Last summer, National Geographic announced that its hit, Emmy-winning franchise Life Below Zero would expand again, and this time focus entirely on Alaska Natives, which is very different than its last spin-off, Life Below Zero: Next Generation.
Before it even premiered, Life Below Zero: First Alaskans (NatGeo, Tuesdays at 8) was renewed for a 16-episode second season, which is currently filming—and so, too, are new seasons of Life Below Zero: Next Generation and Life Below Zero: Port Protection.
While season one of the new series takes place during winter, season two will cover winter through break-up, according to franchise showrunner Joe Litzinger.
To learn more about how this new series was constructed, I interviewed both Litzinger and Jenna Monroe, a story producer for Life Below Zero: First Alaskans who is Diné and whose bio says she “has spent the past 20 years passing on the Native tradition of storytelling through dance, theater and now, television.”
Monroe began as an associate story producer on season one last fall, having been recruited by a current editor, and was promoted to story producer for season two. “They wanted representation not only in the field, but behind the scenes as well,” she told me, “and asked if I’d be interested in learning a new skillset.”
While Life Below Zero’s cast includes Alaska Natives (the Hailstones and Ricko DeWilde), Litzinger said “it still felt that two things were missing which is more representation, an all-indigenous cast, and then a bigger focus and emphasis on indigenous [people] behind the scenes.”
Casting Life Below Zero: First Alaskans took five months, and Life Below Zero’s Ricko DeWilde came aboard as consulting producer to help that process.
“His involvement was key,” Litzinger said, because he’s “been on a national television show for a long time, and can speak about his experiences, and can speak about the trust that he has in BBC and National Geographic.”
One point they made in their pitch to potential cast members, Litzinger said, was that “there will be indigenous voices helping to tell the story. I think that was a big barrier in the past—rightly so.”
While the show had indigenous people both working as part of four-person field crews, and also in post production, Litzinger said “our intention is to continue to build that as much as possible,” because the goal is “to have indigenous people telling Indigenous stories.”
Monroe told me that, “coming in, I didn’t know how much of a voice I would have in the overall show. It is very typical that as indigenous individuals we are often pegged as ancillary characters in our own stories, which is disappointing and frustrating, but it’s one of the obstacles that you become really familiar with growing up indigenous here in the U.S., so I was prepared for that.”
“But I have to say that I’ve been incredibly impressed with the amount in which my voice has been heard,” Monroe added. “Right from the get-go, from the first time that I put markers in a cut down, I was getting feedback and questions.”
Producers also held a “meeting just to explain what Native sovereignty is,” Monroe said, and added that seeing the result of those conversations was surprising.
In episode 104, “Jody [Potts-Joseph] ends the episode talking about native sovereignty,” she said. “And sitting on my couch in my living room watching that on television, I teared up, because even though I knew it was going to be there, it’s really powerful to know that [post-production] conversation was actually received. It wasn’t just lip service. We weren’t going through the motions of diversity and inclusion. My voice was heard, and it was reflected in what I saw on my television set and in a really powerful and transformative way.”
While there almost 600 tribes in North America, both colonization and popular culture have compressed that into a singular, inaccurate image of just one type of Native American person.
“I will say as an indigenous person, just the Native Alaskan on my television set breaks down that monolith of what Native American representation is,” Monroe told me. “We are not Dances with Wolves; we’re not all on a pony with a war bonnet on. Once you break free of that, you will see that there’s not a lot of representation of the rest of us that are outside of Sioux Nation. It does not really exist in the media, and historically. Hearing these different languages—just hearing the Apassingoks speaking [in a language] which only has, what, like 300 native speakers in the world. Just hearing that on your television set—not even many Native Alaskans hear that language, because our languages were taken from us. So just seeing that and hearing that is huge.”
She said also said that “just allowing the space to have natives tell their stories outside of what we’ve seen, and tell them in their own language and in their own tradition is already breaking that down.”
Litzinger said that casting families and people from across different regions of Alaska also just made for a better show. “Like Jenna mentioned, it’s not just about being with one group, because each person has unique stories,” he said. “The more variety, the more diversity we have in the cast, I think the better stories we get.”
A few viewers have criticized the show for including people they perceive as non-Native Alaskan. “A lot of us, we come from mixed backgrounds, and there’s this odd obsession with our blood content. Whenever I meet somebody, and they find out I’m indigenous, one of the first questions I get is, Are you full or half? or It’s so strange,” Monroe told me.
“It is something that is really obsessed upon with indigenous culture, and most of us are mixed— especially if you’re outside of reservation or ranch areas or allotments. Through colonization, a lot of mixing happened,” she said. “It’s often that erasure of that mixing that’s created this concept that we are only brown: we are not this, we are not that. So actually seeing this on your television, to me that’s very relatable: That’s my family, that’s how I grew up, and I appreciate seeing that difference.”
“Also, my kid’s blonde,” she laughed. “Brown bodies made white skin, so…”
There have been many racist stereotypes and tropes perpetuated by Hollywood and TV shows, never mind the long history of cultural appropriation of Native Americans’ culture.
Is Life Below Zero: First Alaskans—a reality TV show produced by BBC Studios for National Geographic, a unit of Disney, a massive international corporation—just contributing to that? Is it just telling Native Alaskan stories to make money?
Showrunner Joseph Litzinger said “there’s always hesitation. A word we’ve heard a lot from a variety of people is ‘extraction’: extraction of knowledge, extraction of our image extraction.” But he related one conversation with a cast member who “was most excited about the idea that this could be shared with generations of his children. He envisions his children’s children being able to see him explaining traditional knowledge.”
Story producer Jenna Monroe said that while the show may be new, what it’s doing is not.
“We have a tradition of sharing,” Monroe said. “Culture is not something to be kept. Land is not something to be owned. We’re only borrowing. We’re just caretaking. And so part of that caretaking is sharing the knowledge and sharing that tradition.” She pointed out that, before colonization, “you married outside of your clan, and there was always a cross-pollenization, bringing together shared knowledge through different communities, different pathways, different lives.”
Monroe added that, with Life Below Zero: First Alaskans, she doesn’t see a show “explaining who I am to white people. I feel the sharing of knowledge tradition, a millennia’s worth of knowledge and tradition, and honoring that and letting people see the beauty of it. That’s what I feel when I watch it.”