Most indigenous people rise from a tradition of storytelling, a practice continued today throughout Indian Country. Some of the best examples of the oral tradition take place during Crow Fair, Tipi Capitol of the World, where majestic cottonwoods flank 1,500 tipis near banks of the Little Big Horn River in southeast Montana.
These stories are told in family camps, the powwow arena, and on the parade route. Most are spoken in Crow or the Apsalooke language as part of the annual celebration. The storytellers have undoubtedly etched indelible memories among all who have heard these stories. It’s also hard to shake the visual image of hundreds of Apsalooke women wearing elk tooth dresses or Crow men parading in white buckskin vests and pants. In the procession, horses and riders are adorned with some of the finest beadwork in Indian Country.
As participants parade through the camp, families take the opportunity to honor the riders. A family usually designates someone to speak on behalf of the honoree who is led in front of the people while his accomplishments are reported or announced to those along the route. Not just anyone is given this news duty. The storyteller must be given the right to speak in public. And like many practitioners of the oral tradition, people holding these positions are expected to be truthful, responsible, accurate and excellent communicators.
While the oral tradition continues to thrive among tribes like the Crow, the printed word appearing in many mainstream and tribal community publications often begs for greater truth and accuracy. For mainstream papers this problem is connected to a dearth of Native voices within the newsroom or the final news product. For tribal newspapers, a credibility gap exists because tribal leaders often see tribal news publications as public relations tools, thereby preventing tribal news editors from closely examining the role of the tribal government.
Both mainstream-tribal press scenarios represent the best and worst of news reporting. Mainstream newspapers—like history books—have often written stories about Native people from a white perspective. But this is changing. Several news outlets and journalism training programs are making great strides in improving news coverage of indigenous communities. Progress is occurring from universities and foundations to tribal newspapers and individual reporters.
Sundance leader Leonard Crow Dog of Rosebud, South Dakota has his helpers raise the center pole for a ceremony. Lincoln, Nebraska, July 2004. Photo by Ken Blackbird.
The challenge in telling accurate news stories, however, cuts deeper for tribal newspapers. The majority of the estimated 300 tribal newspapers and newsletters remain financially dependent on tribal coffers. This means tribal newspaper editors tend to stay away from news that calls tribal leaders into question. In a recent sample by the Harvard University Native American Program, fewer than one-quarter of tribal newspaper editors viewed their role as being a watchdog of tribal government. One-third regarded their newspapers as public relations tools. Thankfully, three-quarters of editors surveyed felt their main duty was to report the news, but this didn’t include holding tribal government leaders accountable.
The situation constitutes a travesty for tribal citizens since tribal governments are typically the largest employer on reservation lands, making them a critical component of the tribal economy. So not only are tribal leaders making executive decisions for the tribe, but they also wield considerable control over hiring and firing employees. Tribal council power is also maximized when it comes to a reservation system of checks and balances. The council typically has a hand in the tribal court systems, tribal administrative decisions, and legal influence, which can all fall under tribal council purview.
This type of power and control makes it difficult for tribal editors to question daily tribal operations. It’s even tougher when one considers that 80 percent of tribal news sources surveyed said their publications received money from tribal government coffers—nearly half received more than three-quarters of their operating budget from the tribe.
While the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) has discussed free press issues at several annual conventions, little evidence exists to show tribal newspapers moving toward financial independence or becoming free from tribal council influence. A positive step, however, was taken in 2003 when the National Congress of American Indians, the country’s largest and oldest Native advocacy organization, passed a resolution calling for tribes to support a free and independent Native press.
Tribal members from the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation gather for Memorial Day services at the Pony Hill Cemetery, where they continue the custom of cleaning the graves of family and friends. North central Montana, 2005. Photo by Ken Blackbird.
Improving Native Coverage
As news operations move forward in the 21st century, mainstream and tribal press operations must work at improving the stories told about Native people and communities. That means creating opportunities for more journalists to explain what’s happening in Indian Country. With tribal casino annual revenue most recently at $21 billion, Native people are taking more high-profile political and economic roles throughout the country. But it’s also important for news outlets to realize this new money is limited to a few pockets while a plethora of social and economic ills still plague much of Indian Country.
But if readers were to rely on mainstream news stories, it would appear otherwise. One news observer described Indian gaming reporting as the welfare mother stories of the 1980’s—a group blamed for everything wrong in America. This reporting trend has roots with the December 2002 Time magazine series on tribal casinos. The story, which won a 2002 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine investigative reporting, set a subpar standard for Indian casino reporting, paving the way for an anything-goes style of newsgathering to follow. These stories tend to be written with a confined perimeter, written without context, and written based on generalities.
Any tribe represents a unique set of circumstances. For example, even though tribal casinos are guided by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, tribes share and spend their revenue differently. It’s a small example of how it can be risky to paint tribes with one brush stroke. Indian Country comprises an incredibly diverse group of people, including 560 Native sovereign nations.
While mainstream press reporters deserve criticism, that does not mean Indian Country is without naysayers. Some Native press publications offer critical views. The difference is they are based on fact and insider knowledge. Native columnist Tim Giago is a frequent critic of tribal casinos. Nor are some in the mainstream press unable to produce a fair and balanced casino story. Among Native people that simply means they had a chance to express their point of view. In June, Fox Butterfield of The New York Times, for example, offered a tribal perspective with a casino story he wrote about the plight of the Tigua Tribe of Texas, a rags-to-riches story about the downfall of the tribe’s Speaking Rock Casino and the ongoing investigations related to the casino’s closure involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. [A collection of mainstream and tribal press reporting—the good, bad and ugly—can be found at www.pechanga.net, a Web site specializing in the latest tribal casino news.]
Today it largely falls on mainstream news outlets to explain what’s happening on tribal lands and in urban Indian settings. That means it is often non-Natives who are telling Native stories, since only 295 self-identified Native journalists work at daily newspapers, which is one half of one percent of all U.S. newsroom employees. Native voices in these news outlets rarely seem to permeate the daily news pages. And they are even more nonexistent in broadcast news divisions.
This scarcity of voices makes it imperative that reporters like Steve Magagnini of The Sacramento Bee continue to cover Indian Country. He stands as an example of how it’s possible for non-Natives to enter unfamiliar communities, gain trust, offer critical views, and become a respected reporter on Native issues.
The Western Knight Center for Specialized Journalism has also taken a step to help mainstream outlets improve Native news coverage. In March, the center offered a seminar titled “Covering Native Americans in the 21st Century.” Participants learned better ways to report on areas such as health care, tribal sovereignty, and gambling, giving particular attention to states with some of the largest Native populations in the country. The center has also tried to increase the dialogue among those reporting on Native issues. Its Covering Indian Country blog was designed to promote best practice approaches to reporting Native news.
While the Western Knight seminar worked with midcareer journalists, attention should also be paid to training journalism students. The University of Montana’s Native News Honors Project took a lead in this area more than 13 years ago when it began teaching mostly non-Native journalism students to dig below the surface when covering indigenous communities. Student teams have since dedicated an entire semester to writing in-depth stories with photographs related to the seven large land-based reservations in Montana. The students’ tribal sovereignty issue, a 36-page tabloid, won the 2005 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for the best of college reporting.
While mainstream outlets should continue to strive for better news coverage of indigenous issues, an equal effort must be made to recruit more Natives into the news profession. The University of South Dakota and the Freedom Forum teamed up five years ago to create the American Indian Journalism Institute, a summer journalism boot camp in Vermillion, South Dakota, for Native college students. The program has continually increased the number of Native reporters moving into first-time reporting jobs at daily newspapers since its founding.
While non-Native news outlets boast several programs that better cultivate the Native perspective, far fewer examples exist to show how tribal newspapers are improving coverage within their own communities. A center or training institute needs to be developed to help tribal newspapers strategize on how to become financially independent. The training center, perhaps housed within the NAJA, could also empower tribal editors to effectively challenge tribal government officials. Finally, NAJA should consider an educational campaign to help inform tribal leaders and tribal citizens about the role a free press should play in their communities.
It’s heartening to know that tribal editors exist who fully understand the importance of a free press in a tribal democracy. The Wotanin Wowapi newspaper of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes has stood its ground time and again to inform readers about tribal council meetings and decisions. Tim Giago founded the first independent Indian weekly newspaper, the Lakota Times, providing a road map for a free press operation on an Indian reservation. And Tom Arviso, Jr., chief executive officer of the Navajo Times Publishing Company, has waged successful effort to lead the Navajo Times newspaper to financial independence. The newspaper no longer depends on money from the Navajo tribal budget to get news out to tribal citizens.
In a news hungry age, tribal newspapers should do more than promote community events or be public relations tools. It’s imperative these papers and mainstream news outlets reflect the lives of Native people living within a system designed to defeat them. Areas such as health care, education, law enforcement, land management, economic development, and tribal court systems all call for more in-depth questioning because they profoundly affect the quality of Native life. Solid news reporting can provide answers and solutions. In this way, news publications can all honor the age-old tradition of storytelling, which expects nothing less than truth and accuracy.
Jodi Rave, a 2004 Nieman Fellow, reports on Native issues for Lee Enterprises, a chain of 58 daily newspapers in 23 states. She is based at the Missoulian in Montana.