The New Wild West: An interview with Ryan McMahon of Indian & Cowboy

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Photo courtesy of Ryan McMahon

[This post originally appeared on Bello Collective, a newsletter & publication about audio storytelling and the podcast industry.]

By Guest Contributor Liza Yeager 

(AK Note: Liza is one of my incredible students from this semester in my “History and Resistance in Native Representations” class. This is her final project for the course. She is a podcast, radio, and audio story aficionado, interning for NPR Story Lab (as the first ever intern!), and starting her own audio story network called Now Here This, which I highly recommend checking out and listening to a few of the student-produced stories.)

Ryan McMahon is an Anishinaabe comedian, writer, and media maker based out of Treaty #1 territory in Northwestern Ontario, Canada. That’s how he introduces himself. But Ryan is so much busier than that introduction makes him sound.

Ryan hosts two podcasts, Red Man Laughing and Stories From The Land. He also runs Makoons Media Group, and he’s the founder and director of a whole podcast network, Indian & Cowboy. Indian & Cowboy is the world’s only listener-supported Indigenous podcast network, home to eight Native-hosted shows. When I connected with Ryan, he was on tour with Stories From The Land, producing live storytelling shows and workshops in Indigenous communities around Canada. We talked about that tour, the potential of Indigenous podcasting, and how frustrating it is when mainstream networks won’t hit retweet.

Liza: How did you get started with podcasting?

Ryan: Well, I’ve always loved radio. And, you know, I’m not going to say that I listened to NPR every Saturday with my Poppy. It’s not like that. But I grew up listening to radio. At our cabin on the lake for the summers when we would hang out there, or if we were camping, there was always a radio on.

I have a BFA in theater, and when I left theater school, I moved to Toronto to chase my dreams as an actor. At one of these Indigenous arts communities parties I went to, there was this woman named Elaine Bomberry. Up here in Canada she’s an OG of Indigenous arts and culture, and she was running a radio show. I was a twenty-one year old university graduate, thought I was pretty hot stuff. They were looking for volunteers at the radio station, and Elaine cornered me at one of these parties and said, “You should really consider coming to volunteer.” I was such an asshole. I said, “Um, Elaine. Excuse me. I, um, I have a degree in theater. I am an actor. I have no interest in radio.”

And here I am twenty years later. Running a podcasting company. So, I just love it. I love it so much. I’ve been podcasting since 2009. I’ve watched it grow, I’ve watched it crash, I’ve watched it regrow. And we’re just in this really beautiful time right now.

Indian & Cowboy podcasts cover wine & sci-fi, Indigenous filmmaking, strength and healing, and more.

What about audio specifically is useful for you as an Indigenous media maker?

I just think the medium is so exciting. It’s relatively inexpensive to produce; it’s a flexible creative medium that allows us to be publishers, you know? At the end of the day, legacy media does not belong to Indigenous people or people of color. We don’t own these places.

Once in awhile we’re lucky enough if one of us gets hired. And then the one person who gets hired ends up doing all, like, the tragic, sad Indigenous stories. We talk about the diabetes or the poverty or the murder. But we’re never able to celebrate our lives; we’re never able to tell our stories, our reality, reflect our dreams and our hopes.

And, you know, audio and podcasting and creative storytelling are really beautiful mediums to do that.

But maybe more importantly, one of the reasons we chose audio was political. Almost every Indigenous community has a radio station. That is one thing we have. We use radio as sort of our beacon to the world. We call bingo on the radio; we break up with our wives on the radio; we put morning announcements up on the radio; we listen to old-school country on the radio. So all of our content is available to Indigenous and community or campus radio for free. It was a political decision to try to feed into that system.

On the Stories From The Land tour, Ryan has been producing storytelling shows and workshops in Indigenous communities around Canada. He’ll publish a new season of SFTL starting in February. (Photos by Ryan McMahon)

You’re on tour now with Stories From The Land. Could you explain a little bit about the tour and maybe share some standout memories from the last few months?

It’s a live storytelling project and we go from Indigenous community to Indigenous community to invite youth and elders together to remind each other to remember who we are, or who we were, an effort to return to that. And you know, not in a romantic-loincloth-campfire kind of sense, but really looking at Indigenous worldviews and laws and governance and a way that we once lived, using storytelling to remind us of that and to consider how we may live under those auspices today. And it’s been incredible. Last night I just completed show number 25. It’s all a blur. I’m out of underwear; I have no socks. I am sick of breakfast sandwiches at the various fast food joints; I can’t drink any more bad coffee; my boots have a hole in them. I’ve experienced all four seasons while on this trip and I’ve heard some incredible stories.

In Six Nations, which is Mohawk territory, I did a podcasting workshop with a group of young people there. And as I started doing podcasting 101 with them and making a list of gear and things that you need, I started to see these young people look around the table at each other, kind of sideways. And I started paying attention to them, and a note was passed across the table like old-school seventh grade. And I thought, what the heck is going on. And so I just asked, I said, “What’s happening, what’s going on?” And they said, “You know, we didn’t want to interrupt you but we are so excited by this. We’d never heard of — well, we’d heard of podcasting but we didn’t know what podcasting entailed, and it’s so easy. We want to start a Mohawk language podcast.” And I was like, “Holy shit, stop stop stop.” So, we’re working on it. Now we are working on a Mohawk language podcast. Like, this is revolutionary. This is the revolution, is Indigenous people returning to themselves

So my dream, much like in the United States with The Moth or any of these live storytelling shows, is to fill theaters with Indigenous voices and Indigenous stories. It’s time America looks in the mirror to look at its history and to hear from Indigenous people who, by the way, are clearly still here. And a live storytelling show featuring Indigenous voices would be a profound moment for either of our countries.

Indian & Cowboy has been up and running for a few years now. What’s been challenging?

I want to quit every day. It’s so hard. We’re fighting for listeners; we’re trying to attract good, ethical investors that can invest a little bit of money into the company. And it’s a struggle.

The podcasting space is a very white dude-bro kind of space — and a bunch of dudes can turn on some microphones and talk some shit but that’s not what podcasting is to me. The potential of podcasting is so much greater than that.

And, yeah, it’s hard because even where you get these panels once in a while at a podcasting festival or a conference where it’s like “podcasters of color” or “minorities in podcasting,” there are never Indigenous people on those panels, ever. And, you’re holding your conference in Indigenous territories all the time. So there’s a fundamental disconnect there.

That’s where I’ve reached out to the mainstream to say look, you don’t have to give a shit, but we’re trying really hard here. You know, can you just fucking retweet this for me?

Like, you just held a fucking conference on minorities in podcasting. Here’s our website. We just put out something awesome; we just celebrated ten Indigenous women’s voices in podcasting. You know, Radiotopia, can you just retweet? No, you can’t? That’s how frustrating it is. By the way — I don’t know anyone from Radiotopia. I’m sure they’re nice.

But, we’re in a little invisible part of the internet where Indian & Cowboy lives and, again, we’re so far so good. We’re really happy with our work and our output. But I see the potential and I see where this could go and I’m encouraged and frustrated at the same time.

When you think about the potential, what does that look or sound like?

Really it’s about resurgence. If you’re Indigenous, everything you do is political. And we just need to get over that hump. We’re really close. There’s this giant boulder we’re holding. Is that Camus? Is it Sisyphus? Those guys are asked to push this boulder up a hill? Well, it’s the same metaphor with colonialism. We’re holding this giant boulder. And, you know, there’s a whole bunch of us holding it. And our ancestors before us, they were holding it. And every once in a while the boulder rolls backwards, and it kills a few of us. And then we gotta push it back up to where we were. Eventually we hope to push it over the top of this hill, and then the boulder of colonialism rolls back down and we’re free. And that’s how the creative space feels.

We’ve been doing creative work for the last 200 years. We’ve survived at the hands of genocide. We’ve lost our land, our young people are killing themselves in record numbers, our women are five times more likely to go missing our murdered, and yet we fight on, every day. Right?

Like, we’re so close to breaking through in so many ways. And in some respects we are; we have some artists that have broken through. But even those breakthrough artists, relatively speaking, they’re not known or respected or valued the way they should be. And that’s where we call on our allies, that’s where we call on these mainstream spaces. And I’ll just go back to it, like, Gimlet or Radiotopia, those that have the tools to invest in these stories, to invest in this energy, they should be! Because there’s great reward waiting for everyone that supports Indigenous peoples resurgence.

But yeah, the future of it looks political. It looks like a celebration. It’s loud, it’s nuanced, it empowers those in our community that have been disempowered the longest: Indigenous women and two-spirit people. It empowers our entire community; it tells the world who we are. And it tells us who we are. I think at its best, podcasting can do all those things.

And that’s why it’s Indian & Cowboy. It’s the new Wild West. The internet and this medium is the new Wild West for us, except, there’s no — John Wayne is dead, if you will.

It’s so exciting to hear about what you’re doing. Also, I’ve really appreciated having Indian & Cowboy podcasts on my listening cycle this year.

Don’t tell people about the ones you like, ’cause once everyone starts liking it then podcasts change. When they really get lots of traction, the hosts change and the sounds change a little bit. I don’t know, it’s weird. So don’t tell too many people about us.

Just kidding, tell everyone about us.

(This interview has been edited and condensed.)

Liza Yeager (@liza_yeager) is the co-founder of Now Here This and was the first-ever intern with NPR’s Story Lab. She’s a senior at Brown University.