Welcome to the latest edition of Geek Girl Authority Indigenerd Wire, wherein we shine a spotlight on the indigenous people in pop culture. This column will feature the people, shows, movies, art, books and general discussions that celebrate the progress of indigenous perspectives in mainstream pop culture.
Things are changing in Indian country. And Sarah Podemski, Anishinaabe/Ashkenazi is just one of many Indigenous talents to look out for. Sarah has been professionally acting since she was 11. Born in Toronto, Podemski’s mother is descended from the Saulteaux and Cree people of the Muscowpetung First Nations reserve in Saskatchewan, Canada. And her father is Jewish with Polish/British roots from Israel.
Sarah and her sisters were put into art, dance and acting classes at a young age. When her oldest sister Jennifer Podemski started acting professionally, Sarah and older sister Tamara Podemski followed closely behind. They booked their first role together in a German film based on a book called Blue Hawk. Since then Sarah has appeared in numerous Canadian and US television and film roles including Mekko, Tin Star and most recently Syfy’s Resident Alien. I spoke with Sarah about her unique journey in film and television and how the industry is changing for Indigenous people.
Noetta Harjo: Hi Sarah, How are you?
Sarah Podemski: Hi there! I’m good. How are you?
NH: I’m good. I’m excited to talk to you today.
SP: I’m excited too!
NH: Great! Let’s start with how you got into acting.
SP: I have two sisters, Jennifer and Tamara in the industry. When we were little, we were put into every single class imaginable; art, dance, and acting. We just gravitated to the arts. My eldest sister Jen started working as an actress when she was a teenager. That made it easy for Tamara and I to follow in her footsteps. Jen did a few films that got a lot of recognition. One of them being Dance Me Outside, which is kind of like the OG of like Native films.
I think I was 11 when I went to an audition for this German series based on this book called Blue Hawk, which is a really famous book in Germany. They love Indigenous culture there, so this writer wrote this book on this kind of fantastical love story about this young settler boy who falls in love with this young native girl. Tamara actually booked the show and they needed someone to play her character five years younger. They saw me and I auditioned and they gave me the role. That was the first job that I got.
I never imagined that this was what I was gonna do. I think I kind of fell into it. I took a few years off from acting in high school and then came back to it in my 20s. Both of my sisters stayed in the industry and it just seemed like a really great way to work within the indigenous community. I did a lot of work on native run productions and that’s really where I came to understand my place in my indigeneity, because I wasn’t raised with my mom. It was as an adult that I started to really share that stuff with my mom and my sisters. Up until that point my only access to my indigeneity was working in the native community in film and television.
FROM BUCKSKIN TO ALIENS
NH: You have quite an impressive resume appearing in some household name shows, like Resident Alien. Indigenous people weren’t always sought out for television roles. How easy has it been for you to get these roles as an Indigenous actress?
SP: There were a few years where I was very lucky to work on two different shows, Moccasin Flats and Cashing In which we’re almost totally Native run shows. But other than that, it’s been really challenging. For one, finding great characters and great projects where the narrative is driven by Native writers, directors or producers are so few and far between. I did a lot of projects where I was playing an Indigenous character and dealing with Indigenous content, but I didn’t have the support of actual Indigenous writers, directors or actors to help me move through some uncomfortable conversations when something comes up. So, it’s been difficult for so many years not having that Indigenous representation behind the camera.
In the last year, there’s so many new projects that are being created by Native creators. These projects are written, directed by Native creators, and starring Native actors playing fully formed Native characters and representing authentic Indigenous representation. It’s really exciting. I feel like the last 20 years of my career was preparing me for the kinds of opportunities that are happening right now. And then on the other side of that, I’ve been really lucky and very privileged to get the opportunities that I’ve had and to be part of bigger shows and I always want to be grateful for that.
NH: Will you get behind the camera to create your own stories at any time?
SP: So, dealing with those frustrations and those feelings of anger really fueled me to start creating my own content and making sure that I’m working with the right people so that we can all drive the conversation further. I really think that the more people see us and the more talent is shown, people will realize that it’s just an untapped talent pool. We have so many incredible people, writers, directors, actors, producers, we just haven’t had the same opportunities to get our project made. I think that everything that’s been happening this last year is so exciting. There’s really incredible things happening, but we still have a long way to go.
NH: How many, if any of the roles you played a stereotypical trope of Indigenous people?
SP: The first show I did, Blue Hawk was full buckskins, braids, dirt on the face … it was intense. I guess I thought that was normal back then. It didn’t seem strange to me. The new version of that, over the last 10 years has been the stereotypical alcoholic, drug addict types. I read a lot of things that I didn’t audition for because I don’t want to continue this narrative of trauma. And touching on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls issue. I didn’t want to play those parts without having an authentic perspective.
I think that idea of this traumatic narrative written by non-Native people is similar to this buckskin thing. We’re stuck in this narrative of what non-Indigenous people think we are. We can deal with that subject matter, 100% because it is something that affects our communities. But when it comes from a Native perspective, it’s just so much more layered and there’s so much context and there’s a point of view that … it’s not just a trope. I find that the characters that I played when I’ve come up against this with non-Native writers, it always ends up being this very tropey character.
NH: Tell me more about working on Resident Alien. What is it like to work on that set?
SP: It’s a really fun set, The writing is so great and the performers are so great. We were able to improvise and have a lot of fun while we were shooting. It was so great to see what would come out of a scene and it kept it really fresh and exciting. The show creator, Chris Sheridan made it a priority to portray the Native characters with the most care that he could. And one of the writers, Tazbah Chavez (Bishop Paiute Tribe/ Nüümü/Diné/San Carlos Apache), who is such a beautiful writer,had a really big part in writing my specific character and a lot of the Native characters. She gave us really authentic, Native characters.
I felt really safe on this set. There weren’t things that were triggering or where I had to question the content of the script. It felt really natural and fun and so great to just have this character Kayla. Kayla is so full of heart, sassy, tough, funny and all of these things that I had never really gotten to play in a character before. It was a real joy to work on. And we got a second season! I’m so excited to see where the story goes and excited just to get back to work with everybody.
NH: That’s great! Congratulations! I have to ask … Gary Farmer (Cayuga/Wolf Clan of Haudenosaunee and Iroquois Confederacy) is a part of the Resident Alien cast. For anyone who doesn’t know Gary’s work, he is such an icon in Indian Country. What is it like working with a legendary Native actor who has so much experience in this industry?
SP: My sisters and I have known Gary for so long. I’ve probably known him for like 20 years. The interesting thing about being a Native actor is that it’s such a tight knit community. There’s so much humility that you wouldn’t even know that he’s an icon when you’re around him on set. He’s just so down to earth. He’s so funny and so generous. And I’m such a fan of his. He’s fantastic in everything. It’s so nice to be able to work with people that you’ve known for so long, that feel like family. Working with Gary, there’s just like a comfort level, knowing that you’ll be taken care of. And that there are two people that can speak out against something if they feel uncomfortable. It was definitely comforting when I got to work with him. And also being able to watch him in awe when he works and how he’s just so full of heart. I love his character and he just brings this real sweetness. And it’s so good to watch. I feel really lucky that we got to work together.
NH: Who are some of your influences, in front of and behind the camera?
SP: My sisters because I’ve gone on this journey with my sisters, they’ve been hugely influential for so many reasons. We talk about every single job, every single opportunity, every single person we come in contact with. I’ve been very blessed to have two other women that essentially are going through almost an identical experience as me or have. That’s been hugely influential in having them be there for me and vice versa and seeing how things have changed, especially in the last 20 years. I’d say those are my two biggest influences.
I have always been a fan of Sterlin Harjo’s. Working with him on Mekko and seeing how he created such a good, happy, and balanced energy was so inspiring to me. And seeing how he worked with a smaller budget and worked with people who weren’t actors; that really had a huge impact on me. It’s been a real inspiration to know him and to be able to work with him.
Another filmmaker that I worked with, who I just love and who is also having great success right now is Danis Goulet. She has a film in Berlin called Night Raiders, which is also sci-fi. I did a short film with her a few years back. It was just such a well balanced set and such a beautiful experience. It really solidified this idea that working with Indigenous content and with Indigenous creators, there’s just a different way that we approach work. I’m not sure what it is … maybe it’s the responsibility we have to our communities and maybe it’s humility and maybe it’s a bit of us being just so grateful that we’re able to share our work with people.
Those experiences were just so powerful for me. They made a huge impact on how I want to create work, who I want to work with and the integrity I want to emulate, when I run my own set in the future whether I’m producing or directing or whatever that is. Even as an actor … how to behave and how to be gracious and humble. All of these things I feel are very much in alignment with Indigenous people being content creators.
NH: Exactly, there is a responsibility to represent yourself in a manner that is respectful to the people who support you. It’s true in all aspects of art. Which leads me to your business, Totem Designs. I looked up your instagram and your work is beautiful. How did you get started?
SP: I started making them for friends years ago and didn’t really think much of it. And then, I went to one of our biggest artisan fairs here in Toronto called The One of a Kind Show. It’s one of Canada’s most famous art shows and they have over 800 artists there. A few years ago, I was there with my husband and I was horrified that there was such little Indigenous representation. I think there were three Indigenous artists there out of 800 artisans. And yet, we’re so famous for our art. It really bothered me and I was thinking about it all the time and I was really frustrated about it. I made the decision to stop complaining about it and to apply for the show.
I was accepted for the Christmas show, which is the biggest show. I made 400 dream catchers for that show. It was a huge investment for me. I decided to use this experience as a platform to educate people and talk about cultural appropriation, buying from Indigenous artists and just spreading awareness. I almost sold all 400 dreamcatchers. People were coming to the booth with so many questions. I realized at the end of the show, these pieces are really affecting people. I didn’t really think that would happen. I just was trying to make really pretty stuff and educate people about our traditions and the story behind the dreamcatcher.
NH: All of your dreamcatchers are beautiful. Your designs have a more modern flare to them. What influences your work?
SP: I wanted to do a modern take on the dreamcatcher. It’s my take on the dreamcatcher because I’m an urban native. I grew up in Toronto. I’m also in love with design, so I wanted to make something that could fit into anybody’s home and have it be used as medicine. I wanted to incorporate all of the things that we knew to be true about using things from the land, having energy and healing properties. I wanted to take all of those ideas and incorporate them but also make something that was really comforting to look at. I use the wool and I use design as a way to really tell a story.
NH: I read that you’ve sold over 100 dreamcatchers for charity. Tell me about that.
SP: That’s something that I try to practice and promote. That we can support people in so many different ways. You don’t have to have money. There were so many causes this year that I wanted to give to. I just didn’t have the money, but I had the resources of making dreamcatchers. So I would make stuff, sell them and donate the funds. That was the only way that I knew how to give back. We gave away almost $5,000 this year to multiple places. I had a great opportunity to donate to the Six Nations near here to the Child and Family services. I donated 50 dreamcatchers for the holidays. And that was something that I just really thought was important these kids may not get the opportunity to celebrate their culture if they’re displaced from their family. So I just had this idea that it would be so great to have something that you know is special to them and represents their culture.
NH: That’s awesome. Is there a particular cause that is maybe closer to your heart than others?
SP: I would say definitely at the forefront is my community and things that I feel like a few hundred dollars here and there can make a huge impact. I did one this summer for Black Food Toronto and the Regis Korchinsky Paquet family, who was a woman who lost her life last summer. And it was kind of in conjunction with the Black Live Matter protest. It was a time that I felt really powerless and there was nothing I could do.
I was taught through my Anishinaabe culture and through my Jewish roots that giving back is paramount to being human. It’s something so important. Gift giving and generosity and helping people in need was something that was ingrained in me. I think that that’s really missing in today’s society and it’s something that’s so specific to our communities. And I really wanna make sure that those practices aren’t lost.
BE ON THE LOOK OUT
NH: What projects do you have coming up that we should be looking for.
SP: We have a second season of Resident Alien that we’ll probably start … maybe this summer. And then I also am producing a TV series that we’re waiting to find out if it was greenlit for CBC. And another exciting project that I can’t talk about yet, but I know you’re going to like it.
NH: Do you have any advice for any young Indigenous creatives out there?
SP: Take care of yourself. Make sure you’re working with the right people. If you need to do a little extra research and find out about people, ask around. Make sure that you feel safe. There’s going to be a lot of people pushing for Indigenous content and they’re going to be looking for a lot of actors, producers, writers to get on board with a lot of non-Indigenous people. And I think as a community, we just have to make sure that we protect each other and make sure that we’re safe and make sure that the work isn’t retraumatizing or re-triggering, and to make sure that we are treated with respect and we’re paid appropriately and our stories aren’t being exploited and we’re not being exploited.
NH: Awesome! Thank you so much Sarah! I’m excited to find out what this super secret project is!
SP: Thank you! You may be hearing something soon.
NH: Thank you for your time. It was a pleasure talking to you. Good luck with everything!
SP: It was a pleasure talking to you too!
This interview was originally published on 4/5/21
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