'Small communities with large stories': Calgarian Tom Jackson continues to explore Indigenous legends, myths and the paranormal with APTN's Red Earth Uncovered

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Tom Jackson admits that he does not do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network documentary series Red Earth Uncovered.

Now entering his fourth season with the series, the Calgary actor, philanthropist, singer and storyteller appears as the ever-curious Doc, a calm gatherer of information who keeps files about various myths, archeological discoveries, phenomena and other “mystifying incidents that took place on First Nations land,” he says.

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For the first three seasons, he dispatched Medicine Hat’s Shayla Oulette Stonechild to various spots throughout North America to explore aspects of Indigenous mythology by interviewing experts, elders or eyewitnesses, often focusing on paranormal creatures or strange sightings that were rooted in the mythology of Indigenous culture. Jackson’s scenes are shot in downtown Calgary, where he begins each episode outlining the mission to his young co-host and ends it with a related story accompanied by animation provided by Marie Linda Bluteau, a sand-animation performer who goes by the name Art Bluto. The big change for Season 4 is that Jackson has a new co-star, actress and singer-songwriter Hayley Dakota, who has replaced Oulette Stonechild to conduct Doc’s legwork.

“I get the easy job,” says Jackson, in an interview with Postmedia. “All my stuff happens in the studio. She has six months doing all these wonderful adventures. I’m sure it’s wonderful for her. It must be. But for old guys like me, I don’t mind sitting around telling the stories.”

Red Earth Uncovered
Hayley Dakota in a scene from the fourth season of Red Earth Uncovered. Courtesy, APTN. cal

In the past, Jackson sought information on the lake monster Ogopogo in the Okanagan, the legend of Thunderbird on Vancouver Island, the evil Wendigo spirit in Kenora, Ont., the northern lights at Waterton Lakes National Park, the Sleeping Giant in Thunder Bay, Ont. and the legend of the “Little  People” in Maskwacis.

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For Season 4, which airs on ATPN on Wednesdays and begins streaming on ATPN lumi Jan. 11, Dakota will continue her predecessor’s work by unearthing various legends that are often tied to Indigenous culture. That will involve a number of Alberta-based episodes. That includes travelling to Medicine Hat in search of a giant river serpent said to live in the South Saskatchewan River; to the hamlet of Seven Persons to find the creepy, corpse-filled legend behind its name;  to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller to look into folklore about mythical dragons, to the site of a UFO sighting in Red Deer and evil ghosts in Maskwacis.

Jackson joined the series when it was still in its pilot stage, excited by the opportunity to dig deeper into some the paranormal-leaning tales that can be found throughout Canada.

When they pitched it to me, I was just fascinated by the stories of sea monsters,Sasquatches, little people, dreamspeakers and sand painters and all of those things,” Jackson says. “I was fascinated by all of that, but also it leant itself to my learning process. I get to learn a lot about these small communities that have these large stories. It’s really exciting to do that.”

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While Jackson didn’t create the series or write the stories he tells at the end of each episode, the focus of Red Earth Uncovered fits into the Cree artist’s interest in sharing Indigenous culture through storytelling. Perhaps best known for his roles in television series such as North of 60, Star Trek: The Next Generation, And Shining Time Station, he has also raised millions for charity by headlining The Huron Carole with fellow musicians for the past 35 years. In 2022, he collaborated with the Calgary Philharmonic and a number of First Nations composers for the four-part online series, Bear and the Wild Rose.

While show was initially pitched as a show for young viewers, Red Earth Uncovered has proven popular with people of all ages.

“I feel like Indigenous people are in a renaissance period,” Jackson says. “There is a real focus and a genuine curiosity and empathy and compassion that hovers over First Nations, Indigenous people right now. We talk abut the visit from the Pope as an example. That probably wouldn’t have happened had they not discovered 215 graves in Kamloops. That’s a tragic story, but it really has created this period in time where the world is more curious about First Nation people and our legends than they ever have in  history.”

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Jackson says there is little chance of running out of subjects to cover on the series, saying Indigenous culture and history is a deep, international pool. In fact, he said he might suggest the series explore legends in warmer climes for future seasons.

“I don’t think there is a shortage of stories,” he says. “Even if we talk about Indigenous Hawaii or other parts of the world, that Indigenous flavour is still there. There are a lot of legends in and around the Hawaiian Islands that are protected and real even today. I don’t mind saying, for the fifth season if there is going to be one, ‘How about we go down to Hawaii and shoot that? How about in January?’”

Red Earth Uncovered airs Wednesdays on APTN. Season 4 premieres on APTN Lumi, the streaming service, on Jan. 11.

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