Native American journalists break free of mainstream media
Is a new era for Native American media in the United States opening up? Three Native American journalists talk about challenging stereotypes and bringing a nuanced voice to indigenous issues. They belong to a generation that believes in making things happen, despite all the odds, and not waiting for mainstream media to catch on.
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Native Americans once owned the land in the United States, it was theirs before the white settlers arrived. They are the First People, whom archaeologists believe have been on the North American continent for some 50,000 years.
Today they represent less than one percent of the United States’ total population. An estimated 2.7 million tribal citizens associated with 567 federally recognised tribes.
Tribal issues hardly make it into the US mainstream media. When people outside the US read, listen or watch news about the country, it is as if America’s First Nation have become a ghost nation.
Levi Rickert, the Michigan-based founder, editor and publisher of multimedia news platform Native News Online, says that is primarily due to the size of the Native American population.
Kevin Abourezk, who is based in Nebraska where he is the managing editor of Indianz.com, a Native American online news site run by the Winnebago Tribe, believes it is because there are so few Native Americans in mainstream media.
Jenni Monet (www.jennimonet.com) is an award winning Native American independent journalist from the Laguna Pueblo tribe. She has been working as a journalist for 19 years, most of it spent covering indigenous issues across the world.
“There is a serious need for the indigenous narrative. [It] is the most chronically under-reported narrative in mainstream today, not only in the US but around the world,” she says.
She points out that out of the hundreds of tribes living in the United States, only a tiny fraction of them attracts the attention of the media: the Lakotas, the Navaho Nation or the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
“It is not a mistake that these tribes are among the most popular in the mainstream because the mainstream goes towards the familiar. They like the poverty out of the Lakotas because it is so blatant. The cyclical nature of it is so raw. They like the Navaho Nation because it is so mystical with medicine-man and the south-west desert… They like the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma because who doesn’t firmly believe they have some ounce of Cherokee ancestry in their family lineage? These sorts of narratives as told by outsiders themselves have just been perpetuated for decades.”
For Kevin Abourezk, who is from the Rosebud Lakota tribe, it is often difficult for Native journalists to get editors of non-native media to accept their story ideas.
“Editors are acutely aware of who their readers are and [what] they want to read,” he explains. According to Abourezk, in areas where there are a significant number of Native Americans like Gallup, New Mexico or Rapid City, South Dakota, tribal issues will get more coverage. He says it is reflected in publications like the New York Times or smaller ones like the Sioux City Journal.
Standing Rock, a reckoning
One story that made it to mainstream media around the world was the long protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Thousands of Native Americans, joined by non-Natives, gathered in North Dakota to support the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes in their fight against the pipeline, a 3.8-billion-dollar investment.
They say it desecrates sacred grounds and threatens the water quality of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The pipeline carries crude oil beneath their only source of drinking water.
Across the globe, videos circulated, showing the violent repression of the protesters by private security guards, riot police and national guards. In their arsenal to deal with demonstrations, they used, among other things, sound cannons, rubber bullets and dog attacks.
Jenni Monet covered the story for six consecutive months and was embedded at the Standing Rock reservation for four months, until the end of March 2017. She was arrested and, along with seven other journalists, is still facing charges for criminal trespass and rioting brought by the local Morton County.
Why did it take such a violent crackdown for news about Standing Rock to make the headlines?
“People were maimed,” remembers Jenni Monet. “People were sent into hypothermic shock after being doused with water on a sub-freezing night in November to the point where legacy media could not simply ignore it anymore. They reported on that story 48 hours later. It takes for brown people to die before it becomes unfortunately headline news.”
Monnet says that when the Dakota Access Pipeline protests were happening the story was competing with “one thing and one thing only, Donald Trump”. Based on her own experience, Monet describes the newsrooms obsession with “clickbait”, stories need to pull “the most shares, the most tweets, drive comments from viewers”.
“If Standing Rock proved anything, it’s that [tribal] issues aren’t complicated at all. You just need a lot of people to talk about them. Standing Rock is going to continue to be a case study for us when we look at the power of indigenous media. And, for me and my fellow native journalists, we cannot forget those strides and those gains that were made from Standing Rock.”
Native American journalism
Journalism for Native Americans by Native Americans goes back to the 19th century with the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper founded in 1828. It was written in both English and the Cherokee alphabet created by Sequoyah.
“That newspaper was democracy at work … sovereignty at work. It was the tribe itself having a voice and shaping a narrative that otherwise was completely removed from any sort of publication back then,” declares Jenni Monet.
The newspaper emerged at a time when the Cherokee Nation was debating what action to take while facing forced relocation from their ancestral land in south-eastern United States. Under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Cherokee people were rounded up and forced to relocate to an area west of the Mississippi River designated as Indian Territory. The journey became known as the “trail of tears”.
Tribal newspapers are still very popular, according to Kevin Abourezk, and probably the most popular among the various native news platforms. Most tribes of a certain size have a newspaper that they publish and distribute to their members on the reservations.
But such media do not cover national issues pertaining to the Indian Country. “Just a handful of websites” will cover, for example, a hearing in Washington related to some law dealing with Indian Trust Land. And that’s a problem for Kevin Abourezk.
For Jenni Monet, indigenous media shouldn’t only be for the tribal communities, nor should it only look at “outsiders” as an audience. It should be “somewhere in between”.
“What we saw at Standing Rock was this widespread embrace of concepts that editors themselves have often couched as topics too weighty for their listenership to endure. It was amazing to see on CNN, Sara Sidner quote Lakota prophecy. And a segment about treaty rights. These topics are not too complicated. What they are is sorely underreported.”
Making their voice heard
“It’s our time to tell our stories,” declares Levi Rickert, who is from the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. He deplores the way in which Native Americans are portrayed in the US media. And that’s one of the reasons he decided to set up Native News Online in 2011.
“We are perceived as being conquested people, losers… [associated with] alcoholism, poverty... I try to identify stories that really show the progress and achievements of American Indians and Alaska Natives.”
For Rickert, this is a more a calling than a job. “It is almost like a trusteeship given to me by the Creator to really do my part,” he say, “We serve many tribal nations from around the United States. I try to purposefully find writers from around the country that can write about their region, their tribal nation. The non-native media will not always write about our stories, we can certainly do it.”
As for Jenni Monet, she opted for the precarious position of being an independent journalist rather than being attached to a particular news organisation in order to have a greater chance of getting her stories about indigenous peoples and their rights movements published.
“I’ve worked for some of the biggest brands in the industry and I understand how newsrooms operate. [Being] independent, I can choose many of these decision makers and pitch and pitch and pitch,” declares Jenni Monet, host of the podcast, Still here: Modern stories of resilience, indigenously told.
“People are starting to wake up a little and realise that there is a whole vast Indian country out there,” adds Monet. A generation of journalists, whom she describes as front-runners, took the lead in creating a nuanced narrative and paved the way for her generation. “I’m so grateful for writers like Tim Giago, Mark Trahant, Suzan Shown Harjo, Bunty Anquoe and the list can go on.”
Kevin Abourezk recently decided to start working full time for the Native news website, Indianz.com. Most of his 18 years as a journalist were spent working for the Lincoln Journal Star, a non-Native daily.
“I’ve always wanted to work for native media but I’ve also for a long time felt it was important to reach out to non-Native Americans and trying to educate them about issues facing Native Americans.”
Abourezk says that his former editors were great and welcomed his stories. However, they had a preference for a certain type of stories. One of them is White Clay, a small town of 14 people in Nebraska with four liquor stores selling four million cans of beer a year to the Pine Ridge reservation, which has a population of 40,000 people.
In September this year Indian Country Today, a prominent newspaper and website, put a stop to its activities after 25 years in business, citing financial constraints. This brought some big changes in the world of Native journalism in America, explained Abourezk, and it was one of the reasons why he decided to move to Indianz.com.
“When Indian Country Today decided to shut down … that left a huge vacuum in the world of Native journalism. I felt it was important for Native journalists to step up and fill the vacuum the best we can.”
It took two years of incubation before Levi Rickert’s launched Native News Online. A sustainable business model providing independent reporting appears to be a difficult goal to achieve. Rickert says that he is constantly trying to figure out how to make it work on the small Native media scene
“It is a struggle. We have to fight for advertising, sponsorships, many times we are marginalized. You just have to get pass the ‘Nos’ and get people to say ‘Yes’. You have to have the tenacity to keep going even when it looks dismal out there.”
The words that really encapsulate what the Native American journalists we spoke to are trying to achieve probably come from one Native News Online viewer:
“You write how we Indians want to be written about.”
Follow Jenni Monet on Twitter @jennimonet
Follow Kevin Abourezk on Twitter @Kevin_Abourezk
Follow Levi Rickert on Twitter @Native_NewsNet
Follow Zeenat Hansrod on Twitter @zxnt
Sound editor: Alain Bleu
Music by Raye Zaragoza (In the river) and Camp Pueblo Singers (Water is life)