Indigenous youth are using TikTok to educate and preserve their culture — and gaining hundreds of thousands of followers along the way
|Toronto Star 22 Jul 2021 at 15:04|
At 18 years old, Theland Kicknosway is already a public figure in Canada, gaining more than 404,000 followers and 9.7 million likes on his TikTok videos. What’s driving all of the love and support to his account?
His storytelling through the app and sharing of what it’s like to grow up as an Indigenous youth in Canada.
When Kicknosway first jumped on the app, he started with creating funny videos but realized shortly after that what people gravitated toward was his perspective and the realities that he faces as a young Indigenous person.
“It’s a teaching moment. We need people to understand that this is who we are as Indigenous peoples, and whether you like it or not, we’re all going forward into the future together,” Kicknosway says.
And the people are listening, he adds, pointing to a video he posted in May 2020 talking about how braids are a symbol of strength, wisdom and reflect Indigenous identity. The clip ended up reaching more than 5.6 million views and 1.4 million likes.
While his videos educate the joyful, proud parts of his identity, he also shares the devastating experiences of the genocide of his people in Canada — including speaking out about the Missing and Murdered Women and Girls and residential schools.
Though these topics may be traumatic, they’re part of his history. Not that long ago, Kicknosway’s parents were forcibly taken from their homes during the Sixties Scoop. His father also attended residential day school and was given care in an Indian hospital.
“People always think that when you think of Indigenous peoples in tragedies that this is a long time ago (but) I’m the first generation being raised in my own home. I need people to let that sink in for a second,” he says, adding that what he can do to amplify his voice now, and that of his people, will give his grandchildren a better place to live.
But regaining these bits and pieces of history — much of it softened in textbooks or destroyed like unmarked graves — is something that Kicknosway faces as well.
Kicknosway is Potawatami and Cree, from Walpole Island and Wolf Clan. As he tries to do his best to share what his ancestors have taught him, he’s also learning.
“I’m still learning my language, I’m still learning about my teachings, about dances, and I think that’s the beauty of our culture, not everyone’s going to know every single thing there’s not going to be one person that’s the carrier of all of this knowledge,” he says, adding that these things were stripped from him and his ancestors.
“We have elders, and we have knowledge keepers and carriers who are able to pass down this knowledge and pass down our languages, and it’s our turn right now to listen and learn,” he says.
And like Kicknosway, and many other Indigenous youth are finding TikTok to be their medium — giving them a platform when their stories in mainstream often go unheard.
“To be able to have a voice and be able to have a platform to share the teachings that I was taught is definitely something important,” says Kicknosway.
That agency is something that 29-year-old Marika Sila knows well. The Inuit actress, performer and now-influencer has used TikTok to platform and preserve her history, boasting 323,000 followers and 4.1 million likes on her videos.
“I often get questions about my culture and about questions that a lot of people are maybe too polite to ask and I try and answer those so that we can create a deeper understanding and kind of bridge the gap of understanding between all races,” says Sila.
Sila believes where there’s understanding, there is compassion. “Racism dies in the face of compassion,” she says, pointing to her dad, a residential school survivor, and someone who has continued to be a big inspiration to her.
“(My dad’s) all about moving forward in a positive direction. And my goal is to do the same and to help our entire nation,” she says. Sila also says that working towards solution-based thinking and goals is something she strives for and is important to remember moving forward.
“We all know what has been going on and what is still going on. And I think that if we all ask ourselves what’s next and how we can best inspire and influence the community and influence our nation to make positive change,” she says.“My goal with all the work that I do is, especially in regards to the Indigenous rights issues. My goal is to help viewers understand on a deeper level.”
Having this space is also important for representation Indigenous content creator Sherry McKay , 39, says.
One of McKay’s references a lyric in a Lizzo’s “ song “Truth Hurts.” The video is based around the song’s verse “I just took a DNA test turns out I’m 100 per cent,” with McKay cutting in saying “Native,” followed by a compilation of comedic clips that are relatable to Indigenous people, like pointing with their lips. She says other Indigenous youth quickly started using the sound she created to recreate her video, as they felt seen.
“I discovered that there wasn’t a large representation of Indigenous content creators but there was a need for this representation,” she says.
Because some Indigenous youth live in remote communities or don’t have the opportunity to travel outside of their communities, seeing other Indigenous people outside their community or from other parts of the world is powerful, says McKay.
“I think it’s really important for our youth to know that they’re not alone,” she says. All youth, not even just Indigenous youth, need to see Indigenous people and representation. We all have different gifts whether it’s comedy, our advocacy, storytelling.”
When it comes to how the upcoming generation can lead the way and influence the future, McKay says she wants Indigenous youth to be proud of who they are and to maintain their identity, no matter what space they’re in.
She adds that non-Indigenous youth must help support their peers in maintaining this identity. This means speaking up against racism and prejudice not only on the platform, but in real life.
“Not only are we inspiring a generation of young Indigenous peoples, but we’re also educating others about Indigenous peoples and who we are. And I think that’s so beautiful,” Kicknosway says.