All-Alaska Native reality series shows ‘we’re here, we’re strong,’ says cast member

Jody Potts-Joseph and her family appear in “Life Below: First Alaskans,” which features an all-Indigenous cast. (National Geographic)

A popular Alaska-based reality show has a new series out that features an all-Indigenous cast.

“Life Below Zero: First Alaskans” follows several Alaska Native families in different parts of the state as they pursue traditional ways of living off the land.

Jody Potts-Joseph and her family are on the show. Potts-Joseph is Han Gwich’in from the Native Village of Eagle and a former village public safety officer sergeant. She now does wilderness guiding, advocates for protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and works to get more Native youth involved in outdoor recreation.

Potts-Joseph also hunts and fishes near her family fish camp on the Yukon River, and those subsistence activities have been featured recently on TV screens around the world.

Potts-Joseph says she’s glad to be part of a show representing Indigenous people in mainstream media.

Listen:

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Jody Potts-Joseph: They film pretty much most of our day, cutting wood, setting up our wall tent and our camp, hiking and traveling on the Yukon River, getting to our fish camp and things of that nature. So they’ve done quite a bit, and it really is very realistic. None of it’s made up. It’s really just exactly what we do on a daily and regular basis.

Casey Grove: Yeah, that’s one thing I’ve heard about that show in particular, is that it is pretty true to life. And I wondered, were you concerned about that going into it, that they would show things really as they are? And what made you interested in doing that?

JPJ: Going into this, when we were first approached by Life Below Zero and BBC Productions, I was really very hesitant. I told them right off of the get go that, you know, Native people have not been represented fairly or accurately in media historically, and that I definitely don’t want to participate in something that is going to not be accurate or authentic, but also something that is not going to make our people be represented well or look well. And so I had some very strong conversations with the production crew and the executives. And I felt really good after really hearing them say, “We want this to represent Indigenous people of Alaska, we really feel like, largely, your people have not had a voice.” And they also have a strong understanding that, in a lot of ways, the Alaska Native way of life has been threatened by a variety of things, from climate change, to industry, to, really, the state regulations on fishing and hunting and some of the impacts there. Once I felt really confident in their intentions, and it being our story, you know, it’s never them telling us, “Well, we want you to do this.” It’s literally every day filming exactly what we’re doing, day in and day out.

CG: Part of Episode 1, aside from the excitement of the moose hunt, there’s this part where you guys are just getting water out of the river. Does it seem funny to see the tension that exists in that, even though it’s sort of an everyday thing for you?

JPJ: Yeah, I mean, it’s not an easy way of life. And there are definitely some risks. And, also, one of the risks is that, you know, we live so far from help or assistance. We do have to be really careful and thoughtful in the way we approach things and just some simple tasks. Certain times of the year, like freeze-up and breakup, are both very challenging times of the year. And so, yeah, it’s can be a little nerve-wracking, doing certain things that we have to do. But I guess we just always try to err on the side of caution and take all of the safety precautions and really help each other in everything that we do as a family. So I think that that definitely helps.

CG: In that scene in particular, you had tied a rope to your husband Jamey’s overalls, and I think you said, “This rope represents love,” which, I think you’re only like half joking, that it really did represent your connection to each other.

JPJ: Yeah, you know, I was really insistent, of course, on the rope. We really are watchful over each other and making sure that we get to enjoy this life together for years to come. And we joke around and tease each other a lot and stuff. But there’s also half truths, as far as like, this rope really does represent love. Like it is pretty true and accurate, because I don’t want to lose my husband. Who wants to lose their husband? We can even go further and say I’m his ball and chain! No, we’re always very protective of each other and helping each other in everything that we do.

CG: So you talked about this already a little bit, but I thought I’d ask you again: What does it mean to you that they produced this show with an all Indigenous cast?

JPJ: Oh man, I’m just, I’m really proud about that. And I just, sometimes I just can’t even quite find the words, but I’m just extremely proud of the show. And the families, and the people, and our way of life being shared with the world in this way, is really special. And I’m just so glad it’s done so well. And, you know, the folks that are on the show, they all capture a little bit of everything about Native people, one of which being our humor, Native humor, but also our understanding of the world around us and our connection to each other and to the land. So I’m just very proud to be a part of this and just super thankful.

CG: What do you want folks from outside of Alaska to take away from watching the show?

JPJ: Definitely, as Native people, we’re here, we’re strong, we’re really trying to maintain our way of life, this life that we love and this life that we have maintained, as our ancestors have for thousands of years. And that there’s like a deep connection to the land. That really is, I guess, super valuable in everything that we do. One of the things I discussed with the production company is that Native people have either been depicted in the media with harmful stereotypes, or, you know, really largely in American culture, Indigenous peoples have been invisible-ized. Or else Native people have largely been kind of thought of as a people of the past, even in my son’s history books, referring to Native people in the past tense. So I just really want the world to see that Native people are alive and well, living our culture, and really maintain a strong connection to the land, and that we are really guardians and protectors of this land as well.

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Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.