“The mystery was not, ‘Who killed George Jacobs?’ The mystery was who controlled the land where he was killed?”
This question sits at the center of the Supreme Court case Carpenter V. Murphy, one that could potentially cede millions of acres of Oklahoma land back to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. On Monday, those words anchored the first episode of This Land, the latest podcast from Crooked Media, hosted by Cherokee Nation writer and language teacher Rebecca Nagle.
The podcast aims to shine a light on both the legal ramifications of ignored treaties while also providing an intimate view into the lives and histories of the people of the Five Tribes who’ve survived genocidal acts carried out by the state. But Nagle also hopes the show will serve as a roadmap for future entertainment and media efforts and show why it’s crucial that the gatekeepers of these industries allow future projects to be helmed by the people who actually call that history their own.
This week, Nagle spoke with Splinter about her new project, how she’s handled writing a podcast for the first time, and the delicate balance of telling a uniquely powerful Native story to a non-Native audience.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you take me through the process of you pitching this podcast? Who approached who and where did the idea come from?
I wrote an op-ed about the case from the perspective of being a descendant of treaty signers, and what the land that’s at stake in the case meant to me specifically, for the Washington Post the week of oral arguments back in November. And Crooked Media read that op-ed and then reached out to me to see if I’d be interested in turning it into a serialized podcast. I was excited about the opportunity to work with them.
I think Crooked listeners and Pod Save America listeners are people who are politically engaged and care about these kinds of issues but are probably not very aware of what’s happening with Native rights in the courts right now, so I’m excited to introduce that topic to those listeners and hopefully get more people paying attention, because it’s really important for Native rights that we have people who know what’s going on.
I noticed that you have quite a few Native people on staff. During discussions about what the podcast would look like and who would work on it, how did those hiring decisions get made? Is that something you pushed for?
Basically, at any juncture where we could hire a Native person to do something, I recommended it. It was like, “How many Natives can we get on this project?” And Crooked was really open to that. I think they saw the importance of this being a Native-made podcast.
So Keli Gonzales, who is a citizen of Cherokee Nation, designed the amazing podcast art. Jerod Tate, who’s a citizen of Chickasaw Nation, made the theme music. And then Firethief Productions, which is a production company out of Tulsa that was co-founded by Jeremy Charles and Sterlin Harjo, their company did a lot of the on-the-ground field work in Oklahoma, and if you follow the show on Instagram, there’s going to be a lot of video content that accompanies the podcast and they shot all of that.
It feels like for so many projects from mainstream publications, there’s a lot of parachute reporting, where you don’t actually have a Native person writing the story but their voices are featured. Can you tell me a little about why it’s important to, top-down, have Native people working on a project like this?
I would say, too, that I didn’t just seek out Native people to contribute, but specifically people who are from the tribes who are impacted by the decision. So most of the Native people who worked on it were from one of the Five Tribes. And I think that’s something a lot of non-Native people don’t get about representation—that a Cherokee person working on it is actually really different than, say, a Navajo or Lakota person. It was great to work with Chickasaw composer Jerod Tate, where it’s like their music is really similar to ours, so there’s that synergy of the Five Tribes and the perspective and the cultures and the traditions that we come from.
I’m also excited about the series too is that it’s not just Native people who worked on it, but the overwhelming majority of people we interviewed for the podcast are Native. I think there’s one white person in the entire series, and then the rest of the voices are all Native. Just to zoom out from this podcast, I think we’re in this cultural moment where, after Standing Rock, there’s this renewed interest in the media telling Native stories. But I think in the first generation of those attempts, we’re getting things that have a lot of problems with them. Things like “Yellowstone” or “Woman Walks Ahead”—these movies and TV shows that are written by white people that have these half-baked clichés about Indians that we’re so used to seeing in media.
What I’m really looking forward to is that we’re seeing more Natives in writers rooms, and more Natives creating our own content. I feel like our country is ready for the next generation of Native stories, written and told by Native people. That difference might seem small, but it’s a fundamentally different way of telling these stories.
It definitely feels like you could argue, at least more recently, that in the realm of literature, that movement has been more Native-first, but when it comes to media and entertainment, that assessment feels correct, in that it’s a lot of non-Native people writing that perspective.
And I would say too that when Crooked approached me and tapped me to do this podcast, they took a huge risk. Not only had I never written a podcast, I’ve never really worked in radio. But they weren’t looking for the person that’s already done a successful podcast or worked at NPR for a long time. They took somebody that was pretty new to the medium and worked with me through that learning curve, and I think that’s how you actually achieve diversity in media.
What’s the learning curve been like?
[Laughs.] Writing for the page is really different than writing for the ear, and the way you get information when you hear it is really different from the way you absorb information when you read it. The first few drafts of every script I wrote worked really well on the page, and then when we hear it, it’s like, “Oh no!”
I feel like over the course of the eight episodes, there are some episodes that are sort of this deep dive, like Serial-esque, into the details of the case, and there are other ones that are broader, more tug-on-the-heartstrings-type narratives that are more emotive. I think that people are really going to be taken through a story they’ll be invested in by the end of the eight episodes.
In the first episode, you lay the foundation about the case. And I can see where you’re going to zoom out and in on the various aspects that define what’s coming in the next episodes. I’m curious, how did you land on the runtime? It’s around 28 minutes for each episode.
They vary. It’s interesting, I had this realization the other day that we can’t let the episodes get too long, especially some of the episodes where we’re talking about the history of our tribe. We’re talking about genocide. Not to sugarcoat it, but that’s what we have to talk about when we talk about the history of how the tribe got to this place, where Oklahoma doesn’t recognize their reservations. And I think there’s only so much of that that people can listen to before it gets to be too much. So there was conversation about making sure we’re telling everyone the information they need, but also making that manageable, because it’s a really hard history to learn, especially for those learning about it for the first time.
When you’re writing this, when you’re thinking about your audience, are you writing this as a Native person that wants to explain this to a larger white audience, or are you writing for the Native audience in hopes that white and non-Native people will also be able to understand it? How do you do that, or do you do both?
My goal the whole time has been both. My goal has been that when Native people listen to it, they hear themselves, they feel themselves and that that is empowering. And also that non-Native people, who may not know what a federally recognized tribe is, don’t know what a reservation is—I mean technically; like, that they’ve heard of it, but they don’t know what it is legally—that people are also learning. That’s one of the things that’s neat about this case. It has this really interesting backstory and all of these pieces, but it’s also a way to explain what’s happening to Native rights in 2019 and in a way that’s bigger than just this one case. The case is the entry point.
As you move from that entry point, how did you decide how much explaining you’re going to do for all these different topics? I see this in my writing process—I have to explain a lot that I as a writer would like to just be able to mention and have people understand what it is. But you also have to operate from a basis of reality, which is that that is not going to be the case, for a lot of unfortunate reasons. So how do you make those decisions?
Yeah, that’s one of the challenges of being a Native writer. There are so many things that are so basic to our communities that we live with that’s sort of an unavoidable part of our history that the broader public might not be aware of. I think one example is that I had “blood quantum” in a script without explaining it, and I got a note back, “Not everyone’s gonna know what blood quantum is.” And I was like, “Wow, people don’t even know what blood quantum is?” Like, you can’t escape that as a Native person. But what I think we’ve succeeded in doing in the podcast is letting those details come to the listener through stories.
In the first episode, allotment is kind of a complicated thing. We were like, how do we explain this so people understand it? Like, it gets down to mineral rights. So we came up with that whole cake metaphor, and in that moment, we’re explaining it in the broader story of the public defenders doing their investigation, so people feel like they’re coming along with the story while also learning how allotment worked.
I know you’ve mentioned in the past that you didn’t grow up on [the Cherokee Nation] reservation but near it. In your experience, how do you feel like non-Native people in that region of the U.S. understand the histories of the Five Tribes versus the rest of the country?
I would say Oklahoma’s state history curriculum—I mean, it’s slowly getting abolished—but Oklahoma still does Land Run Day, where elementary schools reenact the Land Run. Oklahoma City just bought this giant monument made out of bronze. It’s this bigger than life-sized monument that’s made out of horses and people and 20 to 30 different buggy combinations to commemorate the Land Rush.
Oklahoma was basically created on top of land that had been set aside for tribes, after most of us had been removed from our homelands. Most of the tribes in Oklahoma aren’t from there. We were removed there. And after we were promised that land, that promise was broken so Oklahoma could become a state. And so, I think often times there’s a way that the Oklahoma history and the statehood is celebrated without telling the full story of what happened to stories, so that could take place. But I do think in areas that there are tribes, there is just a greater awareness that we exist. We have a pretty big footprint. Cherokee Nation, as a government agency, as an employer, it’s one of the biggest in our region. We provide a lot of basic services, not just to tribal citizens but to everyone who lives in our area, as do all of the Five Tribes.
Before you went into it, how versed were you in Muscogee history? Did you have any sort of background in it at all, or did you learn it as you spoke with these people?
As Native Americans, we’re seen as a racial group and it’s sort of like everyone who’s Native American is the same? But we really see ourselves as a political identity, as citizens of tribes. Sort of like how French and German people see themselves as different, Cherokee and Creek people, we have a similar history and share a lot of culture, but we see ourselves as distinct because of that political identity.
What’s exciting about podcasts is, because you’re using people’s actual voices to tell their own stories in a way that is different from print. I’d read And Still The Waters Run by Angie Debo and different pieces of history, I think what’s even more powerful than what I knowledge I had from books was letting Creek people tell their history themselves.
You said you’ve got four episodes done—are the next four already planned out and you just have to finish them, or is there still a lot of legwork to be done?
We’re still in production, but we’re wrapping it up. The way this season plays out, kind of like what you said, the first episode is setting the table. The first few episodes really go through the details of the case, you’re going to meet the tribe, people are going to meet the opposition and the people who are stacked up against the tribe. And then we’re kind of going to hear how we got here. How the tribes got to this specific moment, both how the tribes came to be in Oklahoma and then after we got there, how the land was taken from us again by allotment, and then my personal connection to the case, which is that my family were treaty signers for the Cherokee Nation for the treaty that brought us to the land we’re at today and promised the land to us in perpetuity.
So after you get those four episodes wrapped up, is there going to be a Season 2? What’s next for you?
That’s a great question. I think I will let the season play itself out and then we’ll see. What I would say is if people want this type of storytelling to exist to listen, subscribe, leave a review. The more people see a demand for this storytelling, the more it will create opportunities, not just for me but for other Native storytellers to be given a similar platform.
I know we touched on this already, but do you get the general sense that we’re slowly moving in that direction?
I hope so. I think that, like I said before, we’ve seen a lot of storytelling in the media that’s non-Native people telling Native stories, and I think that is just honestly less compelling because it’s the same type of stories we’ve seen and heard a hundred times before. The contemporary stories of contemporary Native people and our real history is so much more interesting.
I hope that Native stories can become part of this larger wave where the people calling the shots see things like Tommy Orange’s There There being really successful means there’s a hunger among the general public to hear these kinds of stories. Non-Native people know that they’re missing something, even if they don’t know what they’re missing.
“The Tribe,” the second episode of This Land, will be available on Monday, June 10, and will center the voices of Muscogee (Creek) Nation leaders, including the chief and the attorney general, and explain how and why the case being decided by the Supreme Court is so crucially impactful for the future of their people. The first episode of the podcast is out now.