BIPOC COVID-19 Entrepreneur Featured Life Mental Health Podcast

How James Jones (Notorious Cree) Harnessed Social Media to Reclaim and Share His Culture

Notorious Cree in traditional Indigenous regalia jumping up against blue background

What does it mean to embrace your culture? To reclaim your cultural identity? James Jones (otherwise known as Notorious Cree) is an Indigenous educator that has harnessed the power of social media and technology to reclaim and share his culture.

Jones was recently a part of TikTok’s first ad campaign in Canada, called ‘It Starts on TikTok,’ which celebrates Canadian creators making an impact through the social media platform. And it’s quite an impact he’s made. With an audience of over 2.5 million followers across his social media platforms, James shares daily pieces of content that offer a window into his life and, most importantly, his culture—one that he admits he wasn’t connected to growing up.

Jones (who is from Alberta and Cree) has a number of family members who were educated in Canada’s residential schools where they were shamed for who they were. As a result, much of their culture wasn’t passed on and it wasn’t until he was older that he was able to reclaim his voice and fully celebrate his heritage. Now, he’s using his platform and influence to share his culture with millions of people, including other Indigenous people who are looking to connect and celebrate their cultural heritage as well. 

Featured in our two-part digital cover series featuring Canadian TikTok creators, we sat down with Notorious Cree to talk about how he built his platform, the importance of representation, and how he’s using technology to share his culture.

Bay Street Bull: It’s incredible and so inspiring what you’re doing by passing on cultural knowledge in a modern way that reaches such a huge volume of people. What does it mean to embody that role, share your culture, and connect with others in the way that you have?

Notorious Cree: For me, it’s really awesome that I get to tell my story and share my culture on these platforms. Before all this stuff happened, I didn’t really have a huge following online. After I got TikTok and used the app in the way that it’s supposed to be used, which is storytelling through music, I was just able to share parts of my culture and the beauty of it. For me, it’s really important to share that and hopefully inspire the younger ones to be proud of who they are.

Bay Street Bull: Did you always intend for your social platforms to be a destination for cultural conversation and knowledge? 

Notorious Cree: Honestly, no. I had no expectations for my social media. When I first started posting, right after COVID happened and we all had to stay home, I was like, okay, the world is really heavy right now. Everybody is either sad, angry, or scared. I [decided to] make funny content and try to make people laugh. So I was making Indigenous humour videos and posted four or five of those in a row. They didn’t really pop off or get very many likes or views. As soon as I started posting my cultural stuff, it blew up. I thought, okay, maybe people want to see this.

James Jones Notorious Cree sitting down against yellow background
Notorious Cree (Photography: Norman Wong)

Bay Street Bull: Was there a video where you realized things were starting to resonate and traction was building?

Notorious Cree: I think it was the fifth video I posted. There was this thing going around called the Blinding Lights challenge where people would dance to this song by The Weeknd called Blinding Lights. I remember doing the dance but didn’t want to look like everybody else. I thought it would be way cooler to [dance in my regalia.] So I put on my hoop dancer regalia, recorded one take, posted it, and went to bed. When I woke up I had 500,000 views and thousands of shares. I just kept going. It all happened with one video. 

@notoriouscree

Comment if you have any questions #indigenous #nativetiktoks #nativepride #dance #education

♬ original sound – Cameryn

Bay Street Bull: You mix pop culture, music, and dance with Indigenous culture, and you focus on hoop dancing. What is hoop dancing and why is it important? What is the cultural significance?

Notorious Cree: Hoop dancing is a healing dance; each hoop has different meanings for different teachings. It is literally one of the most creative dances on the planet. You can just keep creating new formations. It’s just a really fun dance to do. Aside from that, there’s a lot of spiritual meaning behind it. It’s really important, especially during the times that we’re living in right now. Everybody needs healing, so that’s why I’ve been doing that a lot lately.

Bay Street Bull: You’re part of a new TikTok campaign in Canada called ‘It Starts on TikTok’ that celebrates diversity, trends, stories, and conversations that really deliver cultural and social impact on and off the platform. What does it mean to you to be a part of a campaign like this and one that is really pushing the value of social dialogue?

Notorious Cree: Oh, it means a lot. One of the things that I’m really proud of is that it’s giving Indigenous people a platform. It’s giving Indigenous people a voice, and it’s showing us that these huge conglomerate social media platforms, they see us. That’s really important because, often as Indigenous people, we feel like our voices are not being heard and our stories are not being told. So for me, it’s really important. I’m really honoured and happy that I’m able to do the campaign. 

Bay Street Bull: Have you always felt connected to your culture or is it something that you rediscovered and fully embraced as you got older?

Notorious Cree: I never grew up in a traditional setting. I never grew up with my dances or my language. I grew up in a small community and moved to Edmonton when I was pretty young. I was just never around [my culture.] It’s something that I learned later in life. And the reason for that is my parents, my grandma and grandpa, all my aunties and uncles—they all went to residential schools. Residential schools [were when] the government had this plan in the sixties to put all First Nations and Métis kids into these boarding schools forcefully. They went and took all the Indigenous kids from their homes with the RCMP and put them into these residential schools where they basically tried to take away their culture. So you weren’t allowed to speak your language, you weren’t allowed to have long hair, you weren’t allowed to practice your ceremony. And if you did, you got punished. My language and my culture were taken away from my parents and most of my family so that stuff was never passed down to me growing up.

@notoriouscree

Our past does not define us. Thank you all so much for the support, it really means a lot #nativeamerican #native #indigenous #mystory

♬ original sound – The Boyces

Bay Street Bull: How did you reconnect with your culture? 

Notorious Cree: It just kind of came to me. When I was around 16 years old, I started hanging around with what we call powwow people—people who dance and sing at powwows, which are celebrations that we have in our culture. Through them, I started attending ceremonies and helped out, which is when I started to dance. It didn’t happen all at once, but it’s a time of my life where I wanted to learn more. I got involved with dancing and ceremonies and started to learn more about my language. Once I got a little taste of it, I was like, Oh, this is cool. I want to learn more about who I am.

Bay Street Bull: In one of your videos, you talk about the symbolism of your hair and what that means to you. Can you talk about what kind of importance and role hair has in Cree culture?

Notorious Cree: We believe that our hair is an extension of our spirit. The men in my tribe have all had long hair, and there’s a lot of significance, especially to hair braiding. Our family members will braid our hair or our loved ones or partners, and most of us don’t let anybody touch our hair. Also, when a loved one passes into the spirit world, people will often cut a piece of their hair as a way to honour them. Our hair is very sacred to us and I try to give some of those teachings online because a lot of young men out there, especially Indigenous men and young boys, get bullied in school. People call them girls and stuff like that.

I was just tagged in this video on TikTok where a mom was saying that she braided her son’s hair and sent him to school. And then when he got to school, his teacher took his braid and said he shouldn’t be braiding his hair and that they are for girls. Stuff like that always happens and it’s really unfortunate, which is why I feel it’s important for me to share those hair teachings and tell the young ones that it’s okay to have long hair. Wear your hair with pride.

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Notorious Cree in traditional Indigenous regalia jumping up against blue background
Notorious Cree (Photography: Norman Wong)

Bay Street Bull: How do you grapple with this intersection between trying to honour your culture and navigating the mental health challenges that come with it?

Notorious Cree: There’s two sides to [social media,] the good side with healthy comments and people who support you and say good things. Then there’s also the other side: the trolls. I get a lot of good and bad comments on my posts, especially because my posts are very Indigenous. I get a lot of racists who leave hateful comments, and I used to get really emotionally involved with people who say mean things on my stuff. I would argue with them for hours. Over the last few years, I just started not paying those negative comments any mind. I feel bad for people that have to walk around with that negative energy all day. They have to hold onto that like it belongs to them, you know? I just focus on the positive.

Bay Street Bull: How important is it to honour tradition and heritage, but also reframe culture through a modern lens so that stereotypes don’t perpetuate?

Notorious Cree: It’s really important for me. A lot of Indigenous artists are doing fusion stuff now. I feel like people think that we still live in teepees or igloos, that we’re relics of the past. It’s really important to show people that we’re here and we live in 2020. We have houses, we have iPhones just like you, and we can hop on these trends just like you can.

It’s important to show that representation because if you have never seen a comment section on an Indigenous post, you would be floored by what people say and how little they know about Indigenous people. We only really know what they see in Hollywood where we’re always being cast as the stereotypical red Indian who says, “How.” It’s really important that we have that representation and we show the world that we’re here in 2020.

Notorious Cree in traditional Indigenous regalia against green background
Notorious Cree (Photography: Norman Wong)

Bay Street Bull: So much of the narrative is centered around historical trauma, as well as current trauma and racism that we’ve witnessed in places like Nova Scotia. It is incredibly important to highlight these stories but how important do you think it is to also showcase and celebrate Indigenous stories around joy and success? 

Notorious Cree: Obviously it’s important to raise awareness and let people know what’s going on in Indigenous communities, especially with what’s happening in Nova Scotia. But it’s also important to share positive, happy things. I always try to educate in a way that people can receive and understand. Oftentimes I want to just start swearing and get mad when I see really negative stuff going on in our communities, but I always try to educate in a good way, a way that can be received the best and that people can [understand] in mass numbers when I’m raising awareness.

Bay Street Bull: Do you think Indigenous culture is seen as a monolith? What needs to be done to highlight the diversity of cultures across Indigenous communities so that we’re not viewing it collectively as just one culture? 

Notorious Cree: I always let people know that I am Cree. It’s really important that we highlight different cultures in our Indigenous communities. Everybody always just thinks I’m Cherokee or Navajo, or “Hollywood Indigenous,” which is Apache, Lakota, or Cherokee. We have over 500 very diverse, beautiful tribes in North America with different languages, teachings, and ceremonies. It’s important that we highlight that as much as we can. I always try my best to do that. 

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Bay Street Bull: You’ve used your platform to educate people, share your culture, and connect with people within your community, as well as outside of your community. What are some ways that you think non-Indigenous people can be an ally and support your community?

Notorious Cree: I always tell people to go and follow as many Indigenous creators as possible. If people are raising awareness about what’s happening in their community and you can’t go and support, you can always reshare their content with your followers. I feel like a really good way to be an ally is sharing content and raising awareness. You can look up Indigenous hashtags and educate yourself on what’s going on. I think that’s really important.

@notoriouscree

Collab with @tiamiscihk #indigenous #nativetiktok #dance #culture #nativepride

♬ original sound – jose

Bay Street Bull: People associate you as being a content creator and an influencer. What does influence or having influence mean to you?

Notorious Cree: I’m still wrapping my head around it, to be honest. I look at myself as an educator. I try to bring healing and laughter with my culture and dances. The word ‘influencer’ represents your content influencing people but for me, I always look at myself as an educator.

Bay Street Bull: What would you say is your mission? What’s the big picture for James Jones and Notorious Cree? 

Notorious Cree: It’s just to give a voice to Indigenous people on these social media platforms. I always think about all those people who need healing and who don’t have a voice or a platform. With Notorious Cree, if I can be that voice for people, and showcase and raise awareness for what’s happening in our communities—if I can inspire the next generation to be proud of who they are and want to learn more about their culture, then that’s what I want to do.