Kymon Palau Is TikTok’s Brightest #NativeFamily Star

 

WORDS BY LANDON PEOPLES

PHOTOGRAPH BY KYMON PALAU

In the vast and totally incongruent world of TikTok, film student Kymon Palau has managed to emerge as his own cultural star. His profile, prominent within the world of First Nation-themed hashtags, serves tea on American history alongside Native recipes in his signature droll, I-told-you(-so) humor.

WORDS BY LANDON PEOPLES

PHOTOGRAPH BY KYMON PALAU

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There is no denying Instagram isn’t what it used to be. What was once a faultless way to digitize life’s in-between moments would eventually evolve into a shameless self-promotion diary. And then came the influencers. Now, the mitochondria of social media has become a classroom of sorts—a way to learn and unlearn that which we don’t know and everything we thought we did, respectively. But TikTok, on the other hand (Generation Z’s next-edition Vine), is its latest competitor where being yourself—in some ways the antithesis of Instagram—is your currency; where highlighting your flaws and making short, and at times chaotic, point-and-shoot videos about them is your one-way ticket to overnight fame.

 

Not unlike Instagram, the video app boasts its own galaxies of hashtags that are truly a trip. They’ll lead you down roads like #ImBusyRightNow, the latest viral trend, or #NativeTikTok, where you might stumble upon Kymon Palau and the history of Thanksgiving, how to make Navajo tacos, or a list of things you shouldn’t say if you’re not Native American (including but not limited to: pow-wow, spirit animal, Indian giver, and more). Though popular, Palau—who is of Diné and Tongan heritage—is one of many Indigenous influencers who thinks of his platform as just a starting point for larger conversations to be had.

 

Palau considers himself a learner, too. After posting his first video, which has over three hundred thousand views, he’s spent the past year minoring in other Indigenous cultures, as well: like throat singing, from Shina Novalinga of the Inuk tribe, and the intricacies of how land was stolen from other First Nation communities across the country. Palau, a film student by day, takes his ideas from aha moments: “I can only assume that there are hundreds, thousands, or millions of other people that feel the same way.” And, of course, it all started with a flip phone.

 

Below, the TikToker speaks to Atmos on how the social network is fostering a global network of cultured creators, the need for more Indigenous stories on the silver screen, and his advice for anyone who has found comfort in an online community and wants to take that confidence with them into the real world.

Landon Peoples

What have you learned about yourself and others since joining TikTok last year?

Kymon Palau

I learned a lot about myself and how many other people appreciate me for me. And how many other Indigenous TikTok feeds are in the same space as reconnecting with our culture and who we are. A year ago, I was curious about my culture—[to learn] more about my people, about our teachings—and TikTok made me dig deeper. There were a lot of people paying attention to my every move and it helped me learn more about myself and share what I learned along the way. TikTok has provided that platform for me to speak and connect with other people across the world; to exchange knowledge is a blessing and I’m very thankful for that.

Landon

How often do you find that it’s a place for you to educate others on topics that you’re interested in and identify with—but as a place for you to learn, as well?

Kymon

There’s a lot of learning and unlearning that happens, especially through TikTok. There are a lot of other tribes that I haven’t really been exposed to in my years of schooling that share their history, their teachings—and I’m able to relate to them on different levels.

 

For example, there’s the Inuk tribe. And a TikTok user named Shina Novalinga. And she shares educational videos about their history and throat singing—including information on the settlers that kept the Inuk in place and controlled them. I can relate to that, as well, being half Diné; our people being relocated and forced to do things we weren’t used to doing. That relatability with other influencers is great. You never stop learning. That’s the one thing that I really want people to know about my existence on TikTok: I’m constantly learning about other people—and their culture and their history.

Landon

Walk me through #NativeFamily and #NativeTikTok and your role within those worlds.

Kymon

My TikTok started off with exposing celebrities who appropriated Native American culture, which is very offensive. And I sort of just started using hashtags that I identified with—you know, #Native, #Polynesian, and #Indigenous—and I didn’t know, because I was so new to TikTok, that you can click on the hashtags and see all these other posts. While interacting with that, the algorithms were sort of, like, Hey, you’re probably Native and Polynesian—let’s show you some other content. Then, I was exposed to other people that look like me—other Polynesian people, other Native creators—and I was like, Wow, there is a space for people like me. I kind of just fell into it and have always been there.

 

TikTok has reached out to me and all these other Indigenous creators, and we had a Zoom call—and that’s where the #NativeFamily was sort of established as we shared stories about our experience with TikTok, about our histories, and our ways of life. But I formed a community on [that] Zoom and ever since then, I‘ve followed other Native creators, as well. We support each other. I love it; it’s amazing.

Landon

Where do you get your ideas or inspiration for your videos from? Since you study film, how do you reconcile the point-and-shoot nature of TikTok with the polishing skills you’re probably learning through school?

Kymon

I’ll tell you a story: When I was a kid, I had a Verizon flip phone and it had recording capabilities but there were no editing tools on it—only a pause and resume button. So, I would make these short films by myself or with my family, and then save it and rewatch it. I experimented with looking at films and how they’re edited by shooting one scene from different perspectives and blending it and mimicking it back through the pause and resume capabilities of my little flip phone. And that’s when I knew that I just loved creating. I just loved getting a reaction out of people and making people feel a certain way. I sort of used those talents to take advantage of the space I could have on TikTok to educate people. So, I already kind of had that editing experience.

 

TikTok is very point-and-shoot and to-the-point. Personally, I’m always about being to-the-point. I never want to give anyone any fluff. I want to let you know what the problem is, what we need to do about the problem, and how we can fix it and what we learned. And that’s what I do on TikTok. One thing I learned, though, is that our attention spans right now are very short, so I always try and catch my audience within the first couple seconds and then maintain that so they’re able to learn something new.

Landon

Where do you see yourself beyond TikTok? What are the types of stories that you want to be telling in, say, five years? And how?

Kymon

I usually think about a topic that I’ve learned that I’ll then I’ll talk about with my friends where they’ll usually say, Oh, we’ve never heard about that or Thank you for teaching me that. If I’ve told you something I’ve never heard of or never been taught before then I can only assume that there are hundreds, thousands, or millions of other people that feel the same way—that have never heard about us or heard about our way of life or history and what we went through. And then I just use my notes. It’s kind of like an essay almost: I write what I wanna say and then I cut out all of the fluff and make sure it’s to-the-point.

 

In five years, I want to be telling our story. I want to talk about the things I do on TikTok but on a deeper level where my people can feel seen and heard; to see themselves on screen in a positive light and in a light that’s accurate.

 

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A post shared by Kymon (@igkymon)

Landon

How do you think your online activism might translate into real life activism? Or do you think your sort of activism or art is more of education and community?

Kymon

I’m just here using my voice and I just hope someone listens or gains something new from it and applies it to their life. I can’t control what people are gonna do. I can only influence them to hear what I have to say.

Landon

What are some examples of Native issues relating to nature or climate change that you’d like to see more awareness around?

Kymon

Indigenous people have always respected Earth and have never taken Earth for granted. I think an important issue is of people thinking they own the land or that they’re above the land, that they’re more important than anyone else; when, in reality, we’re the same as animals—we’re the same as the water we drink, the earth we walk on, [and] the sun that shines. We’re all one and we need to take care of ourselves and see everything that surrounds us.

 

You can see that, during the pandemic, our elders are saying right now that it’s a time of calmness and healing, of teaching, and taking a break (you know, with transportation on pause). And we saw little changes in the Earth that you think would make us stop our old ways. But it’s not easy. So, I think we need to go back to the teachings of Native people, of respecting the Earth and land, and not prioritizing money or paper currency over our lives and existence.

Landon

A recent Indigenous ethnobotanist told an editor of ours that Indigenous people are very scientific—it’s just that your science includes the heart. What does that mean to you?

Kymon

I love that. It really puts things into perspective of why we are so appreciative of everything. The heart beats and Earth has a heart, as well. We need to make sure that the heart keeps beating. And I just know that the heart is there for a reason, that conscience that is there for a reason—and we need to pay attention to it. We need to include it in every decision we make.

Landon

In terms of decisions related to the Earth, what do you hope to see with the appointment of Deb Haaland to lead the Secretary of the Interior?

Kymon

I always have this conversation at the dinner table. Biden is really taking a risk because our history, American history, has always revolved around greed, money, and power—and we’re not about that. We’re about living and leading with the heart and I know that Deb Haaland is gonna do great [things] for our people; I know that we’re going to come first. I just hope Biden knows what he’s getting himself into.

Landon

How has existing between two worlds—being Diné and Tongan—helped you create a world of your own?

Kymon

I don’t know how to put the feeling into words. I’m just so honored to be able to have that privilege of existing between two worlds—with femininity and masculinity, as well as being Tongan and Diné.

Landon

What is your advice for anyone who finds community and solace online and wants to carry that confidence with them into the real world?

Kymon

Continue to share and speak even when you feel like no one is listening. Because there’s always someone listening and there’s always someone who wants to learn and to fit in. I was that person and TikTok helped me see other people that are just like me and let me know that I’m not alone in this journey.

 

Hopefully other people will want to tap into their own cultures and want to learn their own language(s). I get a lot of DM’s and emails from people thanking me for the content that I create and that they’ve gained a new appreciation for themselves. It  can feel like a lot of pressure because I sometimes don’t realize how much of an influence I have until I receive messages like that. But it warms my heart and helps me realize that I’m creating a community of my own.

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