Native Americans : America’s Invisible People

N-2National stories about Native Americans are few and far between, and when they do appear, stereotypes generally prevail. In a recent Nieman Reports article, Jon Marcus reported on the deaths of several Native Americans at the hands of government officials; deaths that have basically gone un-or-under-reported:

On a cold winter’s night in December 2014, the police officer who maintain that Allen Locke lunged at him with a knife, killed Locke inside his house at Lakota Community Homes in Rapid City, North Dakota. No charges were filed against the officer;

In Denver, Colorado, Paul Castaway was killed “by police who said he was threatening his mother, though she argues that deadly force was unnecessary in this incident”;

“William J. Dick, III, a 28-year-old suspected armed robber…died in Washington State after a U.S. Forest Service agent shocked him with a Taser”;

Larry Kobuk, 33, “died after being restrained by officers booking him into the Anchorage Correctional Complex on charges that he stole a car and drove it with a suspended license.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Police kill Native Americans at almost the same rate as African-Americans…. Between 1999 and 2013, an average of .29 per 100,000 Native Americans were killed by police, compared to .3 per 100,000 for blacks and .11 per 100,000 for whites.”

Marcus noted that, “In some ways, Native American cultures are worlds unto themselves, but increasingly they are part of bigger issues that transcend their borders. Take energy, especially with the extensive drilling of oil on Native American land in North Dakota and elsewhere…here is an urgent need for more investigative reporting on Native American issues, but such projects are hampered by a lack of press freedoms on Native American lands and a shortage of journalists–Native American and otherwise–who understand the culture as well as the politics and legal intricacies of Native American life, says Mary Hudetz, a former president of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) and the former editor of Native Peoples magazine.”

In a 2010 study, Christopher Josey, who conducted research on this topic as a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois, found that in “the top 20 Internet news sites by traffic, from The Daily Beast to The New York Times…. Native Americans accounted for 6 percent of the people portrayed in news coverage on those sites, though Census figures show that the 5.2 million Native Americans make up 1.7 percent of the U.S. population.”

Here is some startling data on Native Americans from the CDC: At 16 percent, Native Americans have the highest diabetes rate of any U.S. ethnic or racial group; alcohol-related and drug-induced deaths are the highest of any other group.

In addition, Marcus notes, “Native Americans are more likely to experience sexual assault. And, according to Census data, about 25 percent live in poverty, compared to 15 percent of the general population. Native Americans’ high school dropout rate in 2012, the last year for which the figure is available, was more than double the average—14.6 percent compared to 6.6 percent across all races–the Department of Education reported last year. The unemployment rate for Native Americans who don’t live on tribal lands is roughly double the national average, at 11 percent in 2014, also the most recent period for which the information is available from the Labor Department.”

Although some news outlets are reluctant to report on warmed over stories of poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, and health care issues, there are organizations that are trying, with their investigative reports, to blaze new trails. According to Marcus, “Pacific Standard, published by the nonprofit Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy, ran an investigation into sexual violence against Native American women in the booming oil towns of North Dakota; ProPublica has reported on how Native Americans living on a North Dakota reservation may have been cheated out of money for oil rights; Kaiser Health News covered how Native American health services are benefiting from the Affordable Care Act; [s]tudent journalists at the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University reported on the exploitation of Native Americans by payday lenders.”

In addition, the Washington Post ran a “series about injustice on Native American lands” and the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran outlining the deplorable condition of many federally-funded reservation schools demonstrate the challenges of covering Native issues.”

Providing balanced and nuanced reporting that doesn’t repeat the same stereotypes over and over again, depends on assignment editors willing to take chances, the skills of reporters, and journalists’ ability to find credible sources, win trust, and build relationships. Clear-headed and ground-breaking reporting also depends on using Native American journalists–and cultivating many more–who are able to see new avenues for reportage. According to the American Society of News Editors, as of 2015, there are only 118 self-identified Native American working at U.S. daily newspapers.

“Tristan Ahtone, a member of the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma who often reported for Al Jazeera America,” Marcus writes, “won a following among Native Americans and others for writing about new topics, such as how one tribe is invoking treaty rights to stop another oil pipeline, the rethinking of the militant American Indian Movement that grew up alongside the Black Panthers in the 1960s, and an international indigenous basketball tournament.

“His approach: ‘Stop looking at Indian Country as a foreign place with foreign people doing foreign things. It keeps us apart from each other, and reinforces the idea that these people are different, that they’re victims, that they’re helpless. They get covered when there’s doom, gloom, or there’s blood. The cumulative effect is that you’ve got communities that are isolated from the rest of the country and generally distrustful of journalists, and that just creates a continuing cycle.’”