Shift Disturbers: Land Back Studios wants more real Indigenous portrayals

Sarain Fox and Tara Barnes started a production company to tell more authentic stories, which means asking the brands it works with some tough questions.

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This story is part of Shift Disturbers, a profile series exploring the successes, creative contributions and off-the-beaten-path work talent are doing to challenge the status quo in the marketing and advertising industries.

There isn’t a hollow look to the senior matriarch and oldest surviving member of Sarain Fox’s family. There is no anger in her voice, as she describes what took place inside of the Residential school she attended. There is no gauntness in her cheeks, or defeat in her eyes. In fact the only stereotype Mary Bell might fit into are of the memories we have of our own grandmothers.

Fox hopes that sharing her aunt’s story in the mini-doc “Inendi” from their reserve in Batchewana will break down some of the most damaging stereotypes of Indigenous people. But she explains that the real motivation behind the mini-doc, released in December, stems from the sense of urgency the COVID-19 pandemic created within her.

And that went beyond the obvious desire to protect the elders in her community from the virus. It also renewed the need to protect the stories, knowledge and history those elders held – if the community lost their elders to the virus, their stories would be lost with them.

This desire to share and preserve her aunt’s knowledge and experiences, but also to give Indigenous storytellers a chance to tell their own stories honestly, moved Fox and her business partner Tara Barnes to create their own production company, Land Back Studios.

“Inendi” has been its most notable work since being founded roughly one year ago, and it has also done work for Know Indigenous History, which provides research, archival and historical consulting services to Indigenous communities.

In addition to sharing and preserving Indigenous stories through documentary and unscripted work, Land Back Studios aims “to dispel negative stereotypes but also to address the romanticism of Indigenous culture,” says Fox, something that remains a pillar of its mission as it begins to take on commercial production work.

And that means making sure brands have good motivations. For example, Fox explains that when brands have reached out to them and asked to display Indigenous people in regalia for content, their company always asks why.

“We have the opportunity to ask them, firstly, why is it that they want to show an Indigenous person, and why do they want to show them this way?” Asking brands these kinds of simple questions – which are ones they may not be used to answering – helps hold them to the same standard Land Back was founded on. That, in turn, results in more authentic work that helps foster long lasting, meaningful relationships between brands that are genuinely interested in representation and Indigenous communities.

Fox explains the imagery that has become iconic of Indigenous people lacks substance, authenticity or real representation of their communities. Moreover, non-Indigenous people have come expect certain types of portrayals of Indigenous people, such as of their suffering or of crisis.

As a consequence, Fox says that portrayal emphasizes the myths and negative stereotypes.

“That narrative breaks down that we are committed, contributing and valuable members of the community,” she says. “If we were valuable members of the community, it’s harder to take our land, it’s harder to leave us alone.”

landbacktarasarainFox (pictured, right) and Barnes (left) met while they both worked at Indigenous-owned footwear company Manitobah Mukluks, where Barnes was VP of marketing and, over 10 years working there, contributed to it becoming one of the fastest-growing footwear brands in Canada. That was also when she first made content with Fox, starting them on the path to eventually create Land Back Studios, where Barnes is a producer and acts as Fox’s manager.

Barnes is not Indigenous, describing herself as a settler ally, but has a self-described passion for telling diverse, real and complicated stories. Her experience watching Manitobah Mukluks founder Josh Fine approach business in a way that broke from established norms, as well as seeing the desire from different kinds of people wanting to see themselves in all kinds of content, was a major factor in wanting to help start a company that could help elevate other peoples’ stories.

“It was really Sarain’s dream that I helped make real, it was born out of a project that she wanted to do,” Barnes explains. “I’m supporting her vision, which is telling Indigenous stories and making content that is authentic.”

Since “Inendi” debuted on the CBC Documentary channel, it has been one of its most viewed projects, earning over 260,000 views on YouTube alone.

“You can’t talk about Canada without talking about Indigenous people,” says Fox. That should be especially top of mind for the litany of brands that trade on their Canadian identity, but Fox also believes that it applies to every brand in Canada, meaning they all need to have an Indigenous voice working with them. “That’s what I get really excited about because I think that’s how we change things at Land Back.”