TEXT BY JESSE ELLISON
PHOTOGRAPHED BY TARA RICE
The Dana Homestead, as it’s known on the internet, lies at the end of a half-mile driveway through the woods, off a dirt road on the outskirts of Solon. Overlooking a spring-fed pond, on land that slopes gently south, sits a semi-circle of structures: an outhouse/shower, a woodshed, a playhouse-turned-garden-shed, a hobbit- house-shaped chicken coop, a solar array, raised beds, beehives, and a 750-square-foot former hunting cottage, where Sikwani and Nathan Dana live off-grid but very much online. The couple, both 28 and teachers at Spruce Mountain High School, in Jay, purchased their eight-acre property from Sikwani’s aunt in 2018. Sikwani’s students had been bugging her to join the social-media app TikTok, and, in February of 2020, she and Nathan posted a video of themselves sliding across their frozen pond and introducing their homestead, describing it in unison as “a process.” Within days, the video had 400,000 views. People had questions about their homesteading life, so they posted more videos. Today, the Danas have more than 78,000 TikTok followers and one video, on canning moose meat, with more than a million views.
Followers can watch the Danas explain their composting toilet, wood splitter, cell-phone-signal booster, and solar array, which powers their lights, refrigerator, washing machine, TV, and computer (on the darkest winter days, a small generator provides backup). They can ogle the couple stacking firewood for their giant, Amish-built cookstove, which they use to warm the house (with occasional help from a propane heater) and water they pipe in from the spring. And they can tag along while the Danas gather eggs, tap maple trees, mix dish soap, and cook stir-fry on an antique propane stove on their porch.
ABOVE A roof leak and subsequent rot necessitated replacing the entire southern wall in Sikwani and Nathan Dana’s Solon place. They’re currently mid-renovation, squeezing projects in between school teaching and homesteading — and, naturally, sharing them on TikTok.
For Sikwani, homesteading is second nature. The first house she lived in with her parents — Lori and Barry Dana, he the former chief of the Penobscot nation — was an uninsulated off-grid cabin in Searsport. In winter, the family trekked a mile in snowshoes to get to the nearest plowed road and hauled blocks of pond ice for water. Later, they moved across the dirt road from Sikwani’s current place and mostly lived off the land. Even in high school, where she started dating Nathan, Sikwani knew she wanted to continue that practice. Now married six years (he took her last name — a nod to indigenous matrilineal tradition), Nathan can’t imagine going back to the creature comforts he grew up with. For one thing, he says, “I never have to worry about losing power.”
Sikwani says she hopes their channel inspires would-be homesteaders, but she doesn’t sugarcoat how challenging the lifestyle is. In a recent video, she holds up a T-shirt and jeans, frozen stiff from line-drying outdoors. In another, she lists all the projects they hadn’t managed to finish before winter came, such as storing onions and harvesting herbs. “There’s a lot of work to living like this, and there’s a lot of work to being a school-teacher,” Nathan says. “The amount of work when you do both? I don’t actually recommend it.”