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New podcast spotlights Native American stories

Native Voices
Courtesy of Melissa Townsend
The Minnesota Native News team at the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists awards in June 2019. From left to right: Laurie Stern, Melissa Townsend, Marie Rock, Leah Lemm and Cole Premo.

A new podcast is putting a shine on the missing and unheard stories of Native Americans.

“Native Lights Podcast,” a production of Minnesota Native News and the radio network Ampers, spotlights personal stories from Native American guests. Some are notable names in their community; others are everyday people with something to share.

The podcast launched Tuesday, with episodes running from 40 to 50 minutes. Season 1 is composed of five episodes with three or four guests each, telling stories centered around a theme (“purpose” is the first). It will also cover topics such as “music, art, parenthood, adoption, foster care, addiction, and violence,” according to the Native News website. 

Piercing through ‘doom and gloomy’ narrative

Hosted by siblings and longtime musicians Cole Premo and Leah Lemm, members of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, the podcast aims to pierce through the mainstream “doom and gloomy” narrative about Native Americans. Creators say the podcast is able to tell more complete stories of Native Americans by elevating individual accounts. 


“I’ve interviewed lots of folks who say, ‘(Native Americans) are at the top of every bad list and the bottom of every good list, and every time we hit number one (the media) do a story about us,’” said Melissa Townsend, producer for Native News. 

Native Lights“And that’s a problem, if you’re only telling stories about the cancer rates in Native communities are the worst, the out of home placements are the worst, it’s like, why? Why is that? What’s the context? And who’s working to change that? … That’s how we’re really different. We try to keep people’s attention to understand history, context, problems and the work that’s happening to show that people aren’t ignoring that in their communities.”

Wrapped up in the smooth voices of Premo and Lemm, listeners feel like they’re in the same room. The tone is conversational, yet deeply personal. 

In the first episode the hosts interview Rob Fairbanks, a Leech Lake comedian known as the “Wiener Water Soup Man.” Lemm remarks she thought her father was a professional comedian growing up because of his spot-on humor. It feels like you’re talking to three people: Fairbanks, Premo and Lemm. 

‘Putting the person first is my goal’

I’m always thankful when people share themselves with me. It’s more than looking for a story or something entertaining, it’s sitting down and visiting with people … drinking coffee, eating lunch. The story will come, but putting the person first is my goal,” said Lemm in an email. 

Native News stories are typically told in weekly, five-minute bites. But the podcast is a chance to furnish representation with long-form beginning, middle and end. 

“These five-minute newscasts, there’s a lot of pressure to get it all condensed … but with the podcast we can let people breathe and just let their words come through. Not really cut up their words and their voices and kind of package them in that way. We’re giving them more of a voice, we’re giving them more time to speak,” Premo said.


How were guests chosen? Google, said Premo. And through social networks. They also drew inspiration from current events, such as when they talked to historian Kate Bean, who led the push to change the name of Lake Calhoun to Lake Bde Maka Ska. 

Listeners are also encouraged to send in story ideas. The podcast is funded by taxpayers and the Minnesota Arts and Culture Heritage Fund

“I just think this is a podcast where you’re going to listen to stories and people in a more intimate way than you have before, and you can’t get that anywhere else,” Premo said.

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