Sherry McKay’s dream of making movies and documentaries hit the rocks when she couldn’t afford to finish a communications course. Then she discovered TikTok and joined a wave of Indigenous women using it as an instrument of liberation.
Barely a year later, McKay has more than 200,000 followers on TikTok who watch her short videos. She uses comedy to discuss Indigenous issues and shares insight into her life as an Indigenous woman. In June, she got a blue "Verified" checkmark on her account, a big deal in social media circles.
The app says the mark recognizes accounts that are “authentic, unique, active.” For McKay, it’s much more. “Verified is equivalent to being validated,” she said in a video.
McKay, who is Oji-Cree and lives in Winnipeg, had started to work toward a career in media, enrolling in a college course in creative communications. But promised funding didn’t come through, she couldn’t buy the needed equipment, and she failed the course.
“I took it hard because I wanted to make movies and documentaries,” she said.
It was a big blow. McKay had quit her job to go to school. Then she got divorced. “I feel like all of these things happened in my life because I am an Indigenous woman,” she said.
Then a cousin suggested she create a YouTube account and reach people that way, and McKay recalled a comment from her college instructor.
“My media production teacher told me that everything I learned within my first semester, I could still move on and be successful in media production as long as I remembered these fundamental teachings, so that’s why I kept going on with YouTube and TikTok,” she said.
“I was doing YouTube and it wasn’t to try and be famous or anything like that, it was so I could keep and utilize the skills I learned in college, so I could feel like I was still in that realm of media production,” she said.
But now she has a prominent platform on TikTok, where she can shed light on the realities of being an Indigenous woman and teach others about Indigenous culture. “Older ladies my grandmother’s age... come up to me and say you’re that girl who does those videos.”
Nimiyikowin Thunderchild lives in Calgary. Her cousin told her about the app and once she downloaded it, Thunderchild came across #NativeTikTok, a popular Indigenous hashtag with almost 200 million views.
“I didn’t know there were other natives educating people, and I thought that was really cool,” she said. “I think the first Native TikToker I discovered was Sherry. So I followed her and it started.”
Thunderchild, or Nimiyikowinx2 on the app, says a group chat has been created with only Native TikTokers.
“We have conversations and give each other ideas and that sort of thing,” she told The Tyee. “There are Americans in our group chat as well.”
Thunderchild, who identifies as two-spirited and is only 18, says the platform is an amazing opportunity for Indigenous people to share their cultures and teach others what the education system doesn’t.
“I’ve received so many comments," she said. “I don’t even know how many comments of non-Indigenous people telling me that they’ve learned more about Indigenous culture and Indigenous issues through TikTok than they ever did in school or anywhere else," she said. “It’s amazing.”
Clarissa Prosper, a makeup artist based in London, Ont., says her daughters bugged her to try TikTok. Her handle is UnspokenT.
“They didn’t think I’d blow up, but I did,” she said. Prosper, who is of Plains Cree and Sealteaux descent, takes a practical approach to using the site. She’s been doing makeup for over three years and says the app is a great tool to get her work known by posting the different looks she creates.
For Ticia Johnson, who is from the Gitxsan Nation and lives in Kispiox, B.C., TikTok was a way to deal with the boredom of pandemic quarantine. “Tons of people had actually told me like, ‘Oh, you’re really funny, you’ve got quite a personality, you would be so funny on TikTok,’” she said.
Johnson, who goes by Ticaks on TikTok, said she was nervous about uploading her first video, which was about how girls who live on the reservation flirt, but did it anyway. It blew up and by the next morning she had over a thousand followers.
“My best friend told me, ‘You post one video, it blows up, people follow, you post another video, that blows up and people follow you,’” she said. “I thought I was going to be one of those one-hit wonders, but I posted another video and that one blew up and then people started messaging me and telling me that they liked my videos.”
TikTok was launched in China in 2016 by Zhang Yiming, founder of ByteDance, and hit the United States in late 2018. It features short videos — generally less than a minute — and offers tools to add sounds and music. It has more than 800 million active users.
Johnson says one of the app’s powerful features is it’s “For You” page, which suggests videos based on what you’ve already watched. She loves being able to scroll through the recommendations and see Indigenous people showing off their culture.
“And not just First Nations people, but other people of different ethnicities are on there and they’re posting about their culture,” she said. “I think that it’s really beautiful to see people coming together and commenting on things. For example, when girls post videos in their regalia, you see people of all ethnicities admiring this girl’s regalia.
“I think that’s what I love the most about TikTok,” Johnson said. “Not only does it bring people together, in a certain sense it’s an eyeopener. There are a lot of cultures out there that I never really got to see until I was on TikTok.”
McKay says TikTok is special because the algorithm ensures it puts videos in front of you that you’ll like. “Cause they want to keep you on the app until 5 o’clock in the morning, they want you to be on the app for as long as possible, so they put all of these things in front of you that they think you’re interested in or that they think is going to invoke some type of emotion from you,” she said.
Her content mostly consists of comedy. She says she believes it’s a universal language and a coping mechanism everyone can relate to.
“There was always a comedic anecdote in my household growing up,” she said. “We’re Native and it was almost always a lighthearted view of either growing up and experiencing racism or growing up poor but growing up with a sense of humour, and it’s kind of like ‘if I don’t laugh about it, I’ll cry.’”
Johnson agrees that her way of coping with life is to laugh. “To be honest, it’s usually things that I get mad about or things that hurt my feelings that are the ones that actually turn out really funny,” she said.
She says when she’s had a bad day, it’s better to look at it in hindsight and find something to laugh about.
“I’ll post about it and then other people comment, ‘Oh my god, this is so relatable,’” Johnson said. “A lot of my original content, when it comes to what First Nations people say, all of that has been building up for years, then I just kind of found an outlet there.”
She says her ideas for videos come out of nowhere.
“I’ll be driving and I’ll road rage and I’ll scream at somebody in my own little world,” she says. “And I’m like, ‘Oh my god, that’d be such a funny video.’”
It’s almost therapeutic, she said.
“I didn’t just sit there and cry about it, I sat there and giggled,” Johnson said. “As my dad would say, ‘You turn it into art, you turn into a laugh, like that’s amazing....' One little video that might seem so silly to thousands of people on TikTok actually came directly from where I’m feeling when I’m in my feels in that moment.”
Thunderchild said her videos come from painful experiences in her life. She said she was bullied a lot in elementary school for being Indigenous and she knows a lot of kids are going through the same thing.
“That was really tough, and public embarrassment was a really big thing with teachers,” she says. “There are so many children that are going through hell at home and they don’t ever get that support at school, which also contributes to a super high suicide rate.”
“There’s so many different problems, and that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
Thunderchild said she makes these videos because she knows “how many kids are out there that just feel alone.”
Her mom who worked with the Calgary Board of Education was the inspiration for that approach, she added.
“I think, because she grew up in a white household... and she educated herself on a lot of things,” she said. “She taught me many things so I wouldn’t have to educate myself.”
“Her job was going from school to school and educating the teachers about Native American history,” Thunderchild said. She would also educate teachers on working with Indigenous children given the intergenerational trauma most have experienced.
She’s also inspired by her grandma, who was a professor.
“When it comes to my funny videos, my comedy ones, they come to me,” she said. “I’ll be inspired from non-Native TikToks and kind of add a Native spin to it.”
Johnson said a lot of her inspiration comes from her people as well.
“As a First Nations woman, I have extended family beyond extended family, and I’ve met so many people in the years that I’ve been alive and First Nations people are so colourful,” she said. “When you meet someone who’s been through that much trauma, they can either go one of a few ways — they’re going to be either extremely successful or they’re going to be over the top hilarious or they’re going to be quite introverted and doing their thing, and everybody’s different in their own way.”
Although she started on TikTok because she was bored, Johnson said her success has brought a sense of responsibility. “My main goal with this whole TikTok thing is to direct Native humour from being like, ‘Oh haha, Natives get drunk haha thats funny.’ I don’t want that to be the Native punchline anymore, you know what I mean? I want the Native punchline to be like, Natives are so funny.”
Johnson said she is trying to change the narrative and raise Indigenous issues on the platform.
“As much as I would love all the views and the laughs and stuff like that, my next step is to get more videos with other TikTokers so that we could get our voices heard about things that people don’t talk about,” Johnson said. “I want to get all our Native TikTokers talking about it.”
McKay also wants to change the narrative and is raising issues of skin colour.
“I’m trying to work on it right now, on how to highlight the Natives in the world that are lighter skinned, that don’t look like the stereotypical Native, because we keep feeding into that narrative of this legendary Indian with the feather and the hair. And yeah, that’s beautiful but it’s really harmful to us too.”
McKay said a lot of the hate she has experienced comes from being lighter skinned.
“People would stay stuff like ‘You’re not Native,’” she said. “There are people in Germany or wherever, where they’ve grown up with stereotypes of this Pocahontas-looking person.”
That kind of response “is one of my biggest pet peeves on the app, and a lot of Indigenous people feed into it.”
Michelle Chubb, who’s more commonly known as Indigenous_Baddie, says she often receives hate comments.
“There’s going to be that one group that doesn’t like what you do because they envy what they can’t do,” she said.
She said it’s important to talk about the comments with someone. “You can’t keep it bottled in,” she said. “I usually tell my boyfriend.”
Thunderchild takes an additional step when she’s attacked. “I think the most common one is ‘You lost the war,’ which is just laughable because there was no single war that’s not what happened,” she said.
She blocks those people instantly. “When there are actual people who want to be educated and they have real questions... those are the people that I respond to,” Thunderchild said.
“But the people who just come to my page just to make me feel bad about myself because I’m Native, I'm not going to bother with them because there’s no changing their mind.”