Across the world, Indigenous content creators are finding new ways to step into the spotlight and earn a living online.
From TikTok to NFTs, gaming to video, digital channels are creating new opportunities to showcase their culture and talent while meeting the insatiable demand for high-quality content.
So how do you find new audiences and opportunities as an Indigenous content creator? We asked an influencer and an artist to share some insights into their success.
Why everyone’s talking TikTok
In December 2021, TikTok surpassed Google and Facebook as the world’s most popular web domain for the first time, “challenging the global internet order.”
Clearly, the short-form, highly-shareable, rapid-fire videos cannot be underestimated. Trendy, spontaneous and authentic, the fastest-growing social media giant has become a first choice for millions of different content creators trying to build their brand and develop sustainable media careers.
Indigenous content creators in particular are blowing up on the platform, and are finding a new, very receptive audience. According to PBS, there have been more than 3.4 billion views of the #NativeTikTok hashtag and 605.5 million views on #IndigenousTikTok.
The best part of #NativeTikTok is the diversity and range of expertise shown by these creators:
- Teacher Xavier Watso (@watso_) shares Abenaki language classes
- Throat singer Shina Nova (@shinanova) showcases Inuit traditions, politics and practices
- Deanne Hupfield (@deannehupfield) teaches Powwow Dancing and Regalia making
Sherry Mckay, known as @sherry.mckay online, is an Indigenous content creator and mother of four from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her path to performing for more than half a million followers on TikTok was an unconventional one. She started out studying law enforcement before switching into creative communications, journalism, film and media production.
In 2019, she heard about a new social network.
“When I discovered TikTok and all of these in-app capabilities with editing [and] music, I was like, in my glory,” Mckay recalls. At the time, she didn’t see any other Indigenous content or creators on the platform, which motivated her to jump in.
“There was no representation,” she says, so she focused on Indigenous comedy.
Mckay convinced her daughter to teach her how to use the app, and started making videos.
In the early days, she had to advocate for herself as a “light-skinned” Indigenous person, debunking Hollywood stereotypes, having conversations about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and 2-Spirit People (MMIWG2S). Then, eventually, “it kind of just blew up.”
What Mckay learned about her audience is that some of her most viral videos have nothing at all to do with Indigenous content.
“When I discovered that those were the videos that would go viral — like, über viral… like getting 11 million views viral — I knew that I was limiting myself by only focusing on Indigenous comedy, content, [and] awareness,” she says.
Today, her feed is a mix of comedy, social commentary, activism, parenting videos and a hugely endearing unboxing segment called Sherry’s Friend Mail Friday. She’s also parlaying the humor that’s developed over TikTok into a sitcom she’s writing and pitching about modern Indigenous life.
@sherry.mckay My Boss is such a beyotch 🤣#selfemployed #myownboss #norestforthewicked ♬ Working Bitch – Ashnikko
Opportunities come with experience
As far as the business side of TikTok goes, knowledge is power. Mckay remembers a time when she didn’t know the difference between a social media campaign, a sponsorship opportunity, and a brand ambassadorship.
“What I learned, though, is that it’s okay to reach out to others who are doing those things and ask them questions,” she says. “Chances are, they will share it with you.”
Before sponsorships and ad revenue, her first real gig was as an emcee at a wedding — and she was paid in beaded earrings. Today, Mckay works with a talent agent who helps her to negotiate deals, deliverables, and deadlines.
“A huge part of my struggle [was that I wouldn’t know] how much to charge… that is the hardest part in the beginning because a lot of people will take advantage of you.”
She advises digital creatives to surround themselves with others in their industry.
In November, 2021, Mckay got to see the benefits of building community first hand as an advisor with the TikTok Accelerator for Indigenous Creators (TTAIC) — an online training program launched by the National Screen Institute designed to empower Indigenous content creators to grow their presence and gain skills on and off the platform.
The difficult part of being a mentor to the next generation is that “everyone has different challenges and obstacles,” says Mckay. But she suggests that digital creators find ways to protect themselves: filtering certain words, finding moderators to control the chat, and considering their digital footprint.
She stresses the importance of being mindful “that there are people out there from every walk of life on this app, from every corner of the world… if you [unintentionally] hurt a group of people, you need to be accountable for that [and] address it.”
This awareness should also extend to business campaigns, she says, although Mckay has found this to be a slippery slope.
“As an Indigenous person, there is a little bit of a struggle in terms of monetizing your platform,” she admits. “If you are someone who shares your platform as an advocate, or shares advocacy work and you monetize in some way, shape, or form… people don’t like that.”
Mckay thinks it’s time to get rid of “that stigma that you’re a sellout [since] this is such a new industry and we’re just trying to figure things out.”
“I’m all about representation: accurate, Indigenous representation,” she says. “When I see someone doing an ad and they’re Indigenous, I’m up in the comment section cheering them on. I encourage other people to do that, too.”
Being forced online during the pandemic created new opportunities for 23-year-old Anishinaabe artist Quinn Hopkins, also known online as @IndigitalETH.
Working in collaboration with the computer, artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms and generative adversarial networks (GANZ), the Ontario College of Art and Design University student, who is based in Toronto, Ontario, began working in earnest creating augmented reality (AR) art on blockchain technology called non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which exploded in 2021.
Last year, Hopkins sold Indigital Woodland Experiment n001, a 3D piece of digital art on the NFT marketplace Rarible. Today, he’s working with two other marketplaces, SuperRare and Foundation, to create more of this art for future generations since, as he puts it, “I will be a future ancestor.”
In part two of his NFT series, he asks: Do Androids smudge with electric sage? His futuristic depiction of digital rock paintings seem to breathe with life above a rocking canoe in choppy waters.
“I have this theory that this is all spiritual in some way,” Hopkins explains. “You’re connecting with the elements that are originally from the earth and have been formed into this computer and the energy flowing through the computer. Then, through our ingenuity, that is being converted into new forms of art.”
“There’s this whole concept of metaverses, digital worlds and digital land, so where does my Indigenous worldview and perspective come in? Where can it reveal itself in this new territory?”
Hopkins says his ultimate mission is to “decolonize crypto” and find “ways to put money into Indigenous peoples’ hands and show them that there is this safe space [where] you can generate some income.”
“Crypto is owned by the people,” he says, “it’s not connected to any country or sovereign nation; it’s a publicly-owned currency [that] opens up a lot of opportunities for decolonization.”
In a medium and socio-tech-art movement that still feels very new and fresh, he also works to build community bonds beneath the hype. Hopkins set up a Discord server to educate his peers about NFTs and to establish space for Indigenous practitioners to exchange and share new ways to earn a living.
“It’s a fair, equitable space,” he says of NFT marketplaces. “There are [fewer] gatekeepers. It’s more of an artist-straight-to-consumer economy.”
Artist royalties, a main feature of the NFT art market, is a whole different model for selling creative work. One thing Hopkins is trying to teach those entering this space is to “just sell lots of work for pretty cheap. You’re guaranteed to make more income if you start to generate secondary sales, which I didn’t realize at first.”
Accessibility is another appealing facet of this market, he adds: You can reach a wider audience and help generate value for your collectors.
“There’s this idea that you can make your collectors money if your art continues to grow in value, which will attract more collectors and it gets this ball rolling,” Hopkins says. “The new thing is that your collectors become partners… They’re invested [and] you can use that to your advantage.”
Old skills for new worlds
The transition from digital creator to entrepreneur is a challenging business adventure no matter the medium. On top of working with specialized skills, in niche marketplaces, and across social platforms, digital creators still contend with the more traditional business aspects of monetizing art and content.
This means marketing, engagement with funders, sponsors, or collectors, and growing an audience. It also means becoming a master storyteller, showcasing creativity and authenticity.
“[What] I’m trying to stick in people’s heads is that your follower count isn’t important,” advises Mckay. “Try your hardest not to get obsessed with numbers. Figure out what kind of content you want to make and the messages that you want to share.”
“The platform [you] have is special, regardless of how many people are watching… the content [you] create, is a gift [you’re] giving.”
As for Hopkins, his advice for those looking to break into the business of digital art came back around to building up a community: “[Success] will come from your engagement, social networking [and] your ability to market yourself and tell a good story that people can relate to.”