Rebecca Nagle: Just because you're meeting people where you're at, doesn't mean that you're responsible for their comfort and it's not about challenging them or them never feeling uncomfortable. You know, it's, it's creating an entry point into an issue area, but it's not doing people's work for them.
Dessa: That’s Rebecca Nagle, an award winning advocate and writer focused on advancing Native rights and ending violence against Native women. Rebecca joined us at Werk It to talk about crafting stories when an audience doesn’t share your experience or understanding.
I’m Dessa, and this is Werk It: the Podcast, a compilation of some of the best moments from the live event.
Rebecca Nagle: Thank you. I'm excited to be here. So before we get started today, I just wanna do a land acknowledgement. So here in the great city of Los Angeles, we're on the land of the Tongva people. ᎪᎯᏂ ᏓᏆᏙᎠ. ᏔᎴᏆ ᏥᏁᎳ. ᏥᏣᎳᎩ. Joplin ᎠᏆᏛᏒ. Michael Sarah ᏚᏂ,ᏙᎠ ᏗᎬᎩᎦᏴᎵᎨ. ᏦᎢ ᏃᏥ ᎣᏣᏓᎸ. ᎠᎩᎵᏏ ᏥᎨᎲᎢ ᎾᎥ ᏟᎪ. ᎤᏛᏒ. Frances Poulson ᏚᏙᎥ. ᏣᎳᎩ ᎠᏰᏟ ᏓᎩᎸᏫᏍᏓᏁᎭ. ᏣᎳᎩ ᎦᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ ᏕᎦᏕᎶᏆᎠ. ᏐᎢ Ꮎ podcast ᎦᏙ ᎣᎦᏤᎵᎢ ᏧᏙᎢᏓ ᎠᏬᏢᏅᎢ.
Hi, my name is Rebecca Nagle. I'm a citizen of ah Cherokee Nation. I'm also the writer and the host of the podcast called This Land. And thank you for letting me introduce myself in my own language.
I became a storyteller because I didn't see people like me and stories from my community in mainstream news and media or podcasts for that matter. And I would assume that a lot that is true for a lot of you all who are in this room today. And so today what we're going to talk about is one of the barriers that you have to break through. You know, when you're breaking into mainstream audiences that I feel like doesn't get talked about a lot, and that's breaking through people's ignorance. Um, you know, how do you tell your story to an audience that doesn't share your understanding or your experience? How do you tell your story to an audience that doesn't even have a reference point for your experience? Um, and so we're gonna, we're gonna start specific and then get broad.
Um, but I want to first start by talking about a native representation in mainstream media. So, um, pop quiz, uh, raise your hand if you can name a famous Native American actor. And if you say Johnny Depp, we're going to fight later. No I’m kidding. All right. Raise your hand if you can name or think of a book written by a Native author? A famous Native musician? A famous Native politician? How many of you, or a famous Native podcasters? Obviously not me because that would be cheating. Um, how many of you can name a famous Native American person who is famous for anything, anything under the sun who was born after the year? 1950 and yes, that rules out like, Sitting Bull and Pocahontas and Sacagawea.
So if you answered no to most or all of those questions, it's not an accident. It's not a coincidence. You know, as Native Americans, we are systemically erased from mainstream media, from pop culture, from K through 12 education, you know, and the media that you consume today, even though we are 2% of the population in the United States, we represent less than one tenth of 1% of people in film, television and media. Um, a really awesome researcher, Dr Stephanie Fryberg whose Tulalip, has, um, done a lot of research to get really specific about what this looks at. And she looked at, um, the 345 most popular television shows in the two decades between 1987 and 2007. And of the 2,336 characters on their shows, can anyone guess how many were Native American? Just shout out a couple numbers. It was a little better than zero. It was three. Three better than zero.
Um, and what she also found in her research is that when we, we are depicted, um, it's almost always as historical images. So in 2015, she released a report where 95 of the first 100 Google image search results for Native American or American Indian were historicized images. So we're sort of always that stoic Indian in the sepia tinted photograph. Um, and this has real impacts on how the public perceives us, you know. I mean, this is the, you know, just a screenshot from my laptop of the Google search results for: “Do Native…” you know. And in case you're wondering like, yes, we pay taxes and no, we don't get free money. Um, and some of us celebrate Thanksgiving, you know.
But, um, um, but, uh, you know, the, what has happened because there's not real information about real contemporary people. You know, most people's reference point in the United States is sort of way off the mark. And so there's a report that came out in 2018 called, uh, Reclaiming Native Truth, and in their surveys they found that two thirds of Americans don't think that Native Americans experience significant racial discrimination today. They don't think it's a big problem for us. Two thirds of the population. That is happening in a country where Native Americans face the highest rates of rape and murder, the highest rates of police violence, of poverty. Um, you know, another insane statistic is that 40% of people in the United States today don't even think that we exist. Um, and so, you know, and you can blame it on the individual. You can say that, you know, people need to do a better job of educating themselves and why that's true. I mean, I think we always sort of has to go back to the systemic reasons for why things are the way they are. And it's a systemic erasure of Native people um, from, you know, contemporary media and contemporary pop culture that leads to those really wacky views that a lot of people have of us. And it's not just citizens, it's elected officials too. We're going to give this video a little listen.
[Audio Clip]: My name is Mark Trayhant. I’m the editorial page editor of the Seattle Post Intelligencer and a member of the Native American Journalists Association. [Applause]. Most school kids learn about government in the context of city, county, state and federal. And of course, tribal governments are not part of that at all. Mr. President, you've been a governor and a president, so you have a unique experience looking at it from two directions. What do you think tribal sovereignty means in the, in the 21st century, and how do we resolve conflicts between tribes and the federal and state governments? A tribal sovereignty means that it's sovereign. You were a, you're a, you've been given sovereignty and you're viewed as a sovereign entity. And therefore the relationship between the federal government and tribes as one between sovereign entity.
Rebecca: So, uh, we can laugh at George Bush. It's kind of hard not to, but who knows what a federally recognized tribe is. You know how many folks can like name three federally recognized tribes and Cherokee, Navajo, Pueblo, Lakota. Those aren't the names of tribes. Just like American isn't the name of a country. You know how many people know what the Indian Reorganization Act did or you know, what the policy of land allotment was in which like within the span of 50 years, tribes lost two thirds of our land base? You know, that stuff isn't taught. Does anybody know the impact of the Oliphant Supreme Court Case or can name one law, any law passed by Congress or one Supreme Court case that impacted Native rights?
You know, and this for me is sort of why I'm a storyteller because I don't think that you can extract sort of policy change from narrative. You know, the stories that we tell ourselves as a country about who we are, where we came from, what we're doing, absolutely impact the policies that we pass. You know, and I believe that we're not going to get policies that benefit tribes until the people who are voting and sending people to Washington know what the heck a tribe is. Right? You know, a lot of times I make the analogy sometimes where sort of the, um, the sort of the wall I have to get past as a Native journalist, it would be kind of like as a feminist, if, when I talk to people about feminism, they were like, “You know what? It's so messed up. You can't vote.” And I’d be like, “Well, that was about a hundred years ago.” But that's where a lot of people's point of reference is sort of like circa 1890. And then what's happened, you know, with Native American rights and our history is mostly blank for the past 100 years.
Um, and so it's challenging, it's frustrating. Um, but it's also work that I really believe in because I think that, um, this type of narrative change is a really important part of social change. And I don't think this is just specific to Native issues. You know, I'm sort of laying this out so that you guys can think about it in this way, but it's not just impacting Native Americans, you know. Despite it having everything to do with the current immigration crisis, not to mention how much it's impacted millions of people's lives, how many of us really know what the United States government did in Central America? You know, like what, when did our CIA help topple the democratically elected leader of Guatemala? You know? Like before I looked it up for this talk, I probably couldn't even tell you the decade.
You know, I think climate change is another really good example where it's an issue that it's complicated, it's abstract, it's a lot of science. It's something that I follow. And that I really care about. But you know, if you sort of cornered me and asked me to explain to you like the true difference between 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming and two degrees Celsius of warming, why some people say that one is okay and the other and what the tipping point is. I don't know that I could give you a coherent answer on that and it's, you know, and I think that goes back to how the media covers it, how it shows up in the news and what information we're getting as consumers of that media.
So, and sort of breaking through those barriers or um, breaking through people's ignorance. How do you do it? You know, how do you give information to people in a way that A, they can track and they can follow and they can digest. I think, um, B, that creates that emotional connection because that's when people are really going to care about an issue. And I would say a lot of times that as a storyteller, that's going to be the same emotional connection that you have to the issue and inviting your audience into that.
Um, and lastly, and you know, I think we have to talk about this with podcasting. How do you keep people engaged? How do you keep people entertained, you know? How do you keep people coming back to that story? Um, so we're going to talk about a few examples and um, first I'm going to talk about some of the challenges we had when making the podcast This Land. Um, so This Land is a podcast I worked on with Crooked Media and Neon Hum. And, um, when we were in the very early stages of production, um, before we even had an episode outline, I made a list of the different things that people really needed to know or to be able to understand, to not just follow the story but to understand, um, the case that we were talking about.
So it was things like people need to understand like who has criminal jurisdiction in Indian country, what a federally recognized tribe is. The history of the five tribes in Oklahoma that the case impacts. And sort of both like our early 1900’s history and how the laws that Congress passed that impact us are, are very similar. And so we have a similar stake in the case, but we're like separate people in terms of culture and in terms of governance. Um, you know, uh, we also needed people to understand Supreme Court procedure and so, Gorsuch was sitting out, so instead of it being the order of nine justices, it was eight. And so then people needed to understand like what would happen if there was a tie, which would be like a 4-4 vote, which like upholds the lower court's decision, which was actually like, really good because the tribe won the lower court’s decision. We needed people to understand things like that. You know, when we talked about the history of land in Oklahoma, we weren't from there. We were actually removed to Oklahoma. So we had to talk about the 1830s Removal Treaty and nobody wants to listen to eight hours of that, of the sort of like the list of all of the things that you need to explain. And that's not why I wanted to tell the story of this case in the first place, because it's not, it's not why this case matters to me personally as a story. And it's not the story of how the case happened.
So, um, you know, when we were developing the story, um, we wanted to talk about what the podcast was really about. So This Land is a podcast about a Supreme Court case that will determine the future of half the land in Oklahoma and five tribes, including mine. And the case started in a really unusual place. It started in a small town murder in the late nineties where a Creek citizen murdered another citizen of Muscogee Creek Nation and was sentenced to death by the State of Oklahoma. And in his appeal, he said that Oklahoma didn't have jurisdiction to convict him because the crime happened on a reservation. But Oklahoma says that that reservation no longer exists. And that's the question before the Supreme Court right now. And in 2020, we will find out if the Supreme Court will order the largest restoration of Native land in U.S. history, or if they're going to take that land away from us. Again.
Um, so in trying to create compelling stories and trying to get information away from people in a way that is easy to digest and is intelligible and entertaining, there are a few things that I think are really sort of like helpful pinpoints of how to do that. So we're going to go through that real quick with some examples. Um, so the first of all is to use stories to teach facts in history. So when you have that sort of initial list of everything that you need your listener to understand, try and find the story through which you can, um, give them that information. So we're gonna give a listen to an example from a podcast called Missing and Murdered by Connie Walker.
[Audio Clip]: Norris says Lillian used to travel with her to workshops and meetings for indigenous women in the province. One day she went to pick up Lillian, and when she arrived, Lillian was distraught and holding a newspaper. So that morning I went to pick her up and she came out of her house and she was holding the newspaper, she was crying. I said, “what's wrong?” She said, “these are my babies.” [End audio clip].
Rebecca: So, um, Missing and Murdered: Finding Cleo is a podcast series that's really about how the Canadian government systemically took Native kids out of their communities and out of their families and the devastating impact of that. But the way that Connie Walker tells that story is there are siblings who are all adopted out and they're scattered across North America, the U.S. and Canada, and they've reconnected and they're trying to find out what happened to one of their siblings that they believe is dead. But they don't know where she was adopted to. They don't even know if she's alive or not. They don't know how she died. And so it's sort of the story of how they connect all of those dots. And through this story you see how damaging this policy was. And this clip is kind of from the climax of the season where they, she investigates sort of what happened to the mom and what happened when the kids were taken away, and the mom actually found a newspaper ad of her kids being advertised for people to adopt. And it's this example that just really shows how inhumane the policy was that children, humans, would be in the newspaper, sort of like the way like a dog or a cat would be.
The next, uh, tidbit is to develop characters. So as humans, we're going to connect more to a, before we connect to a large and abstract issue. Um, so this example is from 1619 by Nikole Hannah Jones. And um, this episode starts with her describing just her really beautiful relationship with her uncle. And then what happened when her uncle got cancer. Let's give it a listen.
[Audio Clip]: So it took literally my uncle getting a death sentence before he was able to get health insurance. That health care gets him out of those free clinics, and into an actual cancer clinic in Illinois. And it's there that the doctors give us the news that had they been able to see him months before, he could've had a fighting chance, but it was too late.
Rebecca: And so over the course of that episode, you know, she goes into, um, how the lack of exa, access to health care that we have in the United States is really rooted in systemic anti-black racism. And you know, sort of all of the stuff that comes up whenever this country talks about welfare, um, of not wanting to help poor people, but that being code for people of color. Um, and she doesn't start you there. She just starts by sort of describing her beautiful relationship with her uncle as she was growing up and then talks about his preventable death, and how the system created that situation. And that story takes you through, you know, then the almost hundred years of U.S. policy that you learn throughout the episode, but you start by understanding why it matters, you know, and why it matters to real people.
Um, another good point and this was something I actually really struggled with when making This Land is to tie the information to the plot. And so both stories and teaching work well when you segment them out. And so I'll, I a lot of times think about developing um, scripts and outlines for podcasts as sort of like leaving your listeners a little breadcrumb trail where you want them to sort of follow along piece by piece. And the reason I found this really hard is I actually came from a print journalism background and when you're writing, especially for online where a lot of people don't even read the whole article, you put everything up top. You know, you have that nut graf that kind of says the whole idea. And then everything kind of flows from there. And I think of podcasting or audio media being almost the opposite where you want people to get pieces of information, you know, one piece at a time. And I think sometimes when you have to explain a really complicated idea that needs to be broken up, you can even find a way for the plot to be driven by the listener, always getting new pieces of information.
I think a really good example of this is um, Caliphate where you learn so much about ISIS, but it's through the reporters invest there, the story of her investigation, and meeting and ex-recruit of going to Mosul, of finding this briefcase of finding the person who had the briefcase and the documents and what does it mean about the inner workings of that government. Um, and so that's a way when you sort of make that giant list of stuff you have to like, teach the audience about is a way to sort of lay it out where people always feel like they're waiting for the next thing, which is what you want in a serial podcast.
Um, I think another really great thing to do is to use metaphor. So when you're talking about like an abstract concept that most people don't have a reference point, find the thing that people have a reference point for. And use that to teach the thing that people don't know. Um, so, in This Land, uh, there was some information about how like Indian country in Oklahoma works and what's considered an Indian country and what's not. That was pretty complicated. And so, uh, we came up with this metaphor, let's give it a listen.
[Audio Clip]: So they broke up these reservations and they gave everybody, or they allotted different ways in different formulas, land to different Indians. Picture a sheet cake. Allotment came along and slice up the cake into a bunch of pieces. The pieces are now owned by individual citizens in the tribe, not the tribe as a whole. [End audio clip].
Rebecca: Well, and so, um, we actually continued to use that metaphor cause what's relevant in this case is that people own mineral rights instead of surface rights. So we like extended the metaphor to, you know, talk about the icing of the cake and the cake itself. And, um, it was the idea of actually the executive producer Vikram Patel. And that's another thing that I think is great. Um, you know, we had great editors and great people working on This Land. Um, I know Catherine Saint Louis is here at the conference. She was the editor, um, as well. And I -- it’s just very helpful, I think especially when you're working with material that you're really familiar with, to sometimes have those outside perspectives on the team to help you do that work of translating.
And lastly, uh, the sort of, my last little takeaway tidbit is to just name what people don't know. You know, don't be afraid to point out people's ignorance. Sometimes, you kind of have to dispel the myths that are in people's heads before you can get them to the information that you want them to digest. Um, so here's an example again from This Land. Um, you know, we had an episode -- in episode two, we were introducing listeners to the tribe, Muscogee Creek Nation and the government that's really at the center of this case. But to do that we kind of had to dispel, you know, the stereotypes that are in people's minds about what a tribe is. So, um, yeah, let's give it a listen.
[Audio Clip]: If the place where you imagined and contemporary tribal leaders conduct their business, looks like a teepee or a wigwam, you want to pause here and erase that mental image. Instead, pictures City Hall, the County Courthouse, a State Office building. [End audio clip].
Rebecca: So, you know, I think that a lot of times when we're talking about contemporary tribal governments, you know, people sort of picture like Dances with Wolves or something like that versus you know, democratically elected three branch, you know, government that is just as sort of bureaucratic as, you know, the city of Los Angeles or a county or state government. Um, and so, you know, I think, um, if you know that there is information that your listeners are gonna have that is maybe going to be a bias that they're unaware of or just misinformation that they're coming to your podcast with, you know, don't be afraid to name it and point it out.
Um, so I think doing this type of work comes with some challenges, right? It can be hard to talk to folks that are sort of outside of your community or outside of the people who are impacted by the issues that you're talking about. So, you know, one challenge is translation’s exhausting. It is tiring to explain things to people. And a lot of times when you're working on stuff like this, you're not just going to be explaining it in the script. You're going to be explaining it to the people that you're working with. You're going to be explaining it to people who are asking you questions on social media. You're going to be explaining it. You know, when you just sort of like run into people and you're having conversations about it. And I know there are a couple of episodes that we worked on that go into my own personal family history and also the history of my tribe that are just, you know, the information and the history is devastating. And so there was also just that layer of, you know, trauma and pain in addition to figuring out how to make it a workable script.
And so I think that's just one thing to, um, I found, uh, that it helped to be aware of and to just know that that was going to come up. I think other challenges are, um, you know, I like even today being here, I have a lot of imposter syndrome. And I think I can be kind of hard, um, you know, with, when you're working on a project, like I know with This Land it would, it would keep me up at night to make sure that I was really getting things right and that the way that I was presenting the legal information was accurate. That the way that I was telling this story was helpful to the communities who are impacted by it. Um, and especially, you know, if you're kind of the person in the room who's like that level of quality control, the weight and the responsibility of that can be a lot. And it can also feel overwhelming to feel like you have to speak for an entire community. And so I think that those are things that, um, you know, I try and have folks that I can like, run things by like other Native folks or other Native journalists that I work with. Um, you know, to see, to get feedback, to get other people to weigh in on things, so that I don't feel like I have to do it alone. But it's also just something to be aware of that if you're going to do this type of work is things that are probably gonna come up.
And then I think external challenges are, um, you know, meeting people where they're at. Like, I'll always remember there was this moment where I put blood quan -- like just a reference to blood quantum. And one of the scripts in the editor was like, “what's blood quantum?” And I was, Oh, right. You know, most people who like even though as Native people, you kind of can't escape blood quantum, it comes up everywhere. Um, a lot of people who are non-native don't know what that is. And so there's sort of that constant checking of making sure that the way that you're presenting the information is something that people can get.
Um, I think one challenge is explaining without giving the lecture. So when you have a lot of teaching to do, you know, like, I wish I could take everyone back to like elementary school and change the curriculum. But then when I'm, you know, storytelling, people don't want to feel like they're back in their civics classroom. So how do you, how do you convey that information that people need without giving a lecture? And then I think what's really hard is, um, I know like when I got the opportunity to create those podcasts, I wanted to put absolutely everything into it cause I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is this huge platform and we need to tell people everything that they need to know about everything.” And um, you know, so then there's that hard inevitable decision of what to cut out.
Um, so you know what, what we're talking about here in doing this kind of storytelling or doing this narrative change, you know, you can talk about it, as sort of like not preaching to the choir, talking to people who are outside of your bubble, translating, educating, meeting people where they're at. But for me, sort of what, um, underlines all of that is this idea of working towards narrative change and sort of building audiences and building, uh, people who aren't familiar with issue areas and you know, changing the way that they perceive those things.
What it is not is, you know, or what, I'm not advo -- you know, telling people that they should go out and do is placating or appeasing people's ignorance. You know, it's not about being agreeable. Just because you're meeting people where you're at, doesn't mean that you're responsible for their comfort and it's not about challenging them or them never feeling uncomfortable. You know, it's, it's creating an entry point into an issue area, but it's not doing people's work for them. Right? It's inviting them to do their own work.
And then I think another important distinction is that what I'm talking about, I guess in this talk is not really media for community, by a community. And so I think, you know, if you're a podcaster and you're like, “well, I'm not trying to talk to people who don't share my experience. I'm trying to talk to people who do share my experience.” I think that that's equally valid. And I think, I don't think there's a hard line between those things. Like, when we were making the podcast, you know, I’d get emails both from people you know, who are Native, who are from Oklahoma, who have been following the case, who are so excited to see it getting more media attention and to see the history of their tribe in a podcast. And also non-native folks who are emailing me and saying, “Wow, I had absolutely no idea this was going on!” So I think both are possible at the same time too.
Um, so thanks, guys. Um, thanks everybody for, um, listening to the talk. I wanted to give a shout out to some awesome podcasts that are made by some other Native women. So if you're not familiar with them, you know, check out Métis In Space, While Indigenous. Um, there's a really great podcast that just came out this past year called All My Relations with Adrienne Keene and Matika Wilbur. Um, I mentioned Missing and Murdered: Finding Cleo by Connie Walker. There's Molly in Denali, which is a kids show, there’s Women of Size Pod. There's a lot of stuff being made by awesome Native women. So if those things aren't already in your feed, or aren’t already things that you've listened to, definitely subscribe and check them out.
And then, um, lastly I just wanted to, um, mention, you know, if you’re, um, not a content creator, but maybe where you work or your role is you’re deciding what content gets made. Um, I think that's sort of a different role in kind of the podcast ecosystem. And you know, I hear a lot of people say that, you know, everyone's making a podcast now. There's sort of this saturation and maybe there are too many podcasts. I don't think that there are too many podcasts. Um, I think we still need more podcasts, but maybe we don't need more podcasts about, you know, a woman that was murdered and who murdered her. And, uh, the really smart guy who figured it out, right? And so I think we need a lot more content and a lot more media, um, from those voices that aren't voiceless or aren't already telling their stories, but aren't having the same platforms.
Um, and I would also just say, too, invite you guys to think about, um, you know, at your organization where you work, think about, you know, the employees. Maybe even then expand that out to think about all of the people that freelance at your organization and on the shows. You know, when you're booking guests, when you're booking experts, you know, if the work that you're doing is representative of the population of Native people in the United States, one out of every 50 of those people should be Native. Um, and I bet at a lot of companies, and we know this just based on the information of how we're represented in media jobs, it’s zero or close to zero. So I would invite you to go back and think about, um, you know, where there are places to include more Native voices, and I'm happy to be like a connector or a resource for that. Um, so definitely reach out to me and thank you everyone so much, um, for your time and your attention. I'm so excited to be at Werk It. Thank you.
Dessa: That was Rebecca Nagle, speaking at the 2019 Werk It festival.
Both the festival and the podcast are produced by WNYC Studios and are made possible by major funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with additional support from the Annenberg Foundation.
Event sponsors include Luminary, Spotify, Spreaker, Acast, Himalaya, and the Women’s Foundation of California.