How two Indigenous women are breaking down barriers in the media industry
Actor Jennifer Podemski and TikTok star Sherry Mckay are charting new paths to success
Actor, director and producer Jennifer Podemski spent years in the television and film industry witnessing non-Indigenous people tell Indigenous stories.
"Everywhere I went, I just saw non-Indigenous people making content about us," Podemski, who's of mixed First Nations and Israeli descent, told Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild.
Podemski has faced inappropriate questions about her Indigeneity, such as, "What kind of Native are you?" or "You don't look Native enough" — at auditions. She says she's also lost opportunities to play Indigenous characters to non-Indigenous actors.
Despite building a body of work as an actor over the years, landing roles in shows like Degrassi: The Next Generation and The Republic of Doyle, Podemski felt unfulfilled and angry.
"As much as I'm so grateful for all the non-Indigenous people that made the content that I was in, that got me to where I am, I was getting increasingly bothered by it," she said. "I couldn't help this nagging feeling that something had to change."
Unsatisfied with seeing so many programs "created by white people, telling stories about Native people and getting it wrong and continuing to perpetuate negative stereotypes," Podemski vowed to become a producer.
Podemski is working to create positive change in the entertainment industry for Indigenous creators like her. And while most of her work is in television, other creators are carving similar paths in unconventional, online spaces.
Her most recent project is a TV show called Unsettled, shot on Nipissing First Nation in northern Ontario. It premiered on APTN in September. The project is Indigenous-led, with Indigenous actors, writers and producers. Out of 55 cast members in the show, 50 are Indigenous.
"It's impossible for someone who does not have a specific lens to express authentic, three dimensional or multidimensional characters," she said.
And when Indigenous people tell Indigenous stories, it can become a community effort. "If I'm telling a story, I'm not just going to tell it myself. I always have people helping me," Podemski added.
The role of being an Indigneous storyteller weighs heavily on Podemski. "We are rebuilding a broken, shattered, fractured narrative," she said. "All of the storytellers that are working out there today are each mending and fixing and rebuilding a broken piece of it."
Small screen to phone screen
Sherry Mckay, an Anishinaabe public speaker, comedian and influencer from Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba, also had her sights on a career in conventional media.
But after struggling in a creative communications program, she discovered she was able to flex her creative muscles on YouTube.
Now, she's making a name for herself with the nickname NishBish on video sharing app TikTok. She's also now partnered with Google Canada as a Canadian ambassador for the company's Pixel6 Pro phone.
Her videos range from comedic lip syncs to sharing images that represent the serious harms Indigenous peoples have faced. But whatever the tone, she often works to raise awareness about issues important to Indigenous people.
WATCH | Sherry Mckay joins Unreserved's Rosanna Deerchild (in her TikTok debut) to re-enact a scene from the movie, Pretty Woman
Mckay found that many Tiktok users, from all over the world, didn't know much about Indigenous people. "So I kind of started making it my mission to [show that] we're all different shapes, shades and sizes, and there's different types of Indigenous people all across the world and we all don't look the same."
Mckay receives racist comments and pushback when she posts videos about being Anishinaabe, but she chooses not to internalize the comments or react in anger.
She receives plenty of positive comments too — private messages from viewers who have been inspired by or felt connected to the content that she creates and thanking her for helping them embrace their identity.
"I didn't have that growing up," she said. "I didn't have someone saying that it's OK [to be Indigenous]."
Although she is finding success — like other Indigenous creators, such as Larissa Munch from Nazko First Nation in B.C. and Theland Kicknosway from Walpole Island First Nation in Ontario — Mckay does see a place for Indigenous people in TV and film. In fact, she still wants to work in the industry.
It is going to take us demanding those spaces and occupying those spaces ... and not waiting ... on non-Indigenous people to give us the OK."- Sherry Mckay
She's currently developing a sitcom about a blue-collar Indigenous family that lives in a predominantly white neighbourhood. "We're currently writing it right now, but I'm going to say it's very much like Roseanne," she said.
Like Podemski, Mckay knows that getting Indigenous-made TV shows off the ground — and improving Indigenous representation in film and TV — is an uphill battle. But she's ready to move from the phone screen to the small screen.
"It is going to take us demanding those spaces and occupying those spaces and creating them ourselves," Mckay said, "and not waiting ... on non-Indigenous people to give us the OK."
Written by Laura Beaulne-Stuebing. Produced by Kim Kaschor.