Rebecca Nagle—Journalist, Activist, Host

Laura Perry:

Welcome to the final event of the Spring 2021 Podcasting with Purpose series hosted by the Humanities for Public Good at University of Iowa and supported by the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies and the Mellon Foundation. As part of our goal to prepare graduate students for a wide range of careers serving the public good, Humanities for the Public Good is exploring new and innovative methods of interpretation, storytelling and meaning making. This spring 2021 Podcasting with Purpose series has brought together experienced podcasters like Rebecca Nagle to discuss their craft and how academics can connect their research, teaching and advocacy with the wide world of podcasting. 

I’m Laura Perry, a postdoctoral fellow on the Humanities for Public Good grant, and I’m formerly the managing editor Edge Effects magazine—which has a fantastic interview with Rebecca Nagle —and also formerly a radio host at WSUM 91.7 FM at University of Wisconsin Madison. 

I’m so excited to be speaking here today with Rebecca Nagle. Rebecca Nagle is a celebrated writer, activist and audio journalist and written journalist, a citizen of Cherokee Nation, based in Oklahoma. She’s the creator and host of the Crooked Media podcast This Land, which focuses on the case of Carpenter v. Murphy, a 2020 US Supreme decision that resulted in the largest restoration of tribal land in US history, nearly half the land in Oklahoma. Nagle’s work has appeared in and been recognized by many national and international outlets and organizations. And a full bio is available on our website because there are honestly too many accomplishments to list here. 

Thank you all for joining us and a special thanks to you, Rebecca for being here today.

Rebecca Nagle:

Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Laura Perry:

So tell us a bit about your show. What was the brainstorming thought process like as you were creating This Land?

Rebecca Nagle:

The show came about in an odd or interesting way. Crooked Media contacted me and asked if I would be interested in turning an article that I wrote for the Washington post into a podcast season. I hadn’t really worked at all in the realm of audio journalism or podcasting. So, I started listening to podcasts and trying to think about the story. I joke that the first version of the podcast I think was 15 episodes long, something very long. We worked with a great team, with a team of folks like Crooked Media and then also a team of producers and editors at a company called Neon Hum. It is definitely a group effort.

Our goal setting out was—through the story of this one case—to educate the listener about tribal sovereignty and land and treaty rights and a subject matter that I think a lot of people in the United States maybe haven’t really thought about, or don’t really know. I think of tribal sovereignty as a basic part of civics. We understand what the difference between a state and a federal government is, or the difference between a city and a county. But a lot of people don’t really know what a tribe means, even courts. When you started talking about the idea that Tulsa could be on a reservation to a lot of people, it sounded like you were saying Tulsa was on Mars. Trying to make that legible and real for people was a big goal from the outset, and then also to do it in a way that was compelling and that was a story that had emotion, that could grab people and pull them through.

Laura Perry:

You’ve hinted a bit at this already, but who was your imagined audience for the series?

Rebecca Nagle:

That’s a good question. We had conversations about it. I remember one of the producers, they almost said, “Well, you have to choose, is this for a native audience or is it for a non-native audience?” And my sense was always that it was both, that it was important for native people, particularly for folks here in Oklahoma, to see themselves in the podcast, to be excited about it. I think also to learn about it too. Even people who were aware of the case, it’s a very complex case with a long history. It’s hard to understand all the implications. Even after the verdict, there were a lot of questions here, like, okay, well, what does this mean? And so I think it serves our own community as much as it is educating non-native folks too who really are starting at a ground level of, what is a tribe, and what is the reservation, and what does tribal sovereignty mean. 

It’s tricky to thread that needle. I think about it a lot. One of the challenges of being a native journalist is that sometimes things that in the native community are just ubiquitous, and I would think that everybody understands, you have to explain and break down. I’ve had an experience multiple times where I’ve referenced blood quantum in a piece and an editor has asked me to explain what blood quantum is. And I forget that people don’t live with that, because for native people it’s just this constant fabric of our lives. So that can be a real challenge, and we tried to find ways to make things legible without feeling like we were overexplaining things or lecturing people.

Laura Perry:

You mentioned that Crooked reached out to you and that you were suddenly in this new genre of podcasting. So how did you approach this new form of storytelling? How did you approach telling these stories and sharing these histories through audio?

Rebecca Nagle:

I would say my first approach was pretty bad. But one of the things that is great about documentary style podcasts making is that it’s very iterative. You get on your fourth or fifth version of an episode before you’re like, “Okay, this is that.” But there was a pretty sharp learning curve. The way that you absorb information when you’re reading it is really different than the way that you absorb information when you’re hearing it, and how you can use statistics and even dates and numbers and things. As a print journalist, you’re always like, “Okay, here’s the date, and here’s the number and it’s this percentage point.” And if you just say those things out loud and the listener is listening, it’s really hard. It’s hard to follow those things. Also, as a print journalist, most of the writing I had done up until that point was online. And with online articles, you’re writing with the assumption that people aren’t going to read the whole thing and read till the end. And so in print journalism, and especially online, you try to put a lot of the important information at the top of the article and then get into all of the details, but in the first few paragraphs, you’re basically letting the reader know, all right, this is what this is, this is the point I’m going to make, or this is what I went out and reported and found, and here’s what we’re going to be talking about. 

In podcasting, because it’s more storytelling, I was doing that at first, but it’s so much more compelling to try and let a story unfold over time. And so I started thinking of it as a breadcrumb trail, where you’re taking the listener through one thing at a time and letting the story unfold over time instead of just coming out the gate with it. It’s interesting because I still go back and forth. I definitely have a podcast way of writing now that sometimes when I go back to print I’m like, “Oh no, I’m like using my podcast voice.” But I think that it’s really exciting. 

Over the course of the entire case, I wrote three print articles about the Murphy and then the McGirt case. The first article I wrote about it was for Indian Country Today, then the Washington post, and then once it was the McGirt trial, The Atlantic. And I think the thing that was exciting about podcasting is that we could really get into the depths of the case. But there’s only so much you can cover in 2000 words in an article, but in a 30 minute or 40 minute episode and a series you can really cover a lot more ground. I thought that that was exciting to be able to have that much time, and to really be able to get into, okay, not just, here’s the facts, but here are some stories to illustrate why it matters. Here’s the history. 

The other thing that I really liked about podcasting is… in print journalism, you interview people and you can quote them, and people can understand that perspective and connect to that person. But in a podcast when you can actually hear that person’s voice and you can hear them saying it in their own words… as someone who’s interested, not just in storytelling but also sharing other people’s stories, that about the medium and the platform is really exciting for me that you could hear in someone’s own voice and own words, their emotion and their perspective.

Laura Perry:

That’s something that I think This Land does so incredibly well. When I was thinking about which clip to play, I realized that was something that all of my favorite clips shared between them, hearing someone’s voice as they were talking about their connection to these cases, to this larger story. Hearing directly from people that was what makes the stories in This Land so powerful and so memorable. In the way that you might write an entire article before you publish it, did you create all of the episodes before they released?

Rebecca Nagle:

No. That was the plan. But no. When I tell people the timeline, everyone’s like, that’s insane. Because we were trying to get a lot, or most of this season out before there was a ruling from the Supreme court. And the supreme court didn’t end up ruling, but nobody saw that coming. And so we were trying to get it out by the end of May or early June. It ended up being early June.  We collected the first round of tape, I think the first weekend in March. And so we had some of our first creative meetings starting in late January. We didn’t even have a storyboard yet at that point. And so it was fast, it was very fast. So it was definitely a crash course in podcasting. It was a pretty quick timeline. But yeah, but it was a great team. And so we all worked around the clock until we got it done.

Laura Perry:

That is a very quick timeline. I can see why people are amazed at how cohesive and together the episodes are given how quickly you must’ve been working to put them out. You mentioned tribal jurisdiction as one of the reasons why you wanted to create this series and that comes out because one through line in the episodes is tribal jurisdiction and sovereignty. And as I’ve been sitting with This Land again, and reading some of the coverage about how tribes in Oklahoma are making vaccines available to members of the public, I’ve been thinking about stewardship and what it means to care for the residents of a state, even in the absence of recognition or reparations or basic reciprocity. And so I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and how you think about stewardship, whether today, or as you were making the podcast.

Rebecca Nagle:

That was one thing we tried to point out in the podcast then. I think what’s happened during COVID has been a really poignant example of that. But the tribes in Oklahoma are an essential layer of government. And so our tribes provide funding for public schools. They pave roads, they help rural residents have running water during the pandemic, it happened gradually, but I believe it was Choctaw Nation or it was Choctaw, Chickasaw Nation that was first offering vaccines to all Oklahoma educators before the state was. And then you saw tribes open up their vaccination to all residents living within the boundaries of their reservation. And now I believe all five tribes are offering vaccines to anybody. And so anyone who can get to a vaccination facility or a vaccination event for Cherokee Nation, I know can get a vaccine. And I think that tribes have done that. 

One of the people that we talked to in the podcast was a mom of a child who needed rehabilitation therapy after having brain surgery. And she got that at a facility run by Muscogee (Creek) Nation, that was in Okmulgee, which is not a tiny town, but it’s I think it’s about 12 or I think it’s about 15,000 people maybe. But it’s outside of Tulsa and she would have had to drive an hour for those appointments if Muscogee (Creek) Nation had not kept that rehabilitation center open. And that’s actually one of three healthcare facilities that were going to close within the reservation boundaries of Muscogee (Creek) Nation that the tribe took over and kept open, not just for tribal members, but kept open for everybody. And so you can be driving through Eastern Oklahoma and be on a road paved by the tribe that is policed by the tribe. Yeah, so I think that that’s an important point and it’s still happening today actually. 

So one important thing to understand about the decision is that it was bound to the reservation of Muscogee (Creek) Nation. And so when the Supreme court made its ruling, it was this amazing victory and it was really exciting and it set the precedent for our other four tribes, but it was tailored to, and specific to, and apply to Muscogee (Creek) Nation. And then what’s happened is that other cases have worked their way through Oklahoma courts and the Oklahoma courts based on McGirt have ruled that yes, Cherokee Nation, Chickasaw Nation, Choctaw Nation, Seminole, you all also have a reservation. And so two of those decisions actually just came down today. And there’s already kind of these negative press coverage about how criminals are going to be set free and how this is going to create chaos. And so I think Oklahoma is still trying to stoke those fears, that the tribal jurisdiction is a bad thing or that it’s a scary thing or that it’s going backwards instead of moving forward. And I think what we’ve seen especially during the pandemic is that tribes have been an important—are an important—level of infrastructure here in Oklahoma and are filling a lot of gaps actually that county and city and state government that’s underfunded it is leaving those gaps.

Laura Perry:

Thank you. And congratulations to all those involved on the ruling today. I haven’t seen that news yet. That’s very exciting. And speaking of exciting rulings, let’s listen to a short clip from This Land, which actually includes the moment that you read the ruling, which is just such a wonderful moment. My colleague, Ashley, directed me to think about this clip I want to share today. It’s just impossible not to smile and well up with emotions as you’re listening to people react to the ruling. 

What we’re listening to is from an episode called The Ruling, which was recorded after the first season was already over because as we mentioned earlier, the Supreme court decided to drag its feet on responding to the court case that Rebecca was creating the first season of This Land about, and then issued a ruling in another related case, which if you want to know why they did that, you should listen to this episode because Rebecca really goes in depth about different legal reasons why they might have wanted to rule on a separate case that Justice Gorsuch could be involved on. And so what we’ll listen to is three minutes or so of some context about that ruling, and then some reactions from both Rebecca Nagle and some of the people that she’s interviewing.

So I was hoping you could tell us a bit about some of the nuts and bolts and all the moving pieces that went into creating this piece of audio. I think that this group of people is interested in not only the tech — how did you record that? How did you edit it? What team of people did you have working on that? So did you create a two hour long episode that then got edited down to 30 minutes? — and then also the creative thought process and the editing process. Did you have a bunch of different people talk about their reactions and then land on this particular one? Because it was so powerful. So, all of those different behind the scenes things that go into creating this incredible piece of audio.

Rebecca Nagle:

So going into the last few weeks of the Supreme court’s term, we had about half of the episodes built and written. And so this one walks people through what happened with the McGirt case, because there had been this whole new case since the last time we’d had a podcast episode. Lauren King, she’s a citizen of Muskogee (Creek) Nation and an attorney and also a professor of law, and you heard her have that emotional reaction. It was the second time we’d interviewed her. So before the decision broke down, she’s explaining stuff, she’s an expert voice. And then when we get to the decision, we get to have that emotion. I also just recorded myself. I was just rolling tape when the decision happened. So we had me freaking out.

And then we tried to schedule a couple of interviews really early that morning. So we caught people when they’re just still in that space of reacting. So we talked to King, and then we also talked to Angel Ellis, who’s a reporter with Muscogee Media, which is the paper of Muscogee (Creek) Nation. And then I talked to Stacy Bleeds, who’s a citizen of my tribe, Cherokee nation, and she is a law professor among being many, many things — very accomplished woman. And she broke down, okay, this is what it means for Muscogee (Creek) Nation, but what does it mean for Cherokee Nation and the other four tribes? So we had set up, what are the voices and what are the points that we want to hit, and then we did have to record. The turnaround was pretty fast, because we put it out within a week. We’re working on the second season right now, and we’re working on podcast episodes that aren’t going to come out until July, and so we’re refining them over a period of months. And then those ones that were more breaking news, we had to put together more quickly.

Laura Perry:

How big a team is it? Crooked is a whole podcast outfit at this point. How big a team is working on each episode, usually?

Rebecca Nagle:

For the first season we had a producer, an executive producer and a story editor. So, Gabriela Lewis, Vikram and Catherine Saint Louis working on the bulk of moving the boulder up the hill to get an episode in a good place. And then we also had folks from Crooked weighing in, on table reads and listening to scratch mixes and sending in feedback. Then for the second season we’re working with Critical Frequency, with Amy Westervelt as executive producer from there. Sarah Ventres is the producer, our story editor is Becca Murphy. And then we’re working also with reporter and editor, Martha Terrone. So that’s our team. And then we also have story editors who weigh in from Crooked. 

So yeah, it’s a lot of work. I think there’s different levels of work for podcasts because sometimes people ask “Oh, I want to do a podcast. What did it take?” And, well, This Land, because it’s narrative, it’s documentary style podcast, it’s heavily edited. It’s really different than having a conversation and then editing that conversation. Not that those aren’t a lot of work also, but it’s just a different medium to make it. It’s a little bit more thinking about making a documentary film or something like that, but it’s just the audio.

Laura Perry:

So we are going to throw it open to the audience for questions.

Question 1:

The first couple of times I listened to This Land and the first season, I always imagined it as the Supreme Court ruling was the thing that you were working toward. I am really excited to hear about the second season. I’m wondering if you had always imagined this as an ongoing series with multiple seasons, or if that was something that you realized — you had more stories to tell — to continue on in this project. And if so, how did that emerge for you and how did you also transition your team and bring in new team members and collaborators into that project, understanding the bridge into the second season?

Rebecca Nagle:

That’s a really good question. At the end of the first season, whether or not there would be another season was an open question. And maybe about six months after the end of the first season, I started developing an idea. It’s not a continuation of the first season, so we’re following a different court case in the second season. But I started developing an idea, wanting to cover it as a storyteller, but more so even wanting to cover it as a reporter. And it was a topic I really wanted to investigate and sink my teeth in. And so that project got green lit last summer. So we’ve been working on it since August. 

It’s a little bit different of a project because we went out wanting a team that could work not just on the audio aspect of it, but also the investigation. We were looking for a podcasting company that has a lot of experience doing deep document dives and things like that. Critical Frequency, which is a company run by Amy Westervelt, does the Drilled podcasts and they do a lot of investigative podcasts around oil and things like that. And so it was a really good fit when we started thinking about, okay, who could we bring on that could do both.  

Last season we started with a storyboard and all right, this is the story we’re going to tell, so who do we need to go on an interview? And this season we started with a series of questions. Who, why are these people involved in this case? What does it mean? And a list of people we wanted to look into and dig around on. We didn’t even really get started thinking about the outline of the season until we had been working on the investigation for a while. It’s definitely a different approach between the two seasons. So I hope that answers your question from a nuts and bolts perspective.

I feel really fortunate because one thing that’s been awesome about the podcast is that as a reporter and as a storyteller, I have really amazing people to work with and resources to do that type of investigative storytelling… and also the platform of Crooked for a lot of people to hear about it and not just be putting it out there on my own. So I feel really, really fortunate to have been able to develop that relationship with Crooked and be able to create the work that we’re creating together.

Question 2:

I just wanted to pick up on that and to ask you, what techniques you’ve developed for bringing out a process-based story, a document based story, that makes it harder to come up with physical scenes to develop. What techniques have you learned for that kind of storytelling and audio?

Rebecca Nagle:

Yeah, that’s a really good question. So we tried to have what people call process tape. Right now we’re in the middle of script editing and writing. There’s a lot more information. A lot of it is also just editing and so sometimes it can be painful because you find something, as a reporter, that feels like a really big deal. But then if there are like 18 big deals in an episode, people can’t absorb all of it. And so in what we’re choosing, how we’re crafting the story, there’s a lot of editing that’s hard.

And then, too — this is actually a conversation I was having with the producer yesterday — some of what we’ve found is really important just in terms of public information and public documents. And so there are some things that just have to stay in, because they need to be public information, the public needs to know. 

In terms of the nuts and bolts of storytelling, I think a podcast that does a really, really good job is In The Dark. They do a lot of investigative work where they’re going through documents. This is what we found. She’s reading court transcripts, which normally a reporter reading transcripts is the most boring thing you can do in a podcast, but it works. It works because of what happened, particularly in the Curtis Flowers case, is just so shocking. You’re experiencing, as a listener, that outrage and that shock. 

One thing I think about when I’m writing and when I’m laying out stories is: what are the emotional beats and how do people connect to characters? And especially when people are learning something, setting up the significance. Okay, we’re going to take you through what happened in this case, and here are the stakes, here is why it matters.

Question 3: 

I was really intrigued when you said that the group you’re working with wanted you to identify an audience and you introduced that challenge, but you didn’t tell us what you decided or, and I wonder, based on your decision, what were the gestures you made to include different audiences or where did you feel that the gestures were necessary?

Rebecca Nagle:

I felt strongly that it was both for a native and non-native audience, so that it didn’t have to be a choice between one or the other. The case, even for people who follow it, and even for people who are tribal citizens, it’s a complicated case. And there wasn’t a ton of coverage of it. And so it was informative also for tribal citizens to understand what the case was and what the stakes were, and then also to see ourselves in podcasts and in these stories. 

And then at the same time we were educating non-native folks who aren’t familiar. And I think that we use different techniques for that. Sometimes we use a character to take people through. So in the second episode, we’re really trying to establish the significance from Muscogee (Creek) Nations perspective about what would it mean to lose this case. And the character of their attorney general at the time, Kevin Dellinger, really embodied that. There was this emotional passage where he talked about their removal from their original homelands and that it would be like that process happening again. 

Another technique we used was metaphor. The system of allotment and tribal land and restrictive land and all of this stuff that fed into the original Murphy defense is really complicated. We use this sheet cake metaphor. We’re like, okay, it’s like a sheet cake, and then you cut up the sheet cake into pieces. This was for people to think about the checker board of jurisdiction that our tribes were functioning under in the pre McGirt era.

Other times too, we poked fun or pointed out maybe where people might have assumptions. So when we were going to meet the chief of Muscogee (Creek) Nation, we were like, in your mind, where you think that the seat of government for this tribe is like a wigwam or a teepee, it’s not, it’s like city hall. It is a modern government. Which I think is basic, but it’s still something that people have a lot of stereotypes in their minds about.  And for the person who knows that, it’s funny. And for the person who doesn’t know that they’re like, “Oh, right. I did have that assumption in my mind.” 

In storytelling, as a writer, I’m really interested in breaking things down, particularly with the law, that are complex, because I think our democracy is healthier when we have citizens that understand policy. And I feel like sometimes like the cogs of our society and democracy and the law and the courts are almost purposely opaque or complex. So it’s difficult for ordinary people to engage with it and even to understand with it and to also feel like they have power and say. It’s opaque so that we just give up. And so one of the things that I am really passionate about doing as a journalist is making those things legible and understandable.

A lot of times Federal Indian Law is this idiosyncrasy of the US constitution and the courts and what Congress has done that not a lot of people understand. Members of Congress don’t understand, US presidents don’t understand it, Supreme Court Justices don’t get it. Very powerful people do not understand this area of the law. And that’s been a real detriment to native rights. We’re not going to have people who are in those positions of power who understand it until the public does. The public’s not going to vote for people who get it if they don’t get it. It’s an important thing to walk people through and to make more legible, and I think that about the law and policy more generally. One of the problems with covering climate change is that it’s so complicated and overwhelming, that it’s often not framed or covered in a way where it’s real to people. And I think that’s a huge part of our problem of not being able to address it.

Question 4: 

You come from a very creative storytelling family. How did that come to be? Was there something in your household, in your family life, in your parents? And also how many projects do you work on at one time. I’d be interested in hearing that as well.

Rebecca Nagle:

For people who don’t know, my sister is Mary Catherine Nagel and she leads a double life as a native attorney and also as a playwright. She’s written a number of very, very awesome plays that you should check out. I don’t know, we made very elaborate creative games when we were children. We played in the story world a lot. So maybe that’s what got us there. I think it’s interesting, because I think we’ve both had this varied path to get to where we are in our careers. I think Mary was always involved in theater and always loved it and came to understand being a playwright out of that. And I was a visual artist and then a community organizer and then journalist, but I think we both always mixed that sense of social justice with being creative. So yeah, it’s a cool parallel. 

And then how many things I’ve worked on at once… So, when I was making the podcast, actually I had a full-time job that was not making a podcast. I was working for my tribe at the time. And they were very generous and let me take a leave. I took like six weeks off of my job to finish it. But the first few months I was working full-time plus making the podcast, which was crazy. The second season I’m not doing that mistake again. Right now, I’m pretty much working on it full-time and then working on another writing project. But that’s very long-term. It’s a long way away from being out in the world. I can be notorious for putting way too much on my plate, but it’s great. 

Laura Perry:

You’ve made us all very hungry for this second season. It sounds like it’s coming out sometime later in the summer. But what is next for you and how should we stay in touch and be sure that we don’t miss a single episode of the second season that’s coming up?

Rebecca Nagle:

It should be out July 2021. So subscribe wherever you get your podcasts! I’m really excited about the second season, and I hope you all take the time to listen.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.