Indigenous Artist Spotlight: Kairyn Potts

Started in 2018, the Indigenous Artist Spotlight series is intended to foster greater awareness and understanding of the strength and diversity of Indigenous art available in Ontario and beyond. Find all of our past Spotlight interviews here. This month, we spoke with Two-Spirit multidisciplinary artist Kairyn Potts.

Kairyn (Kai) Potts (he/him) is proudly Nakota Sioux from Treaty 6 Territory (Paul Band FN and the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation). He is a proud Two-Spirit person and Indigenous content creator. As a former board member for 2Spirits in Motion and Youth Suicide Prevention Team representative, he is a passionate advocate who works to improve Indigenous youth’s lives (particularly queer youth and youth in the child and family services system). He was named to Tik Tok’s Global Discover List in 2022 as one of the platform’s top 50 change makers.

Kai now makes his home in beautiful T’Karonto, where he works as a writer, actor, model, TV host. He continues his youth advocacy through public speaking, content creation, frontline workshops and community events. He is the host for Snapchat’s Canada’s First Original Series “Reclaimed” and has appeared in the APTN Series “7th GEN.”

Kai co-founded the Indigenous gaming organization Neechi Clan in 2022. Kai is an avid gamer and streamer on Twitch and Tiktok who aims to create representation and opportunities for Indigenous youth in the gaming/content creation world. His creative projects allow him to utilize online platforms to share his voice, culture, makeup, lifestyle and fashion. His audience is highly engaged and shares his passions for humour, gaming and Indigenous social issues.

Watch the interview here.

Photograph of Kairyn Potts. Text on the photograph reads: Indigenous Artist Spotlight - Kairyn Potts.

Transcription of the Interview:

Sydney: Hello, everyone. My name is Sydney, my pronouns are she/her and I am the Digital Marketing and Communications Co-ordinator at Ontario Presents. I am an Asian woman with long hair and bangs, wearing a black turtleneck, and for this month’s Indigenous Artist Spotlight, I am joined today by an incredibly talented Indigenous artist, Kairyn Potts. Before I begin the interview, I just want to remind everyone that captions are available for this interview and you can find a transcript of this interview on our website, link in the description box below.

Kairyn, welcome and thank you so much for joining us today for our Indigenous Artist Spotlight. So for our very first question for our viewers, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Kairyn: Sure. I’d like to do it in my own language. Aba washded, Kairyn Potts magebchut, Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation chedeha himouchut. Okîsikohk kânîmihitot nimiyowin amiskwaciywaskahikan ochi nîya. My name is Kairyn Potts. I am Two-Spirit Nakota Sioux from the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation located in Treaty 6 territory. Currently, though, I make my home in the Dish With One Spoon treaty territory in the homelands of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Haudenosaunee, the Huron-Wendat, and also known as Tkaronto or Toronto. And I am a multidisciplinary artist, I do a whole range of different things. But the thing that I’m sort of most known for is my writing and my comedy sketches and my advocacy work on platforms like Instagram and TikTok and Facebook. And so that’s kind of a little bit about what I do. I’m also a gamer. I love to livestream video games, and I’m always up for creating content around gaming and everything. Gaming related. So that’s a little bit about who I am.

Sydney: Fantastic Introduction, love it. Alright, so for our next question, in an interview with, you mentioned that your career as a performer started with entering singing competitions and performing with a Métis dance group before pivoting over towards creating digital content. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey as a performer and what inspired you to create digital content?

Kairyn: Well, it really started way, way back in the day when I was probably around eight years old. I didn’t really understand the sort of importance of what I was getting myself into when I joined the Métis dance group and also became a singer because to me, it was just having fun. It was just like something to do. I didn’t see it as something so, so big that would put me on this big path. But I did it anyway and I got a really great sense of camaraderie out of being in a square dancing group and traveling to so many places.

I think that was the biggest thing that really influenced me to perform was the fact that we weren’t just dancing for each other at our Christmas concerts, we were traveling so much. We traveled to over 100 schools and did workshops and big performances and eventually started getting invited to places like Banff and Batoche and kind of across the prairies to perform for people because people really liked it.

We started performing in big festivals and competitions and and winning those competitions and the sort of, you get this sense of, like when the audience is just roaring and so excited to see you and loves what you’re doing and they get so much joy from what you’re doing. There’s like, it plants the seed inside of you, of like, “Wow, this is so cool. I get to do what I love, and in turn, I get to entertain and bring some joy to other people.”

And that sort of seed of that desire of performing really never went away with me. And in fact, I let it kind of get put to the backburner for a bit while I focused on some of the things in my life that were more important because I did have a pretty, pretty rough upbringing being in and out of foster care and being orphaned at a really young age and kind of trying my best to navigate staying in school and finding a place to live and where I was going to eat. And, you know, so I ended up becoming homeless when I was in my late teens, becoming an adult and trying to graduate from high school and live on my own and do all of these things.

So performing wasn’t really top of mind for me for a bit. But once I started getting settled and in my adulthood I really fell in love with it again through the introduction of TikTok and the app and how it gave everybody sort of this instant opportunity to be on a stage. Even though the stage was virtual and the stage sometimes was small, but sometimes the stage was really big and your videos would go super viral. So I think that excitement of being able to do something that I loved and also take risks because with these apps like TikTok, you can kind of be whoever you want to be on social media.

And I know we all like to think that social media is this place where everybody is themselves, but that’s just not true. Social media is curated, it’s fake, for lack of a better word. Social media is not real half of the time. And I think that’s also kind of like the allure and the like fun of it in a weird way, is that I don’t have to be who I am in my day-to-day job. I can go online and I can create art and I can create all of these things that are so out of the box that people wouldn’t expect from me. And yet it’s so much fun. And eventually, if you do it hard, if you do it enough and you take it seriously enough and you turn it into a job, it will start to sustain you and it will start to give you opportunities that you never really imagined. And so that’s kind of the evolution of like me being this little singer slash square dancer turned TikTok Instagram person personality. I don’t know what to call myself, a content creator.

Sydney: Yeah, that is a really great journey. And I love how that community aspect of like performing never really went away from like your journey as like being part of a dance group to like pivoting toward social media. It’s all about that kind of performance in that story and people can kind of come together as part of that story and kind of engage with them on their own terms. So thank you so much for sharing that with us. And you also mentioned in your interview a that one of your personal goals is to bring your work to the big screens and to create a feature length film. And given that this project is longer than the short form videos we see on Tik Tok and Instagram, do you think that the scope of the medium will have an influence on the kinds of stories that you want to share?

Kairyn: Absolutely. To a certain extent. I really think that what I’m doing right now on social media is really powerful because it reaches a lot of young people who are living on reserve and who live in remote communities. And sometimes they don’t have access to a lot of the same resources or mediums. And so being able to create content on TikTok has opened me up to a lot of opportunities and and it’s kind of trained me to create this short form sort of content, but it’s also just made me hungry for creating stuff in more traditional mediums like on the big screen or a television series or a feature length film or even a documentary. And so I’m eager to see what the kind of crossover is going to be like and just eager to jump and dive right into it and see if there’s any opportunity for me to transfer a lot of the skills that I have and the storytelling that I have and pair it with some really awesome production team and see what we can create.

I’m really confident in my storytelling abilities and my ability to create original content that’s really engaging and also really unique and pays homage to a lot of the stories that most Indigenous youth grew up with. And that piece about seeing something on a medium like a big screen, that representation, that feeling of like, “Wow, like I get this, like this is for me” - we don’t get that ever. Like, ever. I only recently got it with shows like Rutherford Falls and shows like Reservation Dogs or Prey and come on now, it’s like 2022, 2023. When these came out, it’s like, why did we have to wait so long? It’s because we’ve been watching shows like Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas and all this kind of stuff for so long that we forget that Indigenous people are literally just like everybody else. And we have stories that we want to tell. We have a culture that is so vibrant and beautiful. Clearly, people know that it’s vibrant and beautiful because they keep stealing it, but it’s nice to be able to reclaim that narrative and tell it on our own terms and be proud of it and be celebrated for it.

I want our Wakanda Forever for Indigenous people. I want a Crazy Rich Asians for Native people. I want something that our community can just champion so hard and for it to be a global phenomenon, that’s what I crave so desperately. And I’m not so naive to think that creating media like that, even though some people think it’s just, “Oh, you’re creating like a movie. Cool.”, I’m not so naive to think that that wouldn’t save lives because it absolutely would. It would give people hope. It would give people that unique feeling of being seen and being heard and being validated and having this major production be like, I see you and I understand you, and I get you, and there’s room here for you. You belong here. You know, it doesn’t need to be a dream. It can be a goal. And so that’s, I think, what the influence is going to be. And I’m just eager to see what my work will end up looking like and who I’ll end up working with in order to create those big films because it’s a lot of work.

Sydney: Absolutely. And I love what you mentioned about kind of the affirmative power and the validation that kind of comes with like seeing stories about specific people, kind of on screens and like you do feel seen and you do you feel like your experiences are in some way, kind of like, even more real because you’re seeing it reflected back at you through the mirror of the big screen. And I’d like to kind of circle back to our discussion on social media, and I know that a lot of your TikTok content features parodies of scenes from That 70s Show and Devil Wears Prada to your videos on mental health advocacy. Is there any particular video that you would recommend for first-time viewers of your work?

Kairyn: Uh, I… because I do such different stuff, it’s, I don’t think I have one specific video that would introduce all of my intersecting vibes, but I would say I made a video a couple of years ago or maybe a year and a half ago about the, sort of, actually, I made a video recently that’s similar talking about Orange Shirt Day and National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.

And I talked about the history of the Canadian government and I talked about how so many non-Indigenous people in Canada during Orange Shirt Day always talk about the dark history of Indigenous people. And I talk about how we need to start kind of changing the way that we view some of those histories and understand that we’re not learning about Indigenous people’s history, we’re learning about the history of the Canadian government and we’re learning about the things that the Canadian government did to Indigenous people and how not only are they committing genocide, but they’re upholding it as well, and that a lot of those systems that they put in place to control and to commit genocide against Indigenous people still exist today and are still actively upheld. And one of those, in particular, is the Child and Family Services system or the child welfare system. And I just talk about some of the stark similarities between residential school systems, Sixties Scoops and the current present-day Child and Family Services system, which houses 90% in some provinces of all kids in care are Indigenous.

In my own province, it’s like 83, 86% of all kids in care being Indigenous, that’s like basically the entire system is just native kids. That’s kind of, it’s when you think about it, that’s thousands of kids. That’s scary, that’s sad. It’s heartbreaking. That means there’s that many kids who aren’t with their families and you wonder why our young people aren’t growing up with their own languages, aren’t growing up with their sense of belonging, their sense of community, their sense of identity.

All of these things is because they’re they’re being apprehended at birth. Two of my sisters gave birth and the social workers took the baby before my sister even got a chance to hold the baby. And that happens in hospitals all over the provinces, and so, and forced sterilizations not to, you know, not to slip past that, but that happens as well, which is like absolutely disgusting, just horrifying to think about.

And so that’s a big part of my, not to get so dark, but that’s a big part of the advocacy that I do on social media, is there’s times to laugh and there’s times to be silly and have fun. But I have a moral obligation. I have a job, I have a spiritual duty as a Two-Spirit person to speak up and to use my voice and to be somebody who goes into a lot of those areas that are really difficult to be in.

Those conversations that are super hard to have but are so, so, so necessary. And I’m okay dying on those hills because they need to be talked about and social media does not like to be nothing but pretty. But some of those things aren’t pretty and they deserve to be talked about. That’s why I think it’s a great idea for me to leverage all of my comedy content and all of the stuff that people love and they want to, they can’t wait to get into the door to see it happen, and then I lock the door behind them and then I play them, you know, stuff about the residential schools and they’re like, “Well, we didn’t sign up for this. We want the stupid wigs and the jokes, you know?” So it’s kind of like with me, you, you get one, but you can’t get one without getting the other. And that’s just how I live my life.

Sydney: Yeah. And I think there is something to be said about the great thing about social media is you don’t really have to like. I guess the great thing is you kind of turn the camera on yourself and you can share the narratives you want to share. There isn’t necessarily this kind of like barrier, like, “Oh, like I can only share like X narratives” per se. It’s that you share what you want to share and people will find it and they will connect with it and they will resonate with that. And I wanted to move on to our next question real quick. You mentioned in a previous interview with CBC that it’s important for you as a youth-oriented content creator to connect with young indigenous people whose experiences mirror your own. Was there someone in your life who filled a similar role in your journey as a performer?

Kairyn: Yeah, absolutely. There was many, many, many people who did that. For me, I was really blessed growing up to have a ton of people in my life who took the time to sort of see me and recognize that I needed help and that, you know, somebody like me who was orphaned at a young age, who didn’t really have like a nuclear family or had a ton of positive role models in my life, I had to branch out and create a family where there was none.

And I had to sort of find ‘mom’ in so many different women in my life, whether it’s my librarian or whether it’s my counselor or my bus driver. I was looking for pieces of ‘mom’ in every single person that I was with. And so I got really good at, like sussing out who was good energy and who wasn’t good energy.

And eventually it led me to having a ton of people in my life who were singers who are dancers. I think the art community really like embraces folks who come from adversity and who come from hardship, art, artists really kind of understand the pain and the struggle of not only going through tragedy, but also like trying to turn the tragedy into something and trying to make something out of it and create something beautiful and meaningful out of it.

And so, yeah, I had, I actually had a square dancer who was a best friend of mine, but also was my hairstylist. I was only 12 years old when I met him and he was Two-Spirit from up north. He was Cree and Dene and a Métis person, and he was a square dancer for a big group in the north. And he moved down to the city to where I was living, and he was Two-Spirit as well. And I was just coming into my Two-Spirit identity, not really understanding what it meant at all. In fact, I was scared of talking about it. And so, to have someone like him who I looked up to as a dancer, as somebody who was part of a group just like I was, who was also Indigenous, having him kind of take me under his wing and show me, you know, this is what you need to look for. You need to stay away from this. And like, here’s some other friends that I know that will, like, accept you with welcoming arms that was so, so important. And I never underestimate the power of mentorship.

And that’s why when I see young people in my day-to-day life and I can sense that they’re hungry for guidance or they’re hungry for some type of, something more from you, sometimes people will come up and just say, “Oh, like I want to get a photo and da da da”, that’s fine. We take a photo and then they’re off on their way. But then sometimes I’ll get people who come up and they kind of linger and they look scared and they look anxious and you know that they want to talk to you. You know that they want to ask you a question, but they’re so nervous. And I’m like, “Hey, what’s up? How’s it going? What’s your name? What are you up to? Like, what do you do for fun?” And then you start it. It starts coming out because you’ve created that safe space and you realize that they want help trying to get funding for a project that they’re doing or, you know, they have a performance next week, but they’re so deathly afraid of getting on stage in front of people, how do I do it? Or, you know, they want some advice on how to create content for their social media to advertise some of the art that they do, like all of these kinds of things. And so I definitely think that finding people who are artists who have been there before and have kind of walked those paths is just completely invaluable.

Sydney: Absolutely. Yeah, I definitely agree with the whole idea that it is important to kind of have that safe space to explore the different facets of identity, but also to kind of like talk about, I guess similar points and journeys, kind of like your point about that individual who was going to go on stage but were afraid of going on stage and going to someone who has been in a similar situation and seeing how they kind of approach it and kind of like find bits and pieces that help you to find your own approach. So thank you for sharing that with us. It was really beautiful. As we’re kind of going to wrap up the interview, is there anything else that you wanted to share? Do you have any upcoming work that we should be on the lookout for?

Kairyn: Let’s see, I, a lot of what I’m doing right now is traveling, which is taking a lot out of me spiritually and physically, just being in airports and being in hotels. And the physical act of traveling is not as glamorous as it seems like. Everyone’s like, “Oh, your traveling, that’s awesome.” I’m like, “Yes, but it’s it’s a one-hour event across the country, but it takes two full travel days to do that one hour event.” So it’s it takes a ton out of you and you don’t get to like visit the city. You don’t get to hang out with people. So you’re not really, like traveling. You’re kind of just like en route to the gig. And then you come back from the gig and it’s just like seven, eight, nine, 12 hours of just being in really uncomfortable situations. But aside from traveling a lot, I’m going to be pitching some really awesome projects, a web series to the Indigenous Screen Office, which is so exciting because I’m going to be pairing up with TikTok, who has an incredible headquarters in Toronto, and they’re going to be lending me some studio space to film something there. I’m also doing, I also have two feature length films that I’m writing right now that are coming down the pipe, and I’m also pitching something for the imagineNATIVE Pitch festival in October, which fingers crossed, I win and then I get some really awesome opportunities to create some more longform content that will live in spaces other than just my TikTok. So yeah, just a bunch of really awesome kind of big projects that I have to keep chipping away at.

But in between there, I’m still releasing really funny videos and doing some really awesome been getting into a lot of them beauty brand partnerships, like with people like Lancome and people like The Body Shop and you know, for doing stuff with Nyx Cosmetics and just exploring the makeup beauty side of being a social media influencer, which is honestly kind of fun. Like it’s pretty fun to just play with makeup and get sent new products and test them out and do all that kind of stuff. It’s kind of wild because I grew up watching people like Michelle Phan on YouTube and loved all of her stuff and thought, “Wow, that would be like so wild, if that was my job to just like, you know, get this big box in the mail from this beauty brand and then create like a 30-second video on it and get paid all this money to, like, talk about their products because people listen to me.” The concept just, I just never pictured that ever being a reality for me, especially as like a queer native kid in like Edmonton, Alberta, like, of all places. And just never in a million years would I imagine it happening. And so it’s happening now, and it means that there’s space for it to happen now which took a long time to get here.

But now that it’s here, it’s yeah, it’s so much fun and I can’t wait to see all of the other incredible content creators and artists who are emerging who are going to keep pushing that envelope and push it into a place where Indigenous people not only will be seen and heard, but they’ll be at the helm telling their own stories and being really proud of them and showcasing all of the just immense and vast and diverse beauty of all of the different nations that we have in Turtle Island and we can kind of move away from this idea of pan-Indigeneity or all Indigenous people are painted with one broad paint stroke and you get to see all of the individuality and all of the uniqueness that exists in our nations. So I think that’s everything.

Sydney: So really amazing stuff to be on the lookout for. So as we are wrapping up, I just want to say thank you again to Kairyn for taking the time to sit down with us and to participate in our Indigenous Artist Spotlight. You can find Kairyn’s social media handles in the description box below and at the bottom of the transcript for this video. Thank you so much for watching this video and we look forward to seeing you in our next Indigenous Artist Spotlight.

Connect with Kairyn Potts