This article was originally published in June 2019.
Amid a renaissance of Indigenous people in creative and political fields across Turtle Island, it’s been especially exciting to see so many of them picking up the microphone to broadcast their own stories in podcast form. With the potential to reach large audiences, podcasts are an incredibly accessible 21st-century version of the oral storytelling that has been and continues to be the backbone of Indigenous societies.
As a Mohawk woman in an urban setting, hearing their voices through my earbuds makes me feel like I am back in my community with friends and relatives, telling stories just as we’ve done for generations.
From untold histories of Canada to true crime to dissections of sci-fi films, these stories are being conveyed by voices that aren’t generally given a very large platform. “In more traditional mediums you had to rely on a newsroom—which still has huge issues with inclusivity and diversity,” CBC journalist Connie Walker says. “But with social and digital media, there’s so many more opportunities to amplify diverse voices—Indigenous in particular.” While Indigenous men are doing great work in the medium—Ryan McMahon’s Thunder Bay series for Canadaland and Rick Harp’s weekly Indigenous current affairs Media Indigena, for instance—many of the standout podcasts are produced and hosted by Indigenous women, including some recently discovered U.S. podcasts.
Here are few you should be listening to:
Premise: It is an incredibly simple set-up—a daughter asks her mother questions over coffee. But in the hands of actress Kaniehtiio Horn (Letterkenny, The Man in the High Castle) and her mom, Kahentinetha Horn, the results are fascinating.
Why I can’t stop listening: Calling Kahentinetha Horn an “activist and former model” truly doesn’t do her justice—she is a driven, proud Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) woman, who has been involved in more scrapes, scraps and protests than I can count. She led a blockade on a bridge between Canada and the U.S., founded the Indian Legal Defence Committee and held the title of Indian Princess of Canada in 1963. (When you catch the attention of Marlon Brando in the 70s, you’re truly living an extraordinary life.) Kahentinetha has an excellent memory, which elevates her storytelling, and an endearing habit of seguing frequently with an “anyway” before launching into another fascinating detail.
“What’s really magical is when we started getting into these stories and I can see the light in her eyes as she starts remembering them, because she hasn’t spoken about them for 50 years, nobody’s bothered to ask her,” says Horn. “This has been an amazing outlet for me. I found my voice. Honestly, it’s saved my life and made me feel very empowered.”
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Premise: Investigative journalist Connie Walker recounts stories of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The podcast has picked up many awards, including the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s Jackman Award for Excellence in Journalism, a Canadian Screen Award, the inaugural award for best serialized story at the Third Coast International Audio Festival in Chicago, and was named one of the Best Podcasts of 2018 by Apple Canada.
Why I can’t stop listening: Season 2’s Finding Cleo was a true crime mystery that subverts the genre by also focusing on the context that led to how Cleo’s disappearance. Over the 10 episodes, Walker deftly unpacks Canadian practices, such as the Sixties Scoop—in which Indigenous children were placed in foster care or adopted through the Adopt Indian and Métis (AIM) program from the 1950s to 1980s. (She reads horrifying AIM ads that appeared in newspapers, which sound more like ads for puppies looking for new homes). And yet Walker’s incredibly balanced and sensitive coverage doesn’t vilify anyone for the errors of their past.
“We’re not tricking people necessarily,” Walker says. “But the reality is if you’re asking people ‘hey do you want to listen to eight hours of a story with Indigenous issues and history,’ you’ll probably have someone say yes, but you’ll have a way bigger audience if you hear an intriguing story about a girl whose family has been looking for her for 40 years.” It is powerful material. In fact, Walker advised her own Indigenous family members and friends not to listen, as she worried it would be too triggering.
Premise: Chelsea Vowel and Molly Swain, both Métis, drink a bottle of wine and review sci fi movies and television shows from a critical Indigenous lens.
Why I can’t stop listening: This is the perfect intersection of my interests: funny Indigenous women, wine and science fiction. They wittily dissect everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek to Westworld and Thor: Ragnarok. Their insights made me look at one of my favourite animated movies, Lilo and Stitch, anew when I became aware of the constant threat of child welfare for orphaned sisters Lilo and Nani.
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Premise: Indigenous youth are at the forefront of Lisa Charleyboy’s podcast, where she gets frank on topics about music, identity and sex. Each episode, she moderates the conversation with a different group of millennials.
Why I can’t stop listening: It feels like I’m listening in on the cool kids. Charleyboy, who wrote about pop culture in her Urban Native Girl blog, also gets personal, sharing details about her own life. The podcast is incredibly intimate—in one, Charleyboy asks one of her guests about her mother’s last words to her, “break those cycles, my girl.” A personal favourite is the episode that opened with a teenaged girl making bannock with her mother, which Charleyboy expertly wove into the theme of young Indigenous women following in their parents’ career steps.
Premise: Co-hosts Falen Johnson and Leah Simone Bowen bring their storytelling skills to aspects of Canadian history that definitely weren’t covered in my classroom textbooks growing up. They present a wealth of research in an engaging manner — using music evoking the time period they’re in and dramatic readings of historical letters. They started to record in a blanket fort in Bowen’s living room until the CBC picked them up in August, and the duo are now in a proper studio.
Why I can’t stop listening: I didn’t realize how much of this country’s history was written from a colonial and settler POV until I heard Johnson and Bowen unearth stories about how Banff was built courtesy of forced labour from interned Ukrainian-Canadians, or how Birchtown is an Afro-Novo Scotian community built by Black Loyalists. Johnson brings her Mohawk and Tuscarora viewpoint, while Bowen adds insight as a first-generation Canadian—she’s from Alberta and her family hails from Barbados. Hearing these fascinating stories makes me rethink much of what I’ve learned (even though I was schooled on reserve) and wonder about what this country would be like if black, Indigenous and other voices had authorship of their stories.
“For what we’re doing — history retold through brown and Indigenous perspectives—there’s a lot of pressure to not mess it up. On Facebook or iTunes, people can be mean and it hasn’t been as bad as we thought it would be, but we were prepared to be hurt. We know the world we live in, with racists, so you have to have a bit of a thick skin [to do this], but also be able to be generous with yourself,” says Johnson.
Premise: Mutually respectful conversations about the relationship between Indigenous and Black people in Canada, touching on topics like reparations, Black Lives Matter, reconciliation, and gentrification.
Why I can’t stop listening: The podcast was born out of a graduate course taught by Eve Tuck, Associate Professor of Critical Race and Indigenous Studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto, and has grown into an educational discourse I wish I’d had access to ages ago. The cerebral discussions bring a roster of diverse voices to the table, and no set format. For instance, one episode features roundtable discussions on how cities expanding affect Indigenous and Black people, while another is dedicated to a guided meditation.
Premise: A 1999 murder case of a Muskogee (Creek) Nation man in Oklahoma is the entry point for an investigation into a Supreme Court battle over whether nearly half the land of Oklahoma is tribal territory. This podcast about tribal land, broken promises and murder, is on the Crooked Media platform—which also hosts political podcast Pod Save America, as well as pop culture-focused Keep It—and is hosted by Cherokee nation journalist Rebecca Nagle.
Why I can’t stop listening: As a Canadian, learning about American tribal land issues via this murder case is fascinating, and an extra bonus is that storyteller Nagle’s own ancestor played a vital role in the land in question. Nagle also has a knack for making federal Indigenous law understandable and interesting for all audiences.
“One of the main things that really holds us back as Native people is that people don’t understand basic concepts about our rights,” says Nagle. “I make the analogy that if I was telling people that I’m a feminist and they said, ‘oh my gosh it’s so messed up that you can’t vote,’ and you know, that was our issue about 100 years ago and a lot has happened since then. With Native American rights, people’s understanding of what happened to tribes drops off around 1890.”
The story plays out over eight episodes that will cover the Super Court outcome in real time (the decision is expected early summer 2019).
“In the podcast series, we use stories and people invested in the outcome of this case to explain how our tribes legally function, and I think we are able to do it in a way where people are still lost in the story while they’re learning about something they may not know about.”
Premise: CBC Journalist Rosanna Deerchild journeys to Indigenous communities across Turtle Island, to get into the deeper stories, from cultural tours of Black and Indigenous communities on the East Coast, to attending the Indigenous Comic Con in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Why I can’t stop listening: Unreserved covers stories, large and small, of what Indigenous people are accomplishing. From the sound of soapstone being carved to Indigenous musicians in the story breaks, the podcast provides a rich listening experience. I’m grateful for Deerchild’s gentle humour — it’s a lighthearted respite from the negative news cycle. How can you not smile after listening to a woman talking about voicing CP30 in a Navajo-language Star Wars, while she’s wearing a costume of her own making of the droid?
Premise: Photographer Matika Wilbur, who is Swinomish and Tulalip, and academic Adrienne Keene, from the Cherokee Nation, discuss what it means to be Indigenous in 2019, from the POV of two American Indigenous feminists. Recording from the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington, they invite a roster of super-smart and relatable experts to join them on topics like native mascots, Indigenous food and feeding the spirit, sexuality, and whether DNA test results should be linked to identity.
Why I can’t stop listening: I’m happy to follow Keene to her latest project, after having been a fan of her Native Appropriations blog—the go-to site for learning about instances of egregious appropriation of Indigenous culture. And I’m thrilled to be introduced to Wilbur and her Project 562, a photographic tour of all the federally-recognized tribes in the U.S. The duo are advocates of positive and proper Indigenous representation, which they talk about with sensitivity and passion. As a fashion lover, I loved the episode on Indigenous fashion with artist Jamie Okuma, whose beaded high heels are featured in art museums, and academic/fashion entrepreneur Jessica Metcalfe, the woman behind the Beyond Buckskin online boutique. Another highlight is the episode on food sovereignty, where Valerie Segrest, an Indigenous nutrition educator, taught me that breastfeeding my children was an act of food sovereignty, and that most fruits are ovaries of plants.