so much fun to read!

    The funny thing is, I kind of agree with both of you. I think it’s good to raise your kid in the country to a certain extent because rather than having them watch t.v. all the time and be surrounded by advertisements and consumer culture all the time, they can just go outside and make up their own way of being in an environment that hasn’t been totally (or noticeably – that’s the archaeologist in me speaking 😉 ) altered by human beings. On the other hand, I remember being a teenager in small towns and HATING every second of it because I was considered SO WEIRD, and I wished that there were other “weirdos” like me around to commisserate with every once and awhile. Maybe the key is to move to a bigger city when your kid(s) becomes a teenager and is more interested in being social than playing?

    As for the survival in the woods thing, Sterlin needs to come learn to flint-knap. Then he can teach me how to butcher an animal. 😉

  2. Tara Says:

    This was so fun to read!! I have to admit, I agree with Spring’s anxiety and fears about small town life. I think it might be different in other places, for example, the towns on the East or West coasts, but I think here in Oklahoma or in small southern towns, the problems with closed-mindedness, racism, and lack of diversity [not to mention poor education, rampant drugs, and teen pregnancy] is just too much to overlook [particularly for a city gal like myself!]. I like to visit small towns, but I never really imagine myself happy living in one — I like variety too much…and it would kinda freak me out to have everyone knowing everything about my business. I’m not saying all of those things don’t exist in Tulsa, but there are ways to escape it here…you can find these pockets and communities of people with the same values as you, and you can ideally guard your children somewhat [or at least show them options]. What Spring said about having to read about different religions and lifestyles in a small town resonated with me…at least in a city, you can actually see, experience, and talk to different people and come in direct contact with different ideas, which is so good for development.

  3. VMT Says:

    Great convo guys! Neat seeing different perspectives from the “same” place.

    Can I just say that I PINE for a garden? And if you want to get chickens, I will totally buy eggs/help you buy them, Spring. I do miss that about country living- mmm fresh eggs.

  4. TRock Says:

    What a fascinating conversation! I will be analyzing it for days. 🙂 You really nailed the dichotomy. And, my experience says the answer will always be elusive. I grew in OKC and then did jr/high school in Wewoka. Ben came from Corpus Christi and Houston. Some of my best experiences and most of my worst experiences are inextricably linked to small town life. But, I can never know if it would’ve been different elsewhere. Same for my children (a guilt that frustrates me regularly). I don’t think there’s a better or worse; there is just a difference for which we will always want to compensate. Sterlin has a different lens than Spring does, and we can’t extract just the type of community each has or the gender and such. It is the whole of our existence, which makes all this soooo tricky.
    Other musings spurred by your conversation:
    1. Hville’s sick water was because a local man ignored his job, let hydraulic fuel leak into the clean water, and tried to clean it up without getting caught by buying ALL the Chlorox in Wal-Mart and dumping it into the clean water tank (straight from a former City Council member I know well). The clean-up that followed only made things worse.
    2. I was raised in the Southern Baptist world in the 70s in Wewoka, before it turned so conservative. I had mostly good and thought-provoking experiences. However, what we saw in Hville in the 90s was an oppressive approach to religion like I have never seen, that did damage to so many young people beyond their congregation walls (damage that still lingers in these wonderfully inquisitive and spiritual minds).
    3. When our kids were about Portlyn’s age, we experienced a similar assessment, exploring the balance we wanted for our children–wonderful small town community where they can walk safely to school and know all the residents along the way vs. the potentially stifling myopia in a small town. Once we went small-town (making diligent effort to share the world with our children across county and state lines), our livelihood kept us linked to these small towns, though we often thought of leaving. We all turned out okay, but I’m never confident it was the right choice.
    4. One thing I have learned clearly is that Thomas Wolfe was right–you can’t go home again. Existentially, it is no longer there. At least, not like what either of you had.

    Thanks for the delicious topic for Sunday morning coffee talk!

  5. Sterlz Says:

    Glad yall enjoyed it.  Hope to do more.  I am holding deer butchering classes as well.  Tara!  You make small Oklahoma towns sound like the third world!  I think I need to shoot a reality show where you stay with a family in holdenville for a week… I’m sure you would have a different opinion.  As for being a brown boy that has lived in both Tulsa and holdenville I gotta say I disagree with the racism point.  There is a lack of exposure in a small town but I find that people in small communities are very opened minded when it comes to race.   It’s not perfect, and I know that gay people are very discriminated against but I do find a lot of people to be open minded.  They are more vocal about their ignorance but aren’t opposed to having their minds changed.   One reason for this is that it is so small.  In our class we had black kids, white kids, Indians, a couple hispanic kids, stoners, jocks, rednecks, rich kids, poor kids, etc… The majority was white and then second was Indian, but we all had to have conversations and we were all exposed to each other and each others way of life.  With 70 kids in my class there was no way that we could hate each other… Or else it was going to be a long 12 years.  Tulsa IS one of the most segragated cities in the country.  Mid-town is a mix of everyone but I’m not really reffering that… And even mid-town has a lack of people of color.  Tulsa hardly feels like a place where diversity is that celebrated.  You can be exposed to people of different backgrounds here but only if they are in your social class… Unless you are in a program here that facilitates this (a very good thing that the city does offer).  I’m just saying that it’s a little too easy to write off small towns as ignorant, closed minded, toothless, loser breeding grounds.  Ask cory, we converted him after a few trips down south:)
    A good film to watch that dabbles with the subject is the documentary My Brothers Keeper.  It’s great, highly reccomend it.  Netflix instant watch!   

  6. Wilene Says:

    im with sterlin on this one, i really miss holdenville my dad had a HUGE farm, now that i dont live near them anymore i feel like Bernice is losing out on the life of country living, i remember playing out on the farm and not worrying about if my parents had a nice car to drive or if someone was judging me on swimming in a creek in cut offs and a shirt instead of a bathing suit LOL, im also feel the same about “I feel like me and my friends always held it at a safe distance… just enough to keep us in check but far enough so that we could do what we want. ”
    spring maybe it would be different as an adult where your able to make more of your own rules to live by instead of trying to be a teenager, those years are crazy for any teenager 🙂 tbh you was always a sweetheart, would of talked to you more but i thought you was out of my friend “league” LOL
    btw sterlin if you move back to the ville holler we can barter goods im going to try a garden this year 🙂

  7. Rhett Says:

    Spring – not a very constructive comment, but half the people at whitefolks Falls Creek were there to get some.

  8. melissa Says:

    I thought this was great! I know that small towns get bad reps, but I honestly believe that I learned about diversity living in The Ville. Before we moved there I only had white friends living in Norman. Looking back on everything, all I care about is how great of friends and memories I have from there and both of you were apart of it.

  9. okiefeminist Says:

    I’m glad you all enjoyed the discussion! That’s exciting to me! Yay!

    Rhett- Not you, though, right?

    TRock- You have noooooo idea what a huge, positive influence you were on me!!! Besides English grammar rules and bits of trivia for standardized tests, you taught me real-life stuff like that a woman didn’t have to become M-R-S even if she got married/ had kids and how to read the Bible with a sense of metaphor. THANK YOU!!!

  10. Sterlz Says:

    Next topic, “sarah palin. What’s up with that?”
    T. Rothrock if all teachers were as good and challenging as you and B in small towns there wouldn’t be a question about the safety of raising a kid in a small town. I have a very idealized portrait of small town life… All my films are about going home in one way or another. The truth is that there isn’t a perfect place anywhere. My ideal town would look like tahlequah, have my family from holdenville in it, the history and tribal affiliation of wewoka, the ma and pa stores of Seminole, always fall, the arts and music of Tulsa (and whole foods), the forests of spaulding and sasakwa, and everywhere marijuana would be legal… It ain’t gonna happen so I’ll continue to do what I do- drive in a neverending circle to all of the above-mentioned places. And, then, I’ll spend most of my time on what I really love about Oklahoma… Small two-lane highways

  11. okiefeminist Says:

    P.S. I fixed the link to Sterlin’s new blog.

  12. Joe Says:

    Really great conversation. It reminds me of a Wendell Berry essay I read a couple months back which beautifully circles around this same theme. (http://books.google.com/books?id=hNwHN3mQmWoC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA3#v=twopage&q=&f=false). In Native Hill he writes in part about his return home to Kentucky after pursuing his writing career in NY. On page 6 he confronts the “self-dramatizing sentimentality” of the Wolfeian “you can’t go home again” lament.

    Re Tara’s comment about the ability to choose social groups in larger cities: The fact that this is harder to do in smaller communities seems to me like a good thing. Sure it is not as pleasant, but I think it may be healthier to have to deal, and perhaps even live in a community with people who hold different values. And people being people, it seems to me that in any group of people united by geography rather than affinity, there will be various values.

  13. beamish Says:

    great conversation, you two! i have lots to add to it, as a kid who grew up in bonanza, AR; mccurtain, OK; stigler, OK; coalgate, OK; and phillips, OK. at 12, i moved to ft. smith, AR, and went to junior high and high school. there are things i learned out in the country that i will always value. however, the moment i realized my parents’ move to get me out of small towns by the time i was in junior high was pretty fucking brilliant will always resound with me. i think the experience of growing up in both rural and urban environments has made me see the best of both. whenever i cruise down the muskogee turnpike to I-40 going east or to highway 66 going east (and the south to highway 9), i love the transition from tulsa/city to fort smith/slaughterville. i think taking the best of country and city is the way to go. call me a citified country mouse.


  14. Joe, if only it were as simple as learning how to deal with people who hold different values! But when the community can bear you far less than you can bear it, that’s when the problems come in. Though there are always a few people on the fringes no matter where you go, it can be very, very lonely in a small town where everyone thinks you are just too weird to even speak to like a human being.

  15. okiefeminist Says:

    Joe- That Wendell Berry essay looks awesome; the pull of the city on artists and thinkers could be a whole different topic for conversation, indeed! Thanks for the recommendation.


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