Covering Indian Country

In September 2005, after the San Juan Pueblo reverted to the community’s traditional name of Ohkay Owingeh, a journalist asked the pueblo’s governor Joe Garcia when the decision would become official. Garcia didn’t understand what the journalist meant. When would New Mexico or Washington officially recognize the name change, the journalist wanted to know.

“We’re a sovereign government,” Garcia patiently explained to the reporter. “We polled our people and they agreed. So it’s official.”

Since the issue of tribal sovereignty rarely surfaces in the mainstream media, the reporter’s confusion is understandable, though regrettable. When the rare journalist turns to Indian Country, the resulting stories tend to revolve around casinos (Indians are greedy), the Abramoff scandal (Indians are corrupt), or tragedies like last year’s teenage shooter on the Red Lake reservation in Minnesota (Indians are just plain crazy). But cupidity, corruption, and craziness are no more prevalent among the several million citizens of Indian Country than anywhere else in the United States.

“Reporters coming into Indian Country to report the story haven’t had the experience or knowledge to report the issues in the proper perspective with adequate balance,” says Tim Johnson, a former executive director of Indian Country Today newspaper. The journalists lack “a thorough understanding of tribal history,” he adds.

 “Tribal people have been abused by the press and are reluctant to talk to reporters, says Jim Adams, an associate editor of Indian Country Today. “But also mainstream reporters haven’t learned how to talk to native peoples.”

This lack of experience means that the most important news affecting Indian Country today – such as the Cobell class action suit against the U.S. government for mismanaging billions of dollars of Indian trust fund money – attract little sustained attention from mainstream journalists. Compared to slot machines or the Pocahontas movie, the Cobell case is too complicated, too legal, and perhaps just too Indian for average journalists.

The Native American “Beat”

Last month, Native American journalists, activists, and media analysts gathered in Washington, DC for a symposium organized by the Friends Committee on National Legislation. The mainstream media came under attack for a range of sins, from trafficking in stereotypes to just plain ignorance. Many participants championed a do-it-yourself approach that has prompted Native Americans to create their own media outlets.

Mainstream journalists at the March symposium pointed out that the criticisms coming from Indian Country often don’t take into account the structural limitations of the media. “A frenetic pace drives the decision-making,” says Mark Trahant, a member of the Shoshone Bannock and an editorial page editor for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The failure to cover Indian Country properly is “not out of ill will” but because journalists “don’t have the time to do the story right. There’s been a fundamental shift in the media and I’m not sure it’s going to be good for democracy. There’s more pressure on journalists to do more with less time and fewer resources.”

Chris Satullo agrees. “At best, we get twenty minutes of any reader’s time, and that’s the most dedicated reader,” says the editorial page editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Most of us are aware of the complexity of the issues. The only thing you can do is cover complexity over time. Everything is a tile in a mosaic, and the mosaic is built over time.”

There is disagreement, however, over whether this mosaic “built over time” fully depicts Indian Country or only the more sensational aspects. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, argues that the media only covers Indian Country if there’s a crisis. “For journalists, Native Americas aren’t a community that is newsworthy in their own right. What is done to them, not by them or among them, is what makes the news. Indian Country is not a beat, but rather a place that is at the mercy of events.”

The lack of a “beat” puts Indian Country on a par with other vitally important but vastly underreported stories such as organized labor, the peace movement, or any country south of the equator. True, Indian Country is covered in some Western papers like the Missoulian out of Montana or The Oklahoman out of Oklahoma City. And back when Marlon Brando or Jane Fonda showed up at high-profile actions like the takeovers of Alcatraz in 1969 and Ft. Lawton in Seattle in 1970, Indian activism often made it into the headlines courtesy of the celebrities. But the lack of consistent coverage in the big media outlets makes it difficult for readers to see scandals such as the Abramoff affair as the exceptions rather than the rule or that casinos have enriched some Native Americans but have not changed the reality that the poverty and unemployment rates in Indian Country are higher than the U.S. average.

John Dossett, the general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians, notes that the media rarely writes about the sovereignty of Indian Country. The several hundred reservations, along with the tribal members who have moved to cities, make their own laws, administer justice through tribal police and courts, and conduct government-to-government negotiations with Washington. “The issue of tribal sovereignty is not for the most part very exciting or controversial,” Dossett says, because it usually involves the everyday provision of social services such as policing. Only when a conflict erupts – for instance, over the sale of tax-free cigarettes on tribal territory – does the media pay attention to sovereignty, which puts the issue in a rather negative light.

A key element of mainstream coverage is representation. More representatives of Indian Country get interviewed and quoted, from activists and local politicians to scholars such as John Mohawk and the late Vine Deloria, Jr. The native journalists who are increasingly working in the mainstream media occupy the difficult role of go-between. Many are actively introducing native perspectives into everyday news coverage. When Mark Trahant wrote an editorial about George W. Bush’s first budget proposal, for instance, he profiled an urban Indian health program that was zeroed out. “Then I published an op-ed from a local clinic about how those cuts would affect them,” he recalls.

On the other hand, as Mary Kim Titla learned as a TV reporter in Arizona, sometimes her job was to keep the media out of Indian Country. When word leaked out that a woman on the Navajo reservation had a spiritual vision and people were flocking to visit her, Titla’s producers sent her to film the story. When she got to the reservation, though, she discovered that the family didn’t want to share their story with outsiders. It fell to Titla, a San Carlos Apache, to persuade her producers to back off, even though it meant swallowing the expenses for her abortive trip. Not covering the story, she successfully argued, would create good will and ensure that the TV station would have improved access in the future.

For non-native journalists, meanwhile, acquiring the sensitivity to cover Indian Country takes a long time and a measure of commitment. Photographer Gwendolen Cates demonstrates, though, that the gap can be bridged.

After Cates did a number of well-received photo spreads of Indian Country, Fortune magazine asked her to collaborate on a story about casinos. “At first, I said I couldn’t,” Cates recalls. “Then I thought about it. I was very fortunate that the young writer at Fortune was very open-minded. He not only listened, but heard what people were saying. We used casinos as an excuse to tell other stories about sovereignty, about termination and reinstatement, about the use of [income from] off-reservation casinos to preserve language and culture. We turned a negative situation into something positive.”

Speaking for Themselves

Indian Country has a diversity of media devoted to getting out the stories of Native Americans. From its new headquarters in New York State, Indian Country Today has provided a daily take on Native American issues since 1981. Native American Times emerged in the 1990s from its Oklahoma base to cover all of Indian Country. Native Voice started up five years ago in South Dakota. The number of native journalists has swelled over the years, with the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) growing from fifty members in the early 1980s to ten times that number today.

More recent additions to the media landscape include Native Youth Magazine, founded by Mary Kim Titla. Concerned about what her children were looking at on the Web, Titla discovered that “they weren’t going to any sites that catered to them. There are some special interest sites out there for writers or for entertainment. But there was nothing for native youth who are interested in fashion and can go to the same site for news about sports.” Many of the contributors are young people aged ten to fifteen years old. Other Internet sites include Indianz.com and…

Native America Talking is another prime example of the new media outlets coming out of Indian Country. The host, Patty Talahongva, is from First Mesa on Hopi. The live call-in show also streams on the Internet. Key for Talahongva is to put Native American voices front and center. “We’re always looking for the native source as the expert,” she says. “Sometimes we’ve had major deadline worries because finding that native expert has been very difficult.”

Although it might be difficult to find a native expert on every subject – Talahongva confesses that she failed for a show on podiatry – the resources in Indian Country are both rich and underutilized. Robert Free Galvan, a Native American activist from the Northwest, laments that many of the leaders of Indian Country are passing away without their contributions acknowledged. “The warriors who made those sacrifices are now by the wayside,” Galvan says. “Kids are growing up without any knowledge of these sacrifices.”

Several programs are documenting and disseminating just these contributions. The Institute for Tribal Government, for instance, has set up an interview project called “The Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times.” The project has conducted in-depth interviews with such leaders as LaDonna Harris (Commanche), Wilma Mankiller (Cherokee), and John Echohawk (Pawnee). Elizabeth Furse, the former Oregon congresswoman who directs the institute, has turned these oral histories into a university curriculum. When they hear the words of these Native American leaders, “my students are changed, they become different people,” Furse says. The institute is currently developing a high school curriculum from these interviews as well.

The Wisdom of the Elders radio series is just beginning its third season of documenting the political and cultural contributions of Native Americans in general and of specific tribes like the Blackfeet, Arikara, and Shawnee.

Indian Country is not just focused on words. Increasingly, it is working with images. In this regard, Canada is a step ahead of the United States with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. Debuting in 1999, the network showcases aboriginal dramas, children’s shows, and current affairs programming, 25 percent of which is broadcast in native languages. Canadian movies such as Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) have garnered global acclaim.

In the United States, tribes have been helping to fund various projects, such as last year’s movie Christmas in the Clouds. The American Indian Film Institute, which has been sponsoring a film festival for nearly thirty years, recently began a “tribal touring” project that not only shows movies around Indian Country but also conducts weeklong intensive digital video workshops for young people. The Institute of American Indian Arts conducts an eight-week summer course for young Native Americans interested in film and television. “It’s a great boot camp,” reports Dawn Jackson, an Ojibwe and global project manager with the Walt Disney Company. “Some people went home and taught more people. Three students were asked to come back and work for ABC.”

Dawn Jackson was first inspired to tell Native American stories through film when she attended a forum for African-American filmmakers. “It was great to see how much they supported one another,” she says Jackson. At the forum, she met one of the Hudlin brothers, the duo responsible for the movies House Party and Boomerang.

“When you are tired enough of people telling your story,” Hudlin told her, “you make your own.”

Jackson hesitated, saying, “But, but…”

“There is no ‘but,'” Hudlin replied.

“It sounds like we’re just about there,” Dawn Jackson continues. “We’re tired. And we’re finding innovative ways to get our stories told. It’s our time.”


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