Indigenous Narrative Sovereignty on TikTok

March 29, 2023 Nia Tero Season 3 Episode 2
Indigenous Narrative Sovereignty on TikTok
Show Notes Transcript

"Black Indigenous people of color in the 21st century are navigating the digital space and grounding ourselves in joy, community, beauty, skincare, dancing, and storytelling, all through connection to land.” - Lofanitani Aisea  

Did you say "influencer"? Seedcast’s first ever Artist-in-Residence, Lofanitani Aisea (Black and Tongan, Modoc, Tahlequah Cherokee, and Klamath tribes), has gone viral on TikTok for her stories that celebrate her cultures and shine a light on others. Lofanitani speaks with Laura Obregón Cañola (Colombian of Indigenous / Embera Katío descent), another influencer who shares stories on TikTok to uplift Indigenous Colombian artists, decolonize folklore, and mobilize mutual aid resources.  As Lofanitani explains, “storytelling, and undeniably uplifting our rights as Indigenous peoples, is vital in nurturing our connection to land and culture.” Host: Jessica Ramirez. Producer and 2022 Seedcast Artist in Residence: Lofanitani Aisea. Mentor and Audio Editor: Stina Hamlin. Story Editor and Sound Mix: Jenny Asarnow.  

Follow Lofanitani and Laura (Pülasü.co)  on TikTok. 

Seedcast is a production of Nia Tero, a global nonprofit which supports Indigenous land guardianship around the world through policy, partnership, and storytelling initiatives.

Enjoy the Seedcast podcast on the Nia Tero website, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and your other favorite podcast platforms.

Keep up with Seedcast on Instagram and use the hashtag #Seedcast.

Indigenous Narrative Sovereignty on TikTok

Seedcast Season 3 Episode 2

March 29, 2023 

[00:00:00] Automated voice: This is Seedcast, and today we're talking about Indigenous TikTok.

[chime sounds]

[upbeat music plays in the background]

[00:00:08] Lofanitani Aisea: [Introduction in Tongan and Klamath] What's poppin’ everyone, how you doing? My name is Lofanitani, and I'm a Black Indigenous woman, and I just introduced myself both in Tongan and Maqlaqsyals, also known as the Klamath language, or “the language of people”. Growing up, in the media there wasn't a lot of representation for Black people or Indigenous people, or even Black Indigenous people; and in turn sent the message to me that stories from people who look like me might not be worth telling. But I never believed this. And instead, growing up, I used every opportunity to represent myself and my communities. Today I continue to tell my stories, take up space, and represent myself. 

[beeping sound] 

Theme song by Mia Kami: We are standing, hear our calling, we are rooted to the ground we’re here to stay. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can't tear us down, we’re here to stay…

[00:01:13] Jessica Ramirez: Hi, I'm Jessica Ramirez, joining you all from Coast Salish territory in what is presently known as Seattle, Washington. And today we have a guest with us on Seedcast: Lofanitani Aisea, our 2022 Artist in Residence. She produced this episode, and it was really cool to work with an emerging producer. 

Lofanitani, thank you so much for being here, and thanks for bringing your voice and this story to Seedcast. Can you please introduce yourself to our audience? 

[00:01:47] Lofanitani: [Introduction in Tongan and Klamath] My name is Lofanitani. I'm a Black Indigenous woman who is Black and Tongan, and my tribes are Modoc, Klamath, and Tahlequah. I was born and raised urbanly in Portland, Oregon, as well as rurally on my Klamath homelands in Southern Oregon; and I'm currently based on Tongva land here in Los Angeles, California. I'm an influencer, content creator, actor, writer, and director; and I'm really happy to be a part of the Seedcast podcast and being in this residency. 

[00:02:17] Jessica: Oh my God, you, honestly, you said “influencer” and then everything just stopped. I was like, influencer! Oh you know social media! 

[Jessica and Lofanitani laugh together]

The episode that we're about to hear has to do with social media. Can you tell us why this particular topic area is something that you gravitated towards for this episode? 

[00:02:39] Lofanitani: Yes, so I've been telling stories in the digital space since I was—since I can remember, since I was young. I had a video recorder from Best Buy when I was younger. I had an iPod Touch that was all cracked up, and I'd take videos of my friends around like, my homelands, or anything I could get my hands on. I've always been telling stories, whether it be digital, or writing—anything. And so once I got to college, and especially during the pandemic, I grabbed onto social media as a creative outlet. And especially as a Black Indigenous creative, storyteller, navigating the digital space has been very interesting and it has definitely been a layered experience. And so I'm very interested in talking with other Indigenous creators—other Black Indigenous creators, people of color—about how they show up to the digital space, how they tell their stories, how they set boundaries; and how they support themselves, center joy, and their communities. So I'm really interested in that. 

[00:03:36] Jessica: I love this, oh my gosh, that's so sweet! TikTok is a big part of the story that we're about to hear. [From] what I understand, you're someone who as an influencer went viral. Can you tell us about that time and what happened for you?  

[00:03:55] Lofanitani: Who, me?!

[Lofanitani and Jessica laugh together] 

[00:03:59] Jessica: NBD, no big deal.

[00:04:01] Lofanitani: NBD, no big deal, material girl! Yeah, so, oh my gosh. [laughs] Let's see, I've gone viral a few times. One of the biggest times I went viral was for a video where I fell. It was embarrassing! But the video was, it was me and other Indigenous content creators and friends, and we were going to the pow wow in Colorado. So I was like, okay, let's make a video of us, like how different Natives go to the pow wow.

 And so we're staying in an Airbnb and there was like a porch, and I had each of us come out, do like a little dance, and then it was in slowmo. And by the time it came to mine, I like—there's stairs and I missed a step and I just biffed it on the way down. 

[00:04:51] Jessica: Nooooo! And so it was all on video?  

[00:04:51] Lofanitani: [Laughing] It was all on video! But you know how you can edit things, and so I was like, you know what, I'll just edit the video. I'll just edit my fall out. No one's gonna know. But I was like, you know what? I'll give ‘em a little something, so I'll leave ‘em at a cliffhanger. So I edited the video where I fell, up until the point where you can see my ankle get broken. [Laughs again] And so it just like, goes [makes a noise] and then it ends, and then the video replays. And so that really helps, especially with TikTok. So if people are left on a cliffhanger, they're gonna watch it again! And so I posted that like at 6:00 AM in the morning. I got on like a flight to come back to LA. And when I got off my flight at LAX, I got a text message from one of the people who was in the video. They're like, “Have you seen the video?” And I was like, “No, what's wrong with the video?” I was like, “Did it get taken down? Did I get shadowbanned? Like, what happened?” And they were like, “No, it has like almost a million views!” And I looked at it and there was, there was so many views. Tribe Called Red, like reposted. People on Instagram were taking it from TikTok to Instagram. Princess—the one and only—Princess Nokia commented on the video to see if I was okay!

[Lofanitani and Jessica laugh together]

[00:06:04] Jessica: So you posted a video of you falling. Did you say you did break your ankle? 

[00:06:11] Lofanitani: Oh, no, no, no, no! Sorry, it was just an expression, it was not broken. [Laughs] 

[00:06:15] Jessica: I think, I mean, what you're talking about too is just like the power and the swiftness of social media, and I think it's really cool that Natives are also using social media as a way to galvanize power within their communities, and also to be able to lean on people who are not so close, people who live far away in order to support their peoples, too. 

[00:06:39] Lofanitani: Yeah! When it comes to representation opportunity, there's so many times where Black Indigenous people of color are really left out, pushed out, and even taken advantage of. Not only in the physical world does that happen, but it also happens in the digital world. Black Indigenous people of color in the 21st century are navigating the digital space and grounding ourselves in joy, community, beauty, skincare, dancing, and storytelling, all through connection to land. 

 [upbeat music plays in the background]

 We're opening up more opportunities to really represent ourselves. Social media platforms such as TikTok are really tools that we can use to advocate for ourselves and our communities, and make those changes in our digital existence and in the physical world. Even though spaces like TikTok are not always welcoming to Black Indigenous people of color—and our narrative sovereignty especially—it's important that we step into these spaces however we see fit, unapologetically. Period. Storytelling, and undeniably uplifting our rights as Indigenous peoples, is vital in nurturing our connection to land and culture.

[music continues, winds down]

 So I'm always interested in talking with other Indigenous creators about their experiences on social media, especially TikTok and how they navigate it. And so I was looking for other Indigenous creators to connect with who I hadn't already connected with. And I found another creator who was based in Colombia, and she's super dope, does awesome work! 

 [00:08:14] Jessica: Ooh, cool. What's her name? And tell me a little bit more about her story! 

 [00:08:18] Lofanitani: Yeah, so her name is Laura Obregón Cañola, and we're going to be talking with her today on how she navigates the digital space on TikTok.

 [00:08:28] Laura Obregón Cañola: [Introduction in Indigenous language], which is “hello” / “hola” in [Embera /Indigenous language]. My name is Laura. I'm currently coming live or recording from Medellín, Colombia, which is where I'm living right now with my abuelita, or grandmother.

 [00:08:45] Lofanitani: Laura's a boss! She's a small business owner who works with other Indigenous communities in Colombia, mainly Wayuu women and single mothers who sell handmade creations. She started her TikTok to promote her business initially, and it quickly turned into so much more. 

 [00:09:02] Laura: Last year we had a really rough time in Colombia political-wise. And so there was a lot of protests going on, there was a lot of violence going on. And that's when I decided at a thousand followers, I was like, you know what? Let me use my platform even though I have a thousand followers to start talking about these things. ‘Cause I felt like as a business owner who works with communities that are affected directly by our political climate here in Colombia, it would be kind of ignorant of me to not put the spotlight on the issues that we have. And so I remember the first video that I posted about the protests, it just went viral. And so every other video that people were asking me to do about, like, “Can you explain why it's happening? Can you explain who's affected by these protests?” I was like, okay, I'm getting a lot of attraction on my page, videos are blowing up really quickly. And so that's when I was like, okay, so TikTok is a great way to talk about anything on here, especially with these human right[s] issues and stuff like that. So that's really how it started. I feel like I kind of walked into it like, blindly; like I didn't know my page was gonna transform into what it is now. 

 [00:10:22] Lofanitani: And now Laura stands with over 100,000 TikTok followers and 2.8 million likes. 

 [00:10:28] Jessica: So, if I were to go on Laura's TikTok and look at it, what kind of information would I get? 

 [00:10:34] Lofanitani: Laura has an array of different niches and topics that she talks about from cultural education to activism and showing her homeland, to talking about stories from her ancestors in her community that she is revamping and decolonializing, which is very cool. And just the bright colors are everything! I just know when I'm gonna see her work, it's bright colors, dope images, very educational, and very artistic.

 [00:11:05] TikTok Clip (Laura): [Chime] Imagine being violently displaced from your ancestral territories because of an armed conflict going on in your country. Now imagine having to live at a camp where there's a thousand-plus people also displaced living there. Imagine having to share only two bathrooms with those thousand-plus people. [Digital tones]

 [00:11:27] Laura: This year my friend, Xiomara, who’s Muisca—she's Indigenous Muisca from Colombia, too. She went to Bogotá, which is Muisca territory. She was with family, and there was a huge issue, a lot of people being displaced from their territory because of paramilitaries, guerrilla groups, state violence. So they were being removed from their territory and they had to come to big cities like Medellín or Bogotá, which is the capital of Colombia. And once they got to Colombia, they kind of formed a little camp in one of, like one of the biggest parks in Bogotá, in the center of Bogotá. And so in that camp, there were a total of fifteen Indigenous communities from all over Colombia, from the coast to the Amazons, from every region. There was an Indigenous group from every region in that camp, and there was over a thousand people too. And the living conditions were horrible.

 [00:12:34] TikTok Clip (Laura): [Chime] Imagine not eating for days because there's just not enough food for a thousand-plus people. Imagine having to sleep on the dirt floor in a plastic tent while it's 40 degrees outside. This is the reality that our Indigenous relatives in Parque Nacional, Bogotá are going through at the moment. Nobody should be living like this, especially children. I really need your help in boosting the hell out of this video. Please, please go check out the link in my bio. [Digital tones]

 [00:13:01] Laura: People were starving. Babies were going hungry. There was no quick access to medical help. And so it was a really tough situation. It was a really tough time. So since it was a bunch of Indigenous communities from different parts of Colombia, they formed one Indigenous community called Autoridades de Bakata. And so that's what the camp was called. It was Bakata. And so there were several leaders from each community who represented the people that were there. And so Xiomara talked to several leaders, she asked them what they needed and so she messaged me and she was like, “Hey, we need like emergency funds right now. I know you have a good platform and I know that you use your platform for good things.” 

 “Can we get together and talk about this, get it going viral and get some like, quick emergency funds in so we can give some food out?” There was no food at all. She was like, we need to do something about this. So we—I did several other videos. They went viral. I think we ended up with like $25,000 of fundraising money. And so we decided to go to the camp, to the community. But when you go there, and you see it in person, it just kind of hits you different. Like, our people are really suffering right now. And the government isn't doing anything, and the community is barely doing anything, like the other citizens of the city are barely doing anything.

 And so we started distributing food and kind of getting to know everybody in the community and seeing what their needs were. Seeing a lot of people from all over the world come together for the community was really just a huge like, blessing and such a great experience. So that's one of the instances where TikTok came through.

[music plays]

[00:15:23] Jessica: I'm curious if you've done anything like what Laura is doing, where you're really influencing an audience online with something that's happening in your community, or in your world.  

[00:15:35] Lofanitani: Yeah, so I was raised in the Klamath tribes, with my people and my community, and one thing that we have every year is called the Salmon Run. And it's to continue cultural practices and to protect our salmon who have been threatened by settler colonial violence, and are on the brink of extinction along with our other animals and our ancestor fish. And so we run with other tribes who are on our Klamath River, which runs all the way from the ocean to the head of our water, which is where our tribe is at.

 [00:16:08] TikTok Clip (Lofanitani): [Chime sound followed by Indigenous vocals and music in the background] Want to know something that's miles long, shared by tribes, and under attack by settler-induced climate change? The Klamath River! [Digital tones]

 [00:16:21] Lofanitani: A few years ago, I made like a TikTok series about the Salmon Run: how many miles we run, what tribes are involved, what we're running for; the importance of salmon, land, and water in our fish; our ʔambo, our water. And so I made just like, quick little TikToks. I was super outta breath. I was super tired ‘cause I'm actually like, running, I'm like running with my tupiyaps, my little siblings! I was running with them and we have cars following us to make sure that we're safe and we have these like wooden salmon in our hands and we're just like, exhausted! I didn't realize how exhausting emotionally and just physically it is. But I was making videos while we were exhausted, while we were running, while we were handing off the fish to other tribes. And I kind of just documented it in the moment.

 [00:17:05] TikTok Clip (Lofanitani): [Chime followed by enthusiastic scream] Yeah! [Inaudible] Get it, get it, get it all! All right! [Indigenous language] [Enthusiastic shout] Go, go, go! [Laughing, sounds of breathing]

 [00:17:22] Lofanitani: That little series got a lot of attention from my community; a lot of attention from my TikTok community, like, real life community; and then just from people who didn't even follow me. And I got tons of like, messages and comments and shares. And people reached out to me via email for like, interviews and stuff. And after that, shortly after that, I made my first short film that was about land protection and Indigenous joy and cultural continuance. Yeah, it was really cool! 

 [00:17:53] Jessica: Oh my gosh, I mean, social media can be—I think all of us know that so many parts of social media can be toxic, and it can feel indulgent in this way, that you also feel guilty. You're like, oh, I've spent so much time using this app today. Turn it off, someone hide my phone! And I think it's so cool that you are able to express this really important part of your culture to a broader audience. And one, I think it's always really special when we can see ourselves, you know, reflected in social media; but then also for people who are not of the Klamath tribe, and who are not of Native heritage, to be able to learn from Native people themselves, and to see them tell the stories in the way that they want to.

 [upbeat music plays]

 [00:19:09] Lofanitani: So in addition to like, mutual aid and like activism work that Laura will do in a lot of her TikTok content, Laura also does cultural education TikToks. 

 [00:19:18] Laura: I do a bunch of storytelling, like folklore kind of content. I really enjoy it, but I also talk about like, the colonialism behind our folk tales. Because a lot of our folk tales are based during colonial times, and a lot of the stories have changed to make these like, bad characters like monster[s] kind of, you know? But in reality, they're like ancestral spirits, and based on Indigenous, you know, culture and Afro culture. So, I also like to incorporate those things into my content. [Laughs] 

One of my favorite ones is El Mohan. He's a Pijao folk tale/ancestral spirit. Pijao is another Indigenous community here in the mountains down south. And Mohan was a water spirit who helped the Pijao fish, get plenty of fish, protect their waterways, give them fresh water.

 [00:20:25] TikTok Clip (Laura): [Chime] A lot of our legends here in Colombia are colonized. Surprised? I'm not. Many of our oral stories, many of our legends, come from Indigenous communities like the one I'm about to talk about. Everybody meet El Mohan. El Mohan is a popular folk story. I'm sure you've probably heard a different Colombian, but it comes from Tolima, which is where our Indigenous Pijaos live, and there's other versions in the region of Magdalena. Like I said, there's a lot of versions of El Mohan, but he's pretty much seen in a monstrous way. Some say he's very nice and sociable, and he likes to drink and smoke tobacco, and he helps fishermen fish. And some other people say he's just pure evil and likes to kidnap women. But back in the day, Los Pijaos had these spiritual and community leaders called mohanes. They're the ones that held up the socioeconomic status of the community. They were medicine men, healers; they did a lot for the community, is what I'm trying to say. But of course when the Spanish came, they saw how much influence and how much power these mohanes had, and they didn't like it. So they tried to baptize and persecute mohanes. And many of the mohanes actually hid underwater, which is how they became the spirit of water, the masculine strength of water, and the owner of fish. And those Pijaos still do many ceremonies throughout the year to honor this great water spirit.

 A Pijao woman from the Natagaima reservation said, “He is not bad if they treat him well. He is not visible to everyone. You have to leave him chicha, brandy, or tobacco because he goes out to warm up at noon or sunset. With this, he behaves well and lets you fish. But if he attacks, it's because there are those who cause damage to the rivers.” So yeah, El Mohan isn't harmful. He's not a bad person. He's just a protector of the rivers. [Digital chime]

 [00:22:22] Laura: So that's a kind of an example of the colonization of our ancestors and what they had to go through, and kind of demonizing them to being like these scary looking people when in reality they're just chill and take care of the earth. [Laughs]

 In Colombia, I feel like the majority here don't really think about in-between the lines, so they wouldn't read El Mohan and think like, “Oh, colonialism”, ‘cause it's just not brought up. You don't read about these things. You don't know about these things, but that's the base of a lot of these folk tales.

 [upbeat music plays]

 [00:23:17] Laura: I just feel like it's important to get the word out and kind of like, open people['s] eyes ‘cause these things are still happening. Like a lot of colonialism is still happening and it hasn't changed in our society. Maybe the colonialism that we've experienced in the past has transformed in a way, right? But it's still happening. And so I just think it's important for people to know these things and to maybe read between the lines, or outside of the lines, and see the bigger picture or the base of a lot of these stories. So yeah. [Laughs]

 [00:23:53] Lofanitani: [Snaps fingers] Oooooh! Reading between the lines can be so hard ‘cause then other people are like, “No, no, it's—the stories have always been that way.” And I'm like, “Since when?”

 [00:24:03] Laura: Right, since when!

 [00:24:04] Lofanitani: Yeah. And you gotta be that person to like, do that extra work and people send you more stories, and so you gotta like, figure out – yeah. So good job on that! And like your stories are really dope. So thank you for sharing those on your platform.  

[00:24:18] Laura: Thank you!  

[00:24:19] Lofanitani: That is not easy. So yeah, thank you. And thank you for explaining too, ‘case gosh, that's such a real thing. Colonialism. 

[music plays] 

[00:24:43] Jessica: I am really excited that you brought this episode to us and I can't even imagine how much I would learn on Native TikTok, and I can already think that I want to find TikTok on my phone, ‘cause I've hidden it because I used to spend so much time on it. Or I wanna search on TikTok, like Native TikTok, and see what I find out. 

[00:25:06] Lofanitani: Absolutely, you're gonna find so much! There's so much diversity and richness and culture on Indigenous TikTok and Native TikTok. It's just—there's a lot! There's a lot of rabbit holes! [Laughs]

[music continues]

[00:25:35] Lofanitani: So from just hearing Laura talk about how she decolonizes and reads between the lines for her cultural and community stories, it's really inspiring for me because I feel like as a content creator, as an influencer, doing this work can be very hard and can be very difficult at times. And sometimes you forget like, how much of an impact you're making. But now that I hear Laura, in her process of her doing it and her breakdown of what that means to her, it just reminds me and is like a reflection of why I also do the things that I do and why I also create content that makes myself—not only myself proud, but my community proud, and is a continuance of our culture and representation.

 So yeah, I just, I love hearing Laura talk and I love being in conversation with other Indigenous content creators about this stuff. Because the work we do—whether it's like activism work, or directly on our homelands protecting it or you know, just fun beauty videos or dance videos or, you know, like me breaking my ankle, but not really breaking my ankle, but being in conversation and then networking with other Indigenous creatives – whatever we do for content that we wanna do, as long as we're in control of our own narratives and in control of our own representation, that's the kind of stories that I want to see. And that's the kind of stories that I wanna make. And however we show up to this space, I think it matters and it's really important, and it can be whatever it wants to be, whenever it wants to be, however we wanna represent it. 

[theme music begins] 

[00:27:18] Jessica: Thanks for listening. And special thanks to Laura Obregón Cañola and to Lofanitani Aisea for bringing us this episode. And if you're on TikTok, make sure to follow Lofanitani at @lofanitani and follow Laura at

Seedcast is a project of Nia Tero, a Seattle-based foundation. Our teams are both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and we share a mission to secure Indigenous guardianship for all vital ecosystems. That means Nia Tero provides support to Indigenous peoples globally who are protecting their homelands from colonization and destruction. We do this because their practices are our best guides for making earth livable for humans and all other species for generations to come. 

 Here on Seedcast, our guests represent themselves and their views may not reflect those of Nia Tero. We are dedicated to honoring our guests, their honest perspectives, and lived experiences. 

 If you liked what you heard, we invite you to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite podcast platform so that you never miss an episode. Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts and share this episode or other ones with the people in your life.

 We love making Seedcast, and we'd love to hear from you. Write to us or send us an audio message at Learn more about Seedcast and Nia Tero on our website, 

 This episode was produced by our Artist in Residence, Lofanitani Aisea. Mentorship and audio editing by Stina Hamlin. Story editing and sound mix by Jenny Asarnow. Our executive producer is Tracy Rector. Our senior producer is Jenny Asarnow. Our consulting producer is Julie Keck. Our fact checker is Romin Lee Johnson. Our social media is by Nancy Kelsey. Our transcripts are by Sharon Arnold. The Seedcast theme song is by Mia Kami. I'm your host, Jessica Ramirez, and we look forward to bringing more stories like this one to you all very soon.

 Theme song “Rooted” by Mia Kami: Like the wind we still move, like the waves we rise high, like the sun we never die. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can’t tear us down. We’re here to stay…

[00:30:05] Jessica and Lofanitani together:  

Jessica: Yay! Okay, yay! We did it! 

Lofanitani: A little long on that story on that anecdote, but … 

Jessica: No, I like that take. I thought that was really good!

 Lofanitani: Oh, thanks!