Ancient stories, new technology: Indigenous media treads new ground

by Cara McKenna

Ryan McMahon is finding power in voices with Makoons Media Group 

Now is the time for Indigenous people to break new ground in media, says Janet Rogers, who has worked in radio for a decade. Rogers hosts a show called Native Waves Radio on CFUV in Victoria. “We’re picking up these tools on our own and without the colonized filter, we’re kind of fumbling our way towards creating and maintaining a voice through the medium of podcasting.”

It’s not a simple task, says Ryan McMahon, founder of Makoons Media Group, whose best known success to date is the Indian & Cowboy podcast network. “White people have always controlled the gaze … and that gaze has always exploited us and our weaknesses,” he says. McMahon wants to change this and is scaling up his vision of an Indigenous podcast network, with support from the Indigenous Innovation Demonstration Fund (IIDF).    
The Indigenous Innovation Demonstration Fund provides support to organizations seeking to develop or expand their Indigenous social innovation and social enterprise. The Fund was created through a partnership of the National Association of Friendship Centres, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) and the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation.

In late November, after finding out about the new funding, McMahon was halfway through a national tour, gathering material for a podcast called Stories from the Land. At a live recording event in Victoria on November 22, about two dozen people gathered in the Indigenous centre at Royal Roads University to hear talks and performances from several locals.
Rogers performed a poem, and Art Napoleon, a media personality and musician, performed a comedy routine and played a song. McMahon then interviewed him about the Site C Dam, which is being built in Napoleon’s home territory.
Napoleon believes that simply the act of creating dialogue is crucial, especially with a booming population of Indigenous youth.
“The dialogue is key. It builds bridges in the movement, especially with youth, that wouldn’t otherwise be exposed,” Napoleon said, after the event. “I think that’s the way of the future — to create these experiences where people can sit together as if you’re in someone’s living room.”
McMahon agreed that the act in itself is groundbreaking. He’s observed many serendipitous things happen during stops on the Stories from the Land tour, including long-lost relatives connecting.
“For me, reconciliation and this work is about the opportunity to come back together and to come up with answers on how we rebuild ourselves and our communities,” reflected McMahon, who is Anishinaabe. “If this country could just get behind the idea of what Indigenous stories and Indigenous knowledge has to offer, it would make this place so much better for everybody.”
For her part, Rogers sees this happening across many Indigenous communities. “There are way more filmmakers now, way more writers now, everyone is out there doing their thing, and that’s how it should be. We’re creative people.”

Building an Indigenous VICE 

McMahon launched Indian & Cowboy in 2014. Given the popular comedian’s regular exposure on CBC, finding a following has been no problem, but resources have been a challenge. The network has been getting by on about $1,300 each month through ongoing listener donations via

Ryan McMahon

Indian & Cowboy is currently the world’s only listener-funded Indigenous podcast network and consists of eight individual shows — three of which McMahon creates himself. He hopes the recent grant will get him to where he wants to be faster, and that’s to expand into an Indigenized version of the Brooklyn-based VICE media empire.
“[The goal] is to create an industry and an economy around our own media, which is something we’ve never had,” he says.  “That’s what the grant will be used for, building up our company infrastructure in a way where we can start to go after those listeners. We can start to publish properly.”
His goals for growing his company include hosting events and festivals, expanding video and print content, commissioning investigative journalism, and an app. It’s all to create, in his words, “a hub of innovation and storytelling” at the intersection of traditional knowledge and cutting-edge technologies.
McMahon’s aim is to find 5,000 people to support the effort each month. He notes that if subscribers paid the same monthly fee as Netflix charges, then he could start hiring staff while remaining independent.
“If you could imagine that – a monthly budget of $50,000 – for a small Indigenous media startup, that’s good,” he said. “What I’m interested in is how we represent ourselves and our strengths, at our best. That to me is what the network is: it’s a community where Indigenous voices are safe and taken care of and amplified.
“We call the Internet the new wild west. It’s not cowboys and Indians, it’s Indians and cowboys.”
Cara McKenna is a freelance journalist of Alberta Métis descent. She is based in Vancouver.
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