The average person can study just about anything on YouTube, but that doesn’t mean they’ll get accurate information from real experts. As a Native professor of Indigenous and American Indian Studies, I would say this is especially true of YouTube content devoted to Native culture and history. When I search for educational resources to share with my students to generate class discussions, I inevitably come across channels that have no business speaking on Native socio-cultural issues.
Without giving these channels more recognition than they deserve, I’ll simply describe their content as annoying, irresponsible, and reckless. Apparently, many YouTubers think Native people are nothing more than side characters in a make-believe world of aliens, unexplained mysteries, and outlandish conspiracy theories. Or if content is grounded in reality, Native people are ignored in favor of non-Native “authorities.”
It’s alarming to see how much misinformation can be shared without any accountability — given that portraying Native people like this doesn’t appear to violate YouTube’s misinformation policies or its community guidelines — especially when our communities are already so frequently misunderstood. (Mashable asked YouTube for clarity about how its misinformation policies and community guidelines relate to content about Native people, but didn’t receive an answer.)
Fortunately, there are channels run by actual Native people, with credible connections to their community, who speak the language and know a lot about the traditions. You just have to know where to look. However, there are also more than 500 different tribal nations within the colonial borders of the United States, and I can’t cover them all. Indeed, many of them may not even have a YouTube channel. That’s why I’m recommending the five YouTube accounts below as credible channels that give people a reliable starting point for learning more about Native culture, philosophy, and traditional outlooks.
In 2017, Shane Brown filmed his father Wally Brown, a Navajo elder and historian, discussing their traditional interpretations of the solar eclipse that year. Shane posted the video to his Facebook page; by the following day, it had gone viral, with hundreds of thousands of views. The father-and-son duo realized the importance of creating educational resources for younger Navajo people interested in learning about their culture. So Shane created the YouTube channel Navajo Traditional Teachings and uploaded their first video, “Wally talks about what the eclipse means to Navajo people.” Today, the channel has 184,000 subscribers.
The Browns believed their efforts could help repair language and culture loss, which are consequences of so-called Indian boarding schools where Native children were forcibly assimilated into white American culture during the 19th and 20th centuries. They also hoped to correct half-truths shared about the Navajo worldview by non-Native anthropologists over the years. Wally Brown does a good job of this when he discusses Navajo perspectives on corn pollen, Navajo sweat lodges, traditional Navajo marriage, and the composition of the stars. In one video titled “Kokopelli,” the elder Brown corrects misconceptions about the popular Navajo figure who plays a prominent role in Navajo ceremonies. Kokopelli over the years has become a misunderstood figure, incorrectly called a “fertility god,” who is also exploited as a fashion logo for T-shirts, hoodies, jewelry, and rugs. Thank goodness Wally is setting the record straight.
Explanatory videos like “Kokopelli” among many others make Navajo Traditional Teachings one of the best and most reliable channels on Native culture.
2. Osiyo TV
Bring up “Indians” in any social gathering, and everyone will miraculously have a Cherokee grandma — but they “never learned” the culture. I say a good place to start learning is from the OsiyoTV YouTube channel, which is a part of the regional Emmy-winning website OsiyoTV Voice of the Cherokee People. Even if you don’t have a rumored Cherokee princess in your bloodline, you can still enjoy short, well-made documentary style films that showcase authentic Cherokee history, people, and culture. Osiyo also means “hello” in Cherokee, so it’s not just a cool-sounding catchphrase!
OsiyoTV has a five-member production team led by Jennifer Loren, the director of the Cherokee Nation Film Office. She is also an enrolled Cherokee Nation citizen. Shows are funded through the tribe’s business office, and every episode is well researched with historical documents and oral history from culture bearers, which is just another way of saying old folks who know a lot. In one 5-minute video that has 1.6 million views, Cherokee Bowmaker Richard Fields discusses how he learned to make traditional bows from his cousin. He says it’s important that Cherokee bows are made the correct way, and if he doesn’t share the knowledge, it will be lost, much like the “old words from the Cherokee language.” Speaking of language, if you feel the need to expand your second-language skills, the Cherokee Nation also has a free language app, so you can say more than just “hello.”
All seven seasons of OsiyoTV are uploaded to their YouTube Channel.
Not many people know that numerous tribal nations have their own accredited universities and colleges. Chartered back in 1970, Sinte Gleska University is one of them. To expand access to Lakota knowledge, SinteGleskaUtube was created in 2008 as the official YouTube channel for the school. There are nearly 300 videos, but a modest 12,500 subscribers. This means people are missing out on the teachings of Lakota philosophy and language captured on film from the late Albert White Hat Sr., a renowned leader of the Lakota community. Although there are other noteworthy Lakota on the channel, White Hat stands out, having brought nearly 40 years of teaching experience to younger generations and writing many books on reading and writing in the Lakota language.
You can see him in action as he discusses Lakota philosophy and the deeper meaning of Lakota words in “Teachings and Health Class/ Lakota Creation Story.” Sinte Gleska Tube is a valuable resource for those wanting to know more about the tribe that took part in annihilating the 7th Cavalry and General Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. I should also mention that “Sinte Gleska” means “Spotted Tail” in Lakota, which refers to Chief Spotted Tail, a major figure in the Plains Wars of the 1800s. There is still a battle brewing, however, as the Lakota language, along with many other Native languages, is on the brink of extinction.
Hopefully, SinteGleskaUtube can help in the war against ignorance and misunderstanding.
4. Wo Lakota
Am I recommending another Lakota-based YouTube channel? Yes, yes I am. Wo Lakota takes you outside the classroom of Sinte Gleska and puts you directly in a room with elders like Duane Hollow Horn Bear and Marie Randall. It’s almost like you’re sitting in their living room while they pass along knowledge in segments called Essential Understandings. These teachings focus more on the Oceti Sakowin Oyate, a combined community commonly referred to as the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota. These names are roughly translated into “allies.” Topics discussed include the meaning of life, the importance of water, and even some legal discourse concerning the problems with American laws. You know, those pesky precedents that called for Native extermination and the stealing of land.
Speaking of tricksters, Hollow Horn Bear offers a good dose of storytelling about Iktomi the spider. In many videos, he speaks both Lakota and English. In others he speaks only in Lakota. “Wolakota” means balance and coming together, which is a prevailing theme in many Native communities all over Turtle Island. The Wo Lakota YouTube channel is one part of the broader WoLakota Project, which was created to help Native and non-Native educators alike implement culturally responsive practices in schools. So if you’re an educator, simply curious, or seeking balance, tune in.
One important part of Native culture is our humor. So to round out the list, I want to include the YouTube channel Patrick is a Navajo, where Patrick Willie shares video reactions to trending topics on social media. He is from — you guessed it — the Navajo tribe. Willie is also a Hoop Dancer. If you want to know more about what that is and witness Willie doing the Hoop Dance, check out this video. The main point of his channel is to “spread humor and good feelings.” The most popular videos are from a series called Natives React, where Willie and his friends share their reactions to memes and videos on different social media platforms.
Many of the videos are specific to Native culture, and the channel may come off to non-Native viewers as a big inside joke — honestly, it kind of is. However, that’s arguably more reason to watch, as it’s a great way to break the “stoic Indian” stereotype that has permeated popular media. An unfiltered look at Native humor, like “Man speaks Indigenous language and Bear responds!” or “Why Do Native American Men Have Long Hair?“, is just as important as content related to other aspects of Native culture.
These channels are only a small fraction of the information out there, but I believe they are a good starting point to navigate content claiming to share cultural knowledge, not to mention the racist landfill that is the comment section of so many videos purportedly about Native culture. With this insight, you can become a better informed relative to Native communities and help challenge misconceptions.
Or if you are Native, you can watch and be inspired to further reconnect to your own culture.
Jimmy Lee Beason II is a member of the Osage Nation and a professor in the Indigenous & American Indian Studies department at Haskell Indian Nations University.