Nathanial Dana checks the honeybees on his off-grid homestead. Credit: Courtesy of Sikwani Dana

Two years ago homesteaders Sikwani and Nathan Dana skated across their frozen pond and into social media fame.

In the 40-second video the couple slides across the ice toward the camera welcoming viewers to their homestead — an off the grid property in Solon they describe as a work in progress. They posted it on the social media app TikTok and figured it would garner 100 or so views at best.

“It was just a silly skating run,” Sikwani Dana said. “Within a couple of days it had 400,000 views.”

It turned out those viewers wanted to see more of and learn about the Dana’s daily life. Two years and hundreds of videos later, the The_Dana_Homestead TikTok account has a staggering 78,000 followers.

“When we started there people were messaging us with lots of questions about how we do what we do,” Sikwani Dana said. “So we just started making videos about our life.”

@the_dana_homestead More Compost Onions #onion #compost #TheDanaHomestead #fyp #spring #homestead ♬ Buttercup – Jack Stauber

That life is at the end of a half-mile long driveway off a dirt road. Solar panels harness energy from the sun to power the couple’s lights, washing machine, small refrigerator and video gaming system.

“Nathan and I are huge gamers,” Sikwani said with a laugh. “Of course this is the time of year when we get the least amount of [sunlight] and have the most time to play so we also supplement with a small generator.”

The household’s water is gravity-fed year round from a spring directly into the house. Even during the drought conditions of last summer, it never stopped flowing.

The 750-square-foot cape-style house is heated primarily by a wood-fueled cookstove throughout the winter, which also heats their water in an 11-gallon holding tank. They have a propane heater as a backup system, but it rarely is needed.

In summer when things warm up, cooking moves onto the porch where they use an antique propane stove.

Outside are two huskies, a small flock of chickens, two beehives, fruit trees, a portable sawmill, gardens and an outhouse with a composting toilet.

Sikwani Dana skates over her off-grid homestead’s frozen pond. Credit: Courtesy of Sikwani Dana.

It’s the kind of life Sikwani Dana grew up dreaming of. She, in fact, grew up just across that dirt road where her parents Barry and Lori Dana still live. Barry Dana is the former chief of the Penobscot Nation and, while he and Lori Dana are connected to the power grid, they do grow, gather or hunt virtually everything they eat. Their vegetable garden is planted with crops native to this area and to the Penobscot culture.

Sikwani Dana grew up learning about living according to what the land can give without exploiting it. Her gardens are not exclusively native crops — she loves hot peppers too much to not plant them — but she and her husband work hard to fulfill as many of their needs as possible from their land.

For his part, Nathan Dana grew up in what he describes as a pampered, middle class household across the river from Solon. But, like Sikwani, he learned a lot from his own parents that translates well into their own current lifestyle.

“My dad was a mechanic all his life and my grandfather was also a mechanic,” Nathan Dana said. “I grew up in their machine shop and learned a lot of stuff by watching — plus, I am just an incredible nerd.”

Nathan Dana used that practical experience and innate nerdiness to design and build the solar array that powers their home, keep the farm tractor running and troubleshoot any other mechanical or technical issues on the homestead.

Both are now teachers at Spruce Mountain High School in Jay.

The idea that anyone would care about any of this came as a huge surprise to the couple. But over the last two years TikTok videos about using a composting toilet, selecting seeds, canning, preparing food, composting, beekeeping, hunting, snowshoeing and food storage have routinely gotten thousands of views.

“We have a whole series of growing onions from seed,” Sikwani Dana said. “Anytime we are doing something, we are like ‘Oh, most people probably don’t do this.’”

@the_dana_homestead Rocket stove inspired by @natepetroski #offgrid #homestead #rocketstove #thedanahomestead #homemade #maine #cookstove #woodheat ♬ original sound – The_Dana_Homestead

Even a clip of Sikwani Dana driving the large farm tractor drew in thousands of viewers.

And their audience just keeps growing with a seemingly endless appetite for the seconds-long TikTok clips.

“As a platform, TikTok is really engineered to go viral,” Nathan Dana said. “The way it is set up it makes particular videos go nuts on the internet.”

According to Jon Ippolito, professor of new media at the University of Maine, that description is TikTok in a nutshell. In pure technical terms, TikTok videos are designed to look their best when filmed with and viewed on mobile devices.

“That format encourages a direct conversation with a standing or moving or dancing figure rather than a posed figure,” Ippolito said. Other social media video formats like Facebook, YouTube or Instagram lack that intimacy.

Sikwani and Nathanial Dana Pose for a humorous selfie on their off grid homestead. The couple has amassed thousands of followers on their TikTok channel documenting their homestead lifestyle. Credit: Courtesy of Sikwani Dana

The algorithms employed by TikTok align with the viewer. That means people who enjoy watching homestead-related videos will be quickly steered to similar ones. And when a person “likes” a specific video — such as one from The_Dana_Homestead, they are going to see more of the Danas.

Ippolito is not at all surprised that TikTok is a popular platform for sharing information, though that may have been an accidental outcome beyond the pure entertainment value.

“Sharing education and information on TikTok has probably been encouraged by a few things,” Ippolito said. “Among them is the shorter attention span of young people, and that’s not always a bad thing.”

Those attention spans have not only gotten shorter over time, according to Lorien Lake-Corral, associate professor of sociology at the University of Maine at Augusta, they have shifted.

“The internet has helped that along,” Lake-Corral said. “People used to read a book and then share books to spread information, now it’s short videos of things like look at this dog scratching its nose.”

In the case of the Danas, they simply film their life, which to them seems rather ordinary and unexciting.

They started off showcasing their solar electric set up and their garden. So far, the most popular video was one of Lori Dana demonstrating how to can moose meat.

@the_dana_homestead Folks asked for a processing video… #moose #canning #homestead #selfreliant ♬ original sound – The_Dana_Homestead

“That one had 1.2 million views,” Sikwani Dana said. “Everytime we post a video with my mom, we get a huge spike in views, and it’s kind of funny because she doesn’t like being in the spotlight.”

Issues related to the pandemic, family health and work have slowed down TikTok production over the last several months. Plus they are still working on improvements to their house.

“It just got to the point with everything going on that, if there was even a second to spare we had to use it to take care of ourselves,” Nathan Dana said.

But a recent video of the two simply stacking firewood to a cheery tune got close to 3,000 visits.

“A lot of people are intrigued by doing firewood, which we tend to think is kind of normal if you live in Maine but apparently not normal for a lot of people,” Sikwani Dana said. “A lot of what seems normal to use is not normal to others [and] a lot of those people live vicariously through us.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.