Decolonising the airwaves with Midnight Son
Part true crime, part Native Alaskan folktale, Midnight Son challenges storytelling conventions and the US justice system.
When you think of Alaska, what comes to mind? Sarah Palin? Bears? Snow? Maybe an oil pipeline? I’m ashamed to say that before listening to Midnight Son, what came to mind about the US’s 49th state was not much beyond this simple list. But just like South Africa, Alaska has a rich pre-colonial history and the stories from that time haunt the present and shape the future. Midnight Son traces the violent consequences of one such entanglement between past and present that tests the idea of what is real.
Length: 8 episodes, 17 – 32 minutes each
Listen on: Audible*
“Long ago before the white people came to the Arctic, legend has it that we – the Iñupiaq tribe of northern Alaska – lived alongside another tribe, the Iñukuns.”
Setting the tone for the rest of the series, Midnight Son starts out with a legend passed down by the Iñupiaq ancestors of narrator, James Dommek Jr. It’s a story that immediately decentres the colonist’s point of view and brings into question the nature of what is considered factual and by whom.
Against the backdrop of this ancient story is the present-day tale of Teddy Kyle Smith, a Native Alaskan actor whose fall from grace forms the narrative backbone of the series. At first Smith appears to be living the dream as a Hollywood actor cast in films alongside big names like Drew Barrymore. Next thing we know, Smith’s mother is dead and he’s a fugitive running from the law. Smith flees into the wilderness, leaving more carnage in his wake. When he’s finally captured, he can’t stop speaking about an encounter he had in the mountains –an encounter Smith insists he had with the mythic Iñukuns.
The collision of these two stories leads Dommek to investigate what happened in those mountains. What follows is an intimate portrait of a man, a place and a people living under the shadow of centuries of brutal colonial expansion. As much as colonialism is built into the foundations of the story, it is not the focus. White people are not the main characters in this story, nor should they be. This is echoed in the sounds and music of the series. Rather than dropping in some arbitrary tunes from an online music library, the scoring is deeply evocative and specific without falling into any worn clichés. Listening to the deep bass rumbles of the opening song give me chills in a similar way that hearing the haka does.
While the first half of the story feels like a true crime mystery, the second half becomes a courtroom drama as Smith is tried for his crimes. Here the Iñukuns come crashing into the present, challenging the notion of what constitutes evidence and whose stories count within the context of the US justice system. The act of storytelling is at the heart of the series, unveiling the power of stories and how they shape reality. As Dommek says in the introduction, “Storytelling is one of the ways that we make sense of things up here in Alaska. It’s kept me and my people alive for tens of thousands of years.”
Central to the success of Midnight Son is the narrator, Dommek, who comes from a long line of Iñupiaq storytellers and is part of the community he’s reporting on. His access and insights elevate this story to a level that no outsider could ever reach.
This story has so many ingredients that make it a must-listen, but above all, it is a gripping adventure set in an epic landscape.
Happy listening! DM/ ML
*Note: You need an Audible membership to listen to this series. If you don’t have one, you can try a 30-day free trial.
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