Bannock with homemade jam, thanks to Ossie’s mother, Liz Dawson – Photo © Ossie Michelin

 

An interview with Ossie Michelin

Introduction

Telling Our Twisted Histories is a popular podcast series focusing on all things First Nations, Inuit and Métis, co-produced by Terre Innue and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in 2021. Created and hosted by Indigenous artists, the series reclaims Indigenous history by exploring words whose meanings have been twisted by centuries of colonization.

Based on the award-winning series in French, Laissez nous raconter : L’Histoire crochie, which was launched with Radio-Canada a year earlier, each podcast is developed around a single word that holds particular meaning for Indigenous people in Canada and is ripe for discussion. Episodes cover themes ranging from “Reconciliation,” “Obey,” “Pocahontas,” and “Savage” to traditional flat bread, “Bannock.”  The podcasts will be available in both languages at the McCord Museum in Montréal, as part of its permanent exhibition Indigenous Voices of Today.

Montréal Serai’s Kerry McElroy interviewed writer and director Ossie Michelin this past fall.

 

Kerry: It’s a pleasure to get to know part of the team behind the fabulous podcast Telling Our Twisted Histories. Could you tell us about your role in the project?

Ossie: I was working as a researcher for a television project when Francine Allaire, the executive producer of the original French version called Laissez-nous raconter, called me and said: “Okay, we’re making a podcast, we’re doing it in French, but we might make an English version. And if we do, you should come on board.” That sounded like a really neat idea.

And then it was right before Christmas 2020 when I was given the transcripts of all the different interviews. I got to listen to a couple of the French episodes to have an idea of the format. As soon as I started listening to it and heard what everybody had to say, I knew we had something really special in our hands. It’s just really powerful and approachable at the same time.

The French version had taken off! It won a number of awards. It was the top francophone podcast in Canada and the top podcast of the Paris podcast festival. It was doing really, really well and we had over 20 hours of English interviews. So it felt like a natural fit for the CBC to come on board after Radio-Canada had sponsored it.

The words and format were already figured out before they brought me on, so I just started listening to the different interviews about the different subjects, 20-something hours of tapes! I did four of the interviews myself, but the rest were all already done. So we had to select the best clips and then create the dialogue for the interview, for our hosts.

Kerry: Can you tell us about the host and how she was selected?

Ossie: Yeah. Kaniehti:io Horn, from Kahnawake, is our host. She is an amazing Kanien’kéha:ka actress and a really cool person. She was my first choice for a host. She’s done a number of things and is just a really solid person. They checked in with her and she was all excited to do it.

She’d already been doing some voiceover work for audiobooks, and she had just had a baby, so she was happy to get work that would allow her to stay at home. She brought so much of herself to the podcast, and so much of her humour! She was just really comfortable in the role.

Kerry:  Some people are naturals.

Ossie: Indigenous people like to tease. That’s kind of how we soft teach things to people, you know? Just tease ’em a little bit about it. I told her from the beginning: Imagine someone you know, who wants to learn more, and you’ve got to give them a little bit of a tease. Show them that, ok, it’s a serious thing but it’s not something you need to be serious about all the time.

It can be relaxed, and we really made sure that we would get some of that humour and some of that teasing into the podcast. And I think Kaniehti:io pulled it off well. We had lots of great funny moments… and lots of little cheeky moments, too.

Kerry: That speaks to a question I had about what do you hope for Indigenous people to get out of listening, and non-Indigenous people? You know, is it an educational project?

Indigenous people who are listening might find this sense of community. But then when you’re speaking to a broader audience, are you hoping to get people to see things differently? Maybe see some very problematic things, or just see history in a different way? And on your website there is this idea of “decolonizing our minds.” Could you speak to those two things?

Ossie: Well, for Indigenous people, I think that this is a chance to hear ourselves, for our voices to be heard in the big national media discussion. But it’s also a chance to get to know our neighbours… Because as an Indigenous person, when I hear about somebody who is from an area that’s really similar to mine, I want to know: What do they do? What do they hunt? What do they fish? What do they eat? What are their seasons? Because we’re not a monolith, right?

There are hundreds of different Indigenous groups within Canada. And, we all have different relationships with the land, with the country, with each other. Talking like this is a chance to show the variety… but also of opinions. And you see a lot of overlap when there are things in common as well. I think it really shows just how different but similar we are.

One of my favourite things about this as well, for anybody listening, is that we don’t have any experts. We don’t have any experts telling you how you should think or how you should feel. It’s really just someone saying, “This is what I think about this word. This is how it makes me feel, what comes to mind. This is how we’ve adapted the word, or this is how I want to see the word changed.” And that’s it. It’s just somebody sharing their experiences. I think that’s really powerful and that really connects with people. Because you’re hearing directly from folks: how does this particular word impact you in your life?

Kerry: Right. So it’s a diversity of answers as well.

Ossie: Exactly. But there’s nobody there saying, “You shouldn’t say that word, that word’s a bad word. You know what I mean? It’s just “Hey, this is how I feel.” And then it’s up to the listener to do what they will with it. It’s really kind of conversational.

Kerry: What has been one or some of your most memorable episodes?

Ossie: Well, the first episode is on the word “discovery.” I think that’s a really great place to start off. All of these words were chosen to elicit a reaction from an Indigenous person. And if you ever wanted to see an entire room full of Indigenous people roll their eyes, just go say the word “discovery” (laughing).

Kerry: The list also includes “Pocahontas,” right?

Ossie: Yeah, the Pocahontas episode did really well. It was very interesting, because we wanted to let people know the actual history of Pocahontas, then hear from Indigenous women about being called Pocahontas. And what does that mean? You know, the history of excluding women’s voices from the historical record.

Also, there’s the family names episode, which is probably my personal favourite. That’s the one where we hear from different Indigenous people about how they got their last names. Sometimes you find out it’s an Indigenous name, or the name was given to people by a priest. Or some people’s last names have changed because somebody spelled it wrong – like a Hudson’s Bay manager, or a priest or something. Or Canada.

Kerry: Like a clerical error. And then that became the name.

Ossie: Yeah, exactly.

Kerry: How do you balance trying to keep a sense of humour and lightness with heavy subject matters?

Ossie: Well, a lot of the subject matter is heavy. That said, it’s part of our lives – a heavy part of our lives – but it doesn’t define who we are. If something does define who we are, it’s our humour. And our humour is how we connect with each other, but it’s also sort of a survival mechanism to a certain extent. I think that having this humour all throughout it helps people to kind of process. It has to do with what I was saying before about the teasing. It kind of helps you to understand and to process. And it breaks the tension. It breaks the awkwardness, you know? It makes people more receptive, if they’re smiling while hearing it.

Each episode is only 20 to 25 minutes long, so it’s easily digestible. We didn’t want to end off a podcast with people feeling defeated. We wanted listeners to finish it saying, “Oh, I have a lot to think about now.” And I think we really did that.

To fairly portray ourselves as Indigenous people, we just had to include all aspects of it. Just because we’re talking about a heavy subject, it doesn’t mean we don’t still feel joy. And that’s something we really need to get across. I think it came across pretty well.

Kerry: That’s so interesting. I’m working on a magazine series about trauma work. I started it thinking, this is going to be depressing. And instead I found it exactly like what you just said: that people find joy in doing this kind of work or they wouldn’t do it. There’s always either growth in it or there’s humour or there’s evolution. There’s always some beauty in that as well.

Ossie: Yeah. I don’t want people to think that we’re defined by our problems. If you go into any Indigenous community you’re going to hear laughter. That’s just part of who we are.

Kerry: Right. And music and culture…

Ossie: Yep. All those things that make us human.

Kerry: That’s a nice lead-in to the fact that this issue is focused on food – what food means to us socially, issues around food, culture, political and social ramifications. So I’d really love to give some extra attention to the “food word” episode series of the podcast. Can we talk about bannock? Do you know why it’s called bannock?

Ossie: Right, so bannock has always been special. It’s a type of bread that is made with just four ingredients: flour, salt, water, and baking powder. It became a staple for Indigenous people because it was all simple, cheap ingredients. No ingredients that would spoil. And you could carry it on your back in a sack. It could be cooked under fire, even under sand. And there’s also fry bread, which is a fried version of it.

For the name, I’ve heard it’s Scottish. Maybe from Gaelic.

Kerry: How does it differ from bread that non-Indigenous people might think of? It sounds to me kind of like southern American biscuits?

Ossie: Not quite like that, because there’s no fat. If you fry it then it’s called fry bread, but originally bannock didn’t have any fat (or anything that could spoil quickly). I’ve heard British people say that bannock is similar to a scone.

Kerry: I learned a lot from listening to that episode of the podcast. How does bannock represent the encounter between settlers and Indigenous people? It seems to be a dish that elicits a love-hate relationship in Indigenous traditions…

Ossie: Well, it’s definitely a staple and many even consider it a traditional food for Indigenous homes and communities. But introduced by the Hudson’s Bay Company, they say. And it’s also very heavy, all carbohydrates, not really a healthy everyday food.

Kerry: There seems to be this tension around bannock, then, as a traditional Indigenous comfort and family food, but one with a colonial legacy of rations and starvation. One woman in the episode said she considers it a “sad” dish. And another man talks about the HBC in the episode – the Hudson’s Bay Company. What’s the wordplay there?

Ossie: The Hungry Belly Company! I had heard that before, right.

Kerry: And can you talk about the “four white foods,” the four “white man’s foods”?

Ossie: As one of the interview subjects describes it, their bannock is made from four white foods, like you say, four foods the white man brought: sugar, flour, salt and grease. So now it does get talked about in current times as a health hazard, as part of the obesity epidemic. But you know, we’ve had bannock for hundreds of years, and the obesity epidemic only for some decades. So it’s complicated.

Kerry: Some in the episode definitely repeat how bread wasn’t an Indigenous tradition. They say “it was never our food,” and “we were healthy before.” In one section, a man says, “bannock came to kill us,” but then right after, a woman counters, “I like bannock!”

Ossie: That’s a brother and sister, being interviewed.

(Laughing)

Kerry: So she was kind of putting him in check a little bit! More of the diversity of opinions in the community. In fact, it’s a good example of what you’ve talked about, that you chose not to preach or take positions on the words in the series. No experts in the show, but humour. Contradicting voices, one right after the other, with humour.

Ossie: And also we didn’t want to judge anyone with this episode. Everything in moderation, right? if you want to have some bannock, have some. We should maybe think of bannock like birthday cake. It’s not something you can or should eat every day, but it is a part of our culture, and we do love it and it’s comforting. So the idea is “have some, it’s not going to kill you.”

Kerry: But at the same time, conversations in the community about cutting back on bannock are part of bigger conversations and movements among Indigenous people to encourage one another, saying “decolonize our plates.” Can you speak to that? In the episode, people say “we used to know how to eat from the earth.” They talk about the three sisters — corn, beans, squash. What does “decolonize the plate” look like?

Ossie: The foods most easily accessible to us aren’t always as healthy as our traditional food sources. A return to more healthy diets is being encouraged in response to the obesity epidemic in Indigenous communities. But really, it’s not a hard sell to get Indigenous people to eat our traditional foods. They are usually our favourite foods, anyway. We need more access to healthy foods to reconnect with them.

Kerry: Right. I think the food episode is one of the ones most richly woven together in terms of how historical and current cultures intertwine and are complicated.

Ossie: Thanks!

Kerry: Can you give us a little tease? If there is a second series, what’s another word you plan on exploring, or a concept you want to deal with?

Ossie: I don’t think I can say that much. But I’d like to look at the word “cousin.” If anybody knows me, they know that I have hundreds of cousins. In Indigenous communities, the term is going to be a bit looser than in settler society. A cousin is just basically a relative. It would be an exploration of Indigenous kinship through the word “cousin.” If we have another season, I’d like to do that one.

Kerry: Is there anything else you’d like to say about content, past or future experiences, reception – anything at all?

Ossie: Oh, just that these are really big, complex subjects. And if you’re thinking, “I don’t know where to begin, I don’t know how to enter into this conversation,” the podcast is a really good place to start. One of the pieces of advice I always give to people if they ask how they can learn more about Indigenous people is, “Just listen to their public conversations. Go follow people on Twitter and social media and see what they’re saying amongst themselves.” This podcast is an example of that, come to light.

There are these big, complex conversations going on. Where do you start? Well, let’s try with a word, and then see.

 

Telling Our Twisted Histories was the Apple Music Canada Editor’s Pick in 2021, and was Canada’s most listened-to podcast at various times in 2021. It can be found, as Ossie Michelin kindly explains, “anywhere you get your podcasts”: on the CBC website and Listen app, Spotify, and Apple Music. It is available in French under the title Laissez-nous raconter : L’Histoire crochie on the Radio-Canada website and Ohdio app, Spotify and Apple music.

Starting on May 31, 2022, Montréal’s McCord Museum will be featuring this podcast series in English and French as part of its permanent exhibit, Indigenous Voices of Today: Knowledge, Trauma, Resilience / Voix autochtones : Savoir, trauma, resilience.

 

Ossie Michelin on the banks of the Koksoak River in Nunavik, QC – Photo © Malaya Qaunirq Chapman

 

More on Ossie Michelin

Besides his writing and his work as director of Telling Our Twisted Histories, Ossie Michelin is an award-winning photographer and photojournalist, who is now branching out into the growing field of Virtual Reality. One of his photos shot during a police raid in New Brunswick in 2013 was awarded best image in the National Museum for Human Rights. His photo of a Mi’kmaq woman kneeling before a line of police officers at an anti-fracking protest in 2013, holding an eagle feather in the air, won best human rights photo award and was featured at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

Ossie is also a documentary filmmaker. His short film Evan’s Drum is available on the NFB/ONF website.