Jessica Matten

Into the Wild With Jessica Matten

How solving a crime thriller on TV leads to helping indigenous youth IRL.

Full stop, Jessica Matten is the coolest. The actress and member of the Metis Tribe currently stars on Dark Winds, a mystery thriller set inside the Navajo community. When she’s not trying to solve a double murder on TV, the Canadian native works with indigenous film students, and builds platforms for native storytelling at her production company, 7 Forward Entertainment. (Somebody get her a vegan latte…)

Here's how Jessica navigates spiritual animal connections with life on a TV set, and what you (yep, you) can do to help indigenous communities regain their sovereign and human rights.

What was your connection to nature like growing up?

Being native and raised in that culture, we’re born understanding that you’re connected to the earth in every way. I don’t know any different, actually. We are deeply rooted, and The Ancestors have been here for thousands of years… We were taught that ancestors live through the spirit in trees, the spirit in water, even in rocks. Your ancestors are always looking after you. Our spirits live through earth literally.

How does nature inform your creative process now?

Traditionally, native people are storytellers. To record and document everything through pen and pencil was when white men came over, right? In our culture, it’s verbal. Storytelling is in our DNA; it’s a survival tool for us, because literally, you’re passing on survival teachings from generation to generation through stories. Also, our songs are medicine—some songs are so sacred in our culture, you can’t even share them without permission! So when I decided in my mid-20s to get into acting, it fueled my further interest in exploring the arts in a different way.

Before you were an actress, you went to the University of Alberta. How did academia give you a different perspective on nature?

I majored in human ecology... It’s the study of the macro and micro factors that shape who we are, so it’s literally about how much your environment and the environment play into who you are! I wanted to study it, because there are many issues on native reservations about how the environment dictates their access to resources. When you lack basic survival resources, like clean air and water, how does that play into your sense of self-worth? How will that play into your actions? What will you do?

How can we help native communities get access to those basic resources?

It’s so intricate. Whatever I say here, I know I’m gonna be missing so many other factors, because everything is connected. But really basic: A lot of native communities are struggling to access clean drinking water. There’s a reservation 2 hours from Toronto that has brown muck coming out of the tap! Can you imagine living just 2 hours from a city and you can’t even use your sink? Now, I very much support going overseas to help other countries. But understand that your neighbors here need help... Because of a historic forced relocation, and because of continued oppression and ignorance, many reservations have no clean food, either. I’ve seen a bell pepper packaged—and moldy!—for $19. A six-pack of water for $25. That breaks the bank for most people, much less people who can’t get to a job because there are no paved roads.

And lack of clean water affects mental health, too.

Exactly. Imagine you’re a parent and you can’t give water to your child. How does that impact your sense of self-worth? Indigenous citizens don’t have housing, drinking water, food, and large oil companies are building pipelines that damage the environment and further break apart native communities. So first, you need that awareness. If you’re American or Canadian, this is happening to your neighbors. That’s not right.

Jessica Matten

What’s the way forward?

To be really honest, we need donations, because money keeps communities alive. Small amounts from many people really add up, so don’t be embarrassed if you want to contribute but can only do your coffee allowance for that day, you know? And then I would say, empower the youth, which is what I try to do with my filmmaking college. When the youth is empowered, they start coming up with real solutions to real problems. We had one student come up with a 5-point bulleted plan about animal welfare on reservations! These young people want a voice, and if they can show the world what life is like in their shoes, they can inspire so much more action and understanding. We need to invest in them and their stories.

Do you have an environmental pet peeve?

Haaa, when people throw out their plastic stuff to make room for more “sustainable” things, even if those plastic things are still completely usable. Bamboo toothbrushes are great. But if you already have a toothbrush, you don’t need a bamboo one, much less five bamboo ones!

Can you tell us a fact about your favorite animal?

Right now, I love eagles! It’s kind of a spiritual thing, to be honest. An Elder gifted me a necklace of an eagle. She said, “It’s because you’re always taking off. You soar and you eventually land. So even though you’re away now, we’ll see you again.” Oh, can I do another one?


I was babysitting my friend’s cats. Do you know cats almost only meow to humans as a form of communication? Domestic cats don’t meow to other animals! It shows you how intelligent they are. There’s a whole world we’re still unaware of. It makes me want to approach them with more respect, because they’ve developed a whole way to communicate with us.

Our motto is “Let Good Grow Wild.” What does that mean to you?

I love that phrase! I think about empowering the youth. When I sit outside in the fields with them, I think about that being an analogy for them. Feel free, speak from your heart, have the confidence to speak with your voice. Know you’re supported and I’ve got your back!