Q&A: Rebecca Nagle and the Podcast “This Land”

A 20-year-old murder case could determine whether Oklahoma’s Indian nations have jurisdiction over their own citizens. Through the art of telling stories, Rebecca Nagle shows all of us what’s at stake.

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Rebecca Nagle has a modest request for people who would like to support American Indians.

Pay attention.

“When Native rights are in front of the Supreme Court or being debated in Congress, few people are watching, and it allows those who are working against us to face zero consequences,” says Nagle, a citizen of Cherokee Nation and a resident of Oklahoma.

Those words conclude the eight-part podcast, “This Land,” which Nagle produced with Crooked Media earlier this year. At the center of the audio series is a 20-year-old murder case that hinges on whether Congress ever disestablished the Oklahoma Indian reservations that were created by federal treaty.

Nagle, a writer and activist, unravels the complex threads of a U.S. Supreme Court case Carpenter v. Murphy, which was argued in November 2018. With each strand of the case, there’s a rich story that both captivates and educates the listener about the legal relationship between Indian nations and the U.S. government.

The title “This Land” evokes the best known song of another Oklahoman, Woody Guthrie. While the podcast never mentions the song explicitly, “This Land” turns Guthrie’s simple declarations into questions: Who decided that “this land was made for you and me”? And who gets included when we sing that song?

If, like me, you didn’t pay close enough attention to Carpenter v. Murphy the first time around, we have another chance. In an unexpected turn, the Supreme Court in June declined to render a decision in Carpenter v. Murphy. They ordered lawyers to return to Washington, D.C., to re-argue the case next term.

I talked to Nagle about the podcast’s impact and what comes next. The conversation is edited a bit for clarity and brevity.

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Tim: First of all, how did the podcast come about?

Rebecca: I wrote an opinion piece about the Murphy case and a media company that makes podcasts, called Crooked Media, read the opinion piece and then approached me and asked me if I wanted to turn it into a podcast. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/11/28/half-land-oklahoma-could-be-returned-native-americans-it-should-be/

Tim: You picked the case apart in ways that got the discussion into Cherokee Nation history, your own personal and family history, different issues in American Indian law, language, and more. Did you have a sense of how the series would unfold when you started? How much was predetermined?

Rebecca: I think like all things in life, we started with a plan and things shifted. So I think the main elements of the story were there. We knew that we had to cover the origins of the case and how it got to the Supreme Court. I think from the beginning we knew we wanted an episode that was showing Oklahoma’s arguments, but also breaking them down. It was really important to address the fears about the shifts in jurisdiction that were really, frankly, overblown. … So I think that a lot of those ingredients were there from the beginning.

Then it shifted during the process for what kind of narrative arc we were going to use to put it all together, to really take the listener through what is a lot of information and a lot of history. But in a way that holds their attention and is, at the end of the day, also teaching through storytelling. So giving all that crucial information but through a story.

Tim: You have a point of view in those stories and come at it, in some ways, as an advocate. But you’re also talking to people on various sides of the story and with different perspectives and trying to paint a picture that is not skewed. In fact, your point of view made it easier to follow the story. So I’m just curious about whether you considered this journalism.

Rebecca: Oh, yeah, definitely. I do freelance writing, but my writing leading up to the podcast was a combination of a lot of opinion pieces where I do write in first person, but also reported pieces where I’m covering breaking events happening in Indian Country or broader issues. One of the things as a journalist that I’m passionate about is taking things like the Murphy case that are dense and complicated and have a lot of legalese that most people don’t understand and telling it in a way that’s accessible. I think it’s really important, particularly for Indian Country, for the laws to be accessible because it governs so much of our lives. So both as a journalists and as a storyteller, that’s something that I’m really passionate about.

Rebecca Nagle interviews John Ross, who works as a translator for Cherokee Nation. Ross grew up speaking only Cherokee and was physically punished for it when he started school, he told Nagle. Nagle and Ross are part of a Cherokee language revitalization program. (Photo courtesy of Crooked Media / Fire Thief)

Tim: I’m curious about the audience you have in mind for the podcast, because there’s a lot of background that you include in the stories that would allow somebody like me – a 57-year-old white guy – to connect and understand. You must have been thinking about a broader audience than Native Americans. How do you feel about how well you pulled that off?

Rebecca: I think the goal of the podcast is definitely for it to be accessible to a non-native audience. I think that one of the challenges I have as a journalist [is writing] an online article where your word limit is 1,000 words. So much of the time, for people to really understand our present day issues, there’s a lot of history that goes into it. It’s unlike other parts of the United States history where people understand, I think, the broad strokes of American history. When it comes to Native history, there’s just a lot of gaps in people’s knowledge. So for people to fully grasp what’s happening today, a lot of times as a writer, I have to fill those gaps in. One thing I thought was great about the format of a podcast is that we really had that much time with listeners to go deep and to go into the history of not just what are the present day stakes, but “how did we get here?”

I think what I was trying to achieve in the podcast was to create something that was accessible to a non-native audience and brought to light maybe a lot of issues that they didn’t know about. At the same time it was something that Native listeners could relate to and see themselves in and feel good about having that level of representation, which I think often we lack.

Tim: What about the reaction you’ve gotten to the podcast?

Rebecca: The reactions I’ve gotten online and on social media have been really positive. I think a lot of people, even though this case has huge stakes outside of Indian Country, it wasn’t getting a ton of coverage. So I think a lot of people found out about the case who didn’t know about it. I hope that we were also able to educate people about other critical issues in Indian Country. My goal moving forward is that more people are paying attention to the Murphy case now that it still is something that the Supreme Court is weighing now that we don’t know their decision. But also that more people are engaged in Native stories because I think there aren’t a lot of examples of our stories being told in the mainstream media. I hope this is an example that shows other media outlets that it’s not only really needed but something that audiences want.

Tim: Well, that’s a fascinating point to me, because we have many of the same thoughts about rural America broadly and its representation in media. Native issues are different, of course. But many of the same kind of broad strokes about how rural people are portrayed in media feel a little familiar.

Rebecca: I think that plays into it. I think that a lot of the media market, most news outlets and television shows and places where we get our news, even companies like Facebook and Twitter, are located on the coasts. I think our news can be very “coastal,” focused on what’s happening on the coast. Then those of us who live in fly-over states, the laws and the policies that are impacting our communities often don’t get the same coverage. Because I would say the places where the Murphy case has regularly been covered have been local Oklahoma papers like the Tulsa World. Then Indian outlets like Indian Country Today or Indianz.com have been following the case.

Outside of that, [there has been little,] even though this case will have a huge impact and means a lot for the tribe. I think is a historic case in a lot of ways, like any treaty case it’s historic, but it’s really important in the current Supreme Court. [Will] the Supreme Court continue to uphold their treaties and set that precedent that treaties are still an obligation that the United States needs to uphold to our tribes? I think that the fact that it’s a case that is taking place in Oklahoma plays into the fact that when the oral arguments were up … there were a couple short articles, but I think there was an article I wrote and then there was an article in the Atlantic. But we didn’t see a lot of in-depth coverage of this case during this session of the Supreme Court, like we saw of other cases that were high stakes.

Tim: Right. I hope the answer is yes, but will there be another season?

Rebecca: Yeah, that’s a good question. So what will definitely happen is some update episodes. So when we do finally hear from the Supreme Court and know what the decision is, we are definitely going to keep listeners updated and report on that. So people can subscribe on the podcast feed or follow me on Twitter or go to thislandpodcast.com to get those updates.

Tim: In the podcast you describe the forces that are trying to undo the treaty law and sovereignty and legislation like the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. Does the motivation for those challenges come down to money?

Rebecca: Yeah. When it comes to ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act), which is what the last episode of the podcast was about – I do think that the motivation for the attack on ICWA is really money. You can follow most of the people who are either funding this attack or the lawyers who are actually fighting on it. You don’t have to dig that deep to find them also working on behalf of the gaming industry or having ties to oil and gas. Those two industries would see an economic windfall if they were able to undo federal Indian law.

Tim: You ended the series with a call for people to pay attention. I went back to re-listen to the first episode, and you make the same point. Pay attention. Obviously, that’s very important to you.

Rebecca: I think that what is consistent across the board when we’re fighting for issues in Indian Country is that a lot of times we’re fighting for those issues in isolation and in an echo chamber where it’s just Native people who were talking about this really important treaty case. Or it’s just Native people who are talking about the attack on the Indian Child Welfare Act. Outside of Indian Country and outside of Native media, very few people are paying attention. So I think it’s really important for our issues to get onto that national stage because it, of course, affects policy. … We also have an issue where even lawmakers and sometimes judges aren’t that informed. So yeah, I definitely think that fighting and visibility is a really key component to be able to achieve native rights. So that’s something as a journalist that I’m really passionate about and one of the reasons why I was so excited about the opportunity of the podcasts.

Tim: So, what are you working on now?

Rebecca: That’s a really good question. My day job is actually working with language revitalization for my tribe. I’m like a language student basically. I have a long ways to go, but I’m learning how to speak Cherokee and to be conversational. Then I’m continuing to write, and we’re going to be bringing more episodes of the podcast.

We don’t know when the final decision is going to come out. It will be re-argued and then decided next term.

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