photo by Mary Vallarta

How to Indigenize Popular Culture

by Stephanie Cram

Sonya Ballantyne is a lot of things: a filmmaker, a writer, a motivational speaker, a podcaster and yes—even an official Barbie role model.When she was first contacted by the Mattel toy company in 2019, her first thought was that they were looking to hire her production company, Code Breaker Films, to work on a campaign. Instead, they informed her that she had been chosen as one of 60 female Canadians to be Mattel role models in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the launch of the Barbie doll.


Ballantyne’s second thought was, “But I didn’t like playing with Barbies when I was a kid.” She was more of a tomboy. “My family anticipated I was going to be a boy, so when I wasn’t, my grandpa and dad really encouraged my boyish interests,” says Ballantyne. “I was more into action figures and stuff like that.”


Despite a reticence towards the Barbie doll as a child, Ballantyne learned that Mattel had created a gender-inclusive doll line called Creatable World in 2019. “Mattel is doing amazing work in terms of their diversity and having Barbies in wheelchairs or with short hair … I was really happy about that,” says Ballantyne. “They’ve changed to incorporate more body diversity, gender diversity … and all that good stuff.”


In the end, it was the kids—in particular, the young girls—she works with as a motivational speaker who inspired Ballantyne to agree to participate in the campaign. Ballantyne’s story was then shared on Mattel’s social media channels. According to research, girls as young as five years old start doubting their potential, a concept coined the “dream gap.” The Mattel campaign chose 60 female role models from across Canada whose stories would show young girls that they can dream big and seek out careers in any field. Other participants in the campaign were Olympic figure skater Tessa Virtue, plus-sized athlete and fitness enthusiast Louise Green and Dalhousie biologist Dr. Sara Iverson.


“To have me even be considered in that type of branding was pretty cool,” says Ballantyne. “A lot of the younger [girls] wanted to know if I knew Barbie personally.”


From the role models chosen from around the world, Mattel picked a few high-profile personalities and made Barbie dolls in their likeness. Ballantyne is determined to convince Mattel to create a Cree Barbie doll. Not a Cree doll wearing regalia, but one dressed in modern clothes that would look like her. Ballantyne even started a campaign to stir up interest.
“I noticed that the only Native American Barbie made … was general, with no tribal affiliation. I decided, while I have this platform, I’m just going to see if I can make something good. I do like the idea of kids playing with a Barbie that’s specifically Cree,” says Ballantyne.


“I was really surprised by how [the campaign] took off. Mattel had told me that it would take roughly three to six years to develop a new Barbie.”


With or without a Mattel doll look-alike, Ballantyne is a role model as a result of her many projects. She’s a filmmaker who got her start in the business by taking film at the University of Winnipeg, supplementing her film studies with courses offered by the National Screen Institute and the Winnipeg Film Group.


Ballantyne’s films feature strong Indigenous female characters, taking inspiration from her Cree culture but also from the popular and off-beat culture she’s into, like science fiction and superhero stories. Her first short film, 2015’s Crash Site, follows two First Nation girls who, after the death of their parents, enlist the help of a superhero.


In 2018 Ballantyne released the documentary Nosimin, about a woman who reconnects with her grandmother’s past through a series of drawings by Indigenous artist Daphne Odjig. Her latest short film, Eagle Girl, tells the story of an Indigenous girl who holds a ceremony to help her dying grandmother, but instead ends up attracting a shapeshifter. Ballantyne is currently working on her first feature film, WWShe.


“It’s about a group of teenage girls who start a wrestling promotion company on their reserve, after their school burned down,” says Ballantyne.


Ballantyne hopes to film WWShe entirely on a reserve, ideally her home community, Misipawistik Cree Nation. But with the cost of travel, she will likely have to settle for a location on a reserve closer to Winnipeg, like Brokenhead Ojibway Nation or Long Plain First Nation.


“I make fun of myself because, the first opportunity I had, I left my rez. But every story I tell is about girls who are close to their community, or still living on the rez,” says Ballantyne. For her younger audiences who live on reserves, she hopes they find inspiration in her films.


“A lot of my stories focus on Indigenous girls as they’re trying to find the strength within themselves to succeed or know that they’re enough as they are,” says Ballantyne. “I basically just want to portray girls like me in the stories that I’ve always wanted to see them in.”


Ballantyne recalls as a child not seeing many girls like her in popular media. “The first time I ever saw myself in something cool and popular was the Michael Jackson video Black or White, when he dances with a girl in a jingle dress. She blew my mind when I was a kid, because we were important enough to be in this video,” recalls Ballantyne.


For Ballantyne, Michael Jackson dancing alongside powwow dancers proved that Indigenous people were not a “relic of the past.”
Instead, it showed that Indigenous culture is thriving and very much alive. Due to the lack of representation of Indigenous characters in popular media while she was growing up, Ballantyne often related to media portraying the stories of Black people, like Will Smith’s character in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.


In fact, she has created, together with co-host TL Foster, a podcast about the 1990s TV show called Live from the Pool House, which looks at the parallels between the experiences of Black and Indigenous people. “I saw a lot of myself in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air because I was the first person to graduate high school in my family. It was the first time I ever saw my struggles on TV,” says Ballantyne.


“During the production of the podcast, I’ve noticed how I found kinship in the portrayal of Black culture and its similarities to Cree culture, specifically the importance of extended family, dealing with the insidious racism we all face and what it means to be a person of colour.”


Ballantyne recalls that the story of the Banks family from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air showed her just how much more difficult it is for people of colour to succeed.

“As we see on the show, the wealthy Banks family still encounters racism because money can’t hide the fact that they are African Americans.”

A few years ago, Ballantyne wanted to tell a more personal story, one about her sister and her love of dogs. This story became the inspiration behind Kerri Berry Lynn, her first children’s book. Originally, she wanted to turn the story into a short film but realized the logistics of the story made it a bit tricky to pull off.


“Filming with kids takes a lot of dedication and a lot of work, especially when you add seven or eight dogs [to the plot],” explains Ballantyne.


With many recent children’s books featuring Indigenous characters focusing on topics like the painful legacy of residential schools or the Sixties Scoop, Ballantyne wanted to buck the trend.


“I wanted to write a story about a Native girl, living on the rez, who likes hanging out with her dogs.”

In the end, she reached her goal: to create a fun, light-hearted book with Indigenous characters.

“I think a lot of books about Indigenous people, especially children’s books, are a little bit dark.”

Ballantyne also wanted to pay it forward with the book, so a portion of the proceeds of Kerri Berry Lynn have been donated to a dog rescue.


Whatever the medium, Sonya Ballantyne says her “brand is Indigenous representation,” even though it was a difficult and long road to get where she is now. She recalls that during the first two years after the launch of her production company, she was often overlooked for opportunities.


At times like this, she is reminded of something her father once told her: “He told me to never listen to somebody who says I can’t do something because I am Native and a girl.” ▼