Breaking new ground: How Rebecca Nagle is giving Native Americans a voice with her podcast This Land

Over the last three years Rebecca Nagle has shown just how powerful podcasts can be. Her groundbreaking series This Land has shone a light on Native American issues, stirring debate over land rights, sovereignty and the Indian Child Welfare Act. As the second season of the podcast debuts this month, Nagle, who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, is as passionate and driven as ever – despite the production being hit by Covid-19.

“I actually got Covid while we were making the second season,” she reveals. “The entire production took place during the pandemic, which presented some obstacles. In the past we would go out and interview someone in person or send a reporter to interview them, and this season we did everything on Zoom. It’s been challenging but everyone really pulled it together.”

Driving on Nagle and her team, which includes many Native American crew members, was the knowledge that This Land (produced and distributed by Crooked Media) plays an important role in correcting the way indigenous issues are covered in the United States.

“Less than one per cent of media staff at major news outlets in America are indigenous,” Nagle points out. “What happens as a result of that is a lot of really poor coverage, whether it’s coverage that is factually inaccurate, culturally insensitive or just a case of Native people being left out the story and the conversation entirely.

“I think This Land is groundbreaking in a way in that it’s a mainstream, non-Native media company putting a lot of resources behind indigenous storytelling and reporting.”

Starting the conversation

Season 1 of This Land debuted in June 2019 and covered the United States Supreme Court Case, Sharp vs Murphy, which determined whether Congress disestablished the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation in Oklahoma. The court case reached the highest echelons of the US legal system after a murder in 1999.

After Muscogee (Creek) Nation member Patrick Dwayne Murphy stabbed George Jacobs and left him for dead on the side of the road, Murphy’s public defender argued the murder took place on Muscogee land, meaning the State of Oklahoma had no jurisdiction in the case.

The State argued that the reservation no longer existed because Congress, in 1866, established reservation boundaries for the Muscogee, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole Nations – boundaries that consist of over 19 million acres in eastern Oklahoma.

In what was a major victory for the five tribes and indigenous rights, the Supreme Court ruled last year that, for purposes of the Major Crimes Act, the reservations were never disestablished and is therefore Native American land.

Nagle covered the complicated case every step of the way and, despite having mostly a print journalism background, took to podcasting like a natural – her first stint as a presenter made easier, she says, by her Native American heritage.

“The indigenous community has a strong tradition of storytelling and that’s what I love about the podcast format – at the end of the day it is really storytelling,” she points out. “I think with podcasts you can get a story to unfold for people over time so they can understand it.”

Diving deeper in season 2

For season 2 of This Land, Nagle turns her attention to another complex court case – Brackeen vs Holland. The legal battle involves white Texan couple Jennifer and Chad Brackeen who tried to adopt a Native boy they had fostered. When they were told that, because of the Indian Child Welfare Act, this could not happen and the child should live with a member of his tribe, the Navajo Nation, the Brackeens sued – not only to win custody of the child, but to strike down the federal law.

“Season 2 is an investigation into what happened in that case, but also why this law is under attack and why there is a concerted campaign to strike it down,” explains Nagle. “The second season is very different from the first in that we really had to investigate with this one. We really had to do a deep dive.

“We spoke to over a 100 people and went through over 10,000 pages of court documents because it was a story that hadn’t really been told yet. There is this case that is on its way to the Supreme Court that has huge implications for constitutional law. There are some basic questions about what happened to that case that reporters had not looked into. It took us the better part of a year to unlock the story.”

Throughout the production, Nagle and her team had to think on their feet. The journalist was desperate to interview Jennifer Brackeen but, when that didn’t happen, she found public a blog Brackeen had written and decided to have it narrated on the podcast.

“I drove out to the Brackeens’ home and knocked on their door, went to church with them, but Jennifer politely declined to talk to us for the podcast,” recalls Nagle. “I did my research and found this blog which, in a way, has more information that we would have got in the interview. It’s probably more forthcoming than she would have been with us, so in a funny way it worked out. That’s what you do as a reporter, you just try to get the story in whatever avenue you can.”

For Nagle, the intricate stories of This Land can only be told properly through podcasts. “The story we are covering during this season is so complicated that I don’ t think it would fit into an article,” she points out. “Being able to walk listeners through the story one episode at a time really allows us to tell it in a much more in-depth way.

“That is really the power of podcasting. In a documentary series like this we can spend a lot more time on a topic – more so in the world of online print journalism where a lot articles don’t have that much time with their readers. It’s a really good forum to tackle subjects that are layered. We are past the early upstart days of podcasting and we are into a new season of the genre and I’m excited to see what the future holds.”

Podcasting in a post-Covid world

Nagle believes news organisation will increasingly see the benefits of podcasts and find a way to include the medium when covering stories. She advises, though, that newcomers to podcasting work out what kind of show works best for them.

“Figuring out what it is that you want and what your audience wants – whether that’s a documentary or a news podcast – is a really good first step,” she says. “With This Land we knew that, going into both seasons, our job was to explain these really important legal battles that have broader implications for indigenous people and all people in the US. Podcasting is a way to invite people into a subject matter through stories.”

As the production of the second season of This Land has shown, Covid-19 is a barrier podcasters will have to negotiate in the near future. While it took some getting used to, the pandemic has proved you don’t need a lot of new tech to make a compelling show.

“Having good tech improves listeners’ experience, but it will be interesting to see what happens post-Covid,” Nagle says. “Pre-Covid we were really trying to get people into a studio and get them to talk to professional reporters, and during Covid we did interviews over the phone or Zoom and had people record themselves on their iPhone. There is a lot you can do without getting a lot of equipment. That’s one of the things that’s so exciting about podcasting.”

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