Owen Unruh, he/him/they, is two-spirit, Nêhiyaw (Cree), and has taken to TikTok to inspire Indigenous youth to feel comfortable in their own skin and to value sobriety. He aims to share parts of his journey reconnecting to his culture, family and identity.
Born in Vernon, B.C., with family ties to Driftpile First Nation, Owen was adopted and raised in Fort Nelson where he says his environment taught him to be ashamed of his queer, Indigenous identity; and that the content he makes now is an expression of how he’s begun to embrace those parts of himself.
Owen has nearly 190,000 followers on the popular video-sharing app and he is currently a model and a dancer in Vancouver. The Two Row Times caught up with Owen in July to talk about his goals on the app, his insecurities, and how TikTok may be helping him navigate trauma so he can be his most healthy self.
TRT: How did TikTok make its way into your life?
Owen: TikTok made its way into my life at a very interesting time. I was going through addiction, having spent 10 years of my life in addiction. And just over a year ago I had finally gotten sober and I felt like I needed to share my story online. I started with YouTube. But realized I was putting a lot of effort into making videos and not getting a good return. So I decided that TikTok would have been better suited for me.
TRT: What made you want to be a part of creating content?
Owen: I very much felt led to do it. I know that this is something I have to do. And it wasn’t so much about creating content, it was about sharing my story. I knew I needed to get it out there because it could offer value to people who are in similar situations as me. And I knew that Tiktok had the potential to push it out to a lot of people. I wanted to start using my voice and I wanted to start being a person that people can look to for inspiration.
TRT: What is your platform in a few sentences?
Owen: This is difficult for me to encapsulate because I don’t even know. I would say that my platform is a place of positivity and light. And it is where I am able to be myself, inspire, empower and educate. I want to live my best life and inspire through that. I can’t control how other people live their lives, I can just be an example.
I want to be a person that Indigenous youth can look to and be like, oh my God, he is proud to be Indigenous and proud of his heritage. And that’s something that I should be proud of because I didn’t have that when I was growing up. I grew up very ashamed. And that shifted for me seeing Indigenous creators online and how they related to their indigeneity in a positive way. And that really helped me become proud of it and I want to do that same thing for young people.
I was ashamed of my identity as a queer person and as an Indigenous person. And for those reasons, I gravitated toward drugs and alcohol and tried to alleviate the pain of growing up in a world that didn’t accept me. And I feel like having that representation of self-acceptance could have shown me that I could have accepted myself. I don’t want to say that I could have gone in a different direction, because I think everything happened the way it was meant to, but it could be a good example moving forward.
TRT: What gap does your content fill in TikTok’s library of content?
Owen: Me. My personality. The things that I have to say and how I share them. That’s the only thing that I can guess. Because I don’t know that I do fill a gap. But I guess I do because people pay attention. I don’t know if it’s so much that I fill a gap in the library, but I sometimes fill a space in people’s lives that they’re looking to be filled. And that is something.
TRT: What ways has TikTok created a space for Indigenous content creators to tell their own narratives?
Owen: I feel like I can tell my story authentically on TikTok. But at the same time, we’re still seeing censorship of people of colour, we’re still seeing lower exposure. You can have a white person on the app do the absolute bare fucking minimum. And people of colour creators have to work twice as hard or innovate three times as much to even get a little bit of exposure. Even if I’m telling my story authentically, it’s still not what it should be. That being said, it is a place where Indigenous people are authentic and are sharing their stories, humour, culture and a lot of other things. And I love that.
TRT: What was your biggest insecurity you were worried about making public?
Owen: To admit to the world that I was a drug addict. Because up until that point I was doing it very quietly and secretly and people didn’t know. I had exposed my addiction earlier after being sober for five months by accidentally sharing parts of a relapse on Facebook Live. People tuned in and especially a lot of people from back home. It was really scary for a lot of people.
After the relapse, I slept and got some rest and a new perspective. I was like, OK, what do I do now? I was no longer living my double life in secret where I was using drugs and putting an image on social media that life is fine. I knew I could sweep it under the rug and people would forget about it eventually, or I could start being honest and authentic for the first time in my life and start taking accountability for my actions. I can start actually living the life that I’m supposed to be living. That was a very huge step for me.
TRT: What are some steps you take before recording to ensure you are being your most authentic self?
Owen: That’s a really good question. I would say two things. Number one, if it’s a message that I feel is inspired, I write it down first. The second thing, I pray and I keep it really simple. I just say speak through me.
TRT: Do you identify as two-spirit and how does the term resonate with you?
Owen: Yes. To me, being two-spirit is a spiritual identity. It says that I have two spirits within me. The male spirit and the female spirit. And I am a combination of both. And I am between two worlds, is how my kookum told me about it. And it is a gender identity. It is a sexual identity. It is a spiritual identity.
It’s not that cut and dry. I can’t say how other Indigenous people can identify. But I will say that non-Indigenous people can’t identify as two-spirit. It doesn’t make sense, right? There’s a cultural thing.
TRT: Thinking of your first video that went viral, what emotion did you feel the most strong?
Owen: The first time a video went viral I had been in the transition stage of switching from YouTube as my main platform to Tiktok. I thought I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. I thought that I was supposed to be sharing my story, but YouTube wasn’t picking up. So I posted two videos on Tiktok and I went for a long walk. I went down to the beach and meditated. And I prayed. I just kept it simple again. I sat there with my eyes closed for like 10, 15 minutes. I picked up my phone and the two videos I had posted were going viral. I thought wait, what is happening? I felt really grateful and affirmed that I was on the track.
TRT: What sort of interaction with your followers brings you the most joy?
Owen: I love it when I meet them in real life. And they say hi in real life. And they’re like, oh my God, your video inspired me in this way. If someone says it really meant a lot to them that I’m sharing addiction things, that’s the reason I started. And to know that my sharing has positively impacted people going through the same thing. That’s what I fucking wanted.
TRT: Has TikTok helped you navigate through trauma?
Owen: It absolutely helps me process the things that I’m going through. In the past, I would not express things and I would internalize them, allowing them to eat me up inside. And I have learned now that creating content about the things that I’m going through helps me process it and it feels lighter in my body. And that has helped me stay sober. And it’s helped me stay accountable.
TRT: What is the best piece of advice you could give a new content creator?
Owen: I would say be consistent. It’s good to have a brand so you’re not all over the place. Which is rich coming from me because I feel like I’m all over the place. Just share what you’re already doing so you’re not going out of your way to make content that’s not authentic to you.
Follow Owen on his TikTok account @owenunruh2.