Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today
Erin Tapahe, Diné, never imagined so many people would be interested in watching her TikTok videos.
As of today, she has over 25k followers on her account, @tapahe and was recently hired by TikTok to produce videos as part of the company’s Creative Learning Fund. The initiative, launched in May, provides TikTok creators financial earnings through a $50 million fund.
According to the company’s website, Tiktok is the leading destination for short-form mobile video. The massively popular app features very short, engaging videos covering popular music, dance, fashion, food, jokes, silly challenge memes and other topics. A creative free-for-all, as The New York Times described it.
Tapahe first entered the TikTok universe when her and her father’s career plans were interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since she first posted in mid-July, some of her videos have been viewed upwards of 282,000 times.
Her father is Eugene Tapahe, a well-known Diné photographer. When he found most of his shows and exhibitions were canceled due to the pandemic, he began work on a project entitled, “Art Heals: The Jingle Dress Project.” Leveraging the wisdom and history of the Ojibwe jingle dress dance, he decided to take “the healing power of the dance to the land to travel” by capturing a series of images to document the spiritual places where Native people once walked.
According to teachings handed down among the Ojibwe people, the idea for the jingle dress dance came to the father of a girl who was very ill, mostly likely during the 1918-20 Spanish Flu or H1N1 virus pandemic. The man built the dress as instructed in his dream. His daughter danced in the dress and began to recover.
“I suggested we post some videos about the jingle dress project on TikTok to raise interest in it,” Erin Tapahe says. She is a jingle dress dancer.
Shortly after posting, interest grew quickly.
“I love your regalia. Thank you for sharing,” one person commented. “Beautiful video! Don’t stop telling your story and may you be blessed while on your journey,” another person shared.
Tapahe, 24, is a recent graduate from Brigham Young University where she majored in communications and also pursued a minor in Indian education. Since her career plans for the summer were interrupted by the pandemic, she eagerly began learning how to navigate TikTok.
“It has really given our whole family a sense of mission and purpose during these challenging times,” Tapahe says.
She soon realized the new app offered an opportunity to educate the non-Native public about Native American people and issues. Other creators on the app have built followings on providing information not usually taught in school.
Some creators post health and mental wellness tips, others teach how to invest money, buy a home or start a small business.
“I want to share the strength and successes of Native people; that’s my motto. So many people are unaware of Native culture and history,” Tapahe says.
In addition to videos about the jingle dress project, she posts videos explaining basic facts about Native Americans, such as the number and diversity of tribes in the U.S., why regalia is sacred and why Native people may not all agree on the same topic.
As Tapahe began earning more followers, leaders at TikTok reached out to her, offering her an opportunity for employment with the company’s Creative Learning Fund. The company says it will grow the fund to over $1 billion in such projects in the near three years.
Most recently Tapahe posted videos explaining the history and background behind the missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic.
Although the videos are very short with limited space for text, the app offers the option to link to Wikipedia to give viewers a head start on learning more about featured topics according to Tapahe.
“Almost all of the comments on the videos are positive; people write that the project is beautiful and thank us for creating the videos,” she says. “Overall, the TikTok project has given me and my family so much hope and proves that art really can help heal.”
Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.