Putting coverage of Native American issues to the ‘bingo test’

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (ETSPJ) — A bingo card sums it up: If your ideas on telling stories about Native Americans include a heavy reliance on words such as alcohol, drugs, poverty or suicide, you’ve probably just scored bingo.

Same for these words — vanishing culture, something sacred, broken families and dying language.

If you score bingo, the card says, “consider killing your story and contact a consultant at the Native American Journalists Association for advice on ways to improve your storytelling in indigenous communities.”

This illustration best sums up what speakers said at two sessions at the Excellence in Journalism 2017 on covering Native Americans. EIJ17 was held in Anaheim, Calif., with the Native Americans Journalists Association joining the Society of Professional Journalists and two other groups on Sept. 7-9.

The two sessions dealt with fair portrayals of indigenous people and community, and how popular media treats Native Americans, with mostly a touch of what was called “the Hollywood Indian.”

Dr. John Coward, a professor at the University of Tulsa, said at the “fair portrayals” session that few photographs were made of Native Americans until Matthew Brady took one during the Civil War, which was the most famous. It was a visit of Indians to Washington, D.C., and included four white men in the picture.

However, magazines at the time used illustrations of the photograph and removed the white men, he said. Other illustrations, which portrayed settings that no one witnessed, would have Indians with rifles or “coup” sticks used as weapons, and never any women unless it was “an old squaw,” he said.

“The images reflected the values of white, mostly middle class, Protestant, Anglo-Americans,” he said. “The images live on today,” he added.

Native Americans often are excluded from media coverage with some built-in biases responsible, said Crystal Echo Hawk, president of her own consulting firm in Denver, Colo. In census information, Native American is not a category on which information is gathered, she said.

“We’re invisible,” the Pawnee Indian said.

As a result, images of Native Americans are that they get “free” benefits and privileges from the government or are alcoholics. In states like Arizona, “we just see the casinos,” she said.

Dr. Loren Ghiglione, who retired in June as dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, talked about a lack of Native Americans in newsrooms. At a time of layoffs and restructuring, he worries about the overall percentage of minority representation in newsrooms. When there used to be 40 percent minority representation, Native Americans were not included, he said.

Journalism courses need to introduce students to indigenous people, most of whom live in urban areas, he said, adding only 17 percent reside on reservations. He said 160 native nations are in the Chicago area alone. The issues they face that make for urban stories are the multi-culture environment in which they live and inter-marriages, he said.

The retired dean warned the audience to expect rejections from Native Americans in trying to develop stories. The way to reach them is spend more time connecting with them, Ghiglione said.

At the session on Native Americans and the Popular Media, two Indians with experience working in Native American museums said visitors often considered them part of the exhibit and would touch their clothing, jewelry or hair.

“People think we live in tepees and should be dressed in buckskin or tribal outfits,” said Sierra Teller Ornelas, a television show writer, who once worked in the National American Museum in Washington, D.C. She said she was even asked, “Where’s your horse?”

The Navaho Indian also said she’s been asked if she’s a “real” Indian.

“Compared to what, a “real” Caucasian?,” she said, laughing. (The audience did, too.)

Paula Starr, executive director of Southern California Indian Center, said she feels America is in denial about attitudes toward Native Americans and in a state of desensitization.

“When we can come together as human beings, we have such love for one another. We’re all related. We’ve all had tragedies. We need to move forward for a better tomorrow,” Starr said.

Stories the media can do in which Native Americans would have contributions about their culture are Thanksgiving and Columbus Day, which has been changed to Indigenous Day in some communities or celebrated as Indigenous People’s Day in others.

Thanksgiving was observed before Europeans came in contact with America, Ornelas said.

“It’s a great opportunity” for the Native American community, she said.

In related news reported at The Rural Blog after EIJ17, Indian Country Today, a major source of Native American news, was shut down, possibly for good, unless it can find a more sustainable business model to keep it going.

Publisher Ray Halbritter, CEO of Oenida National Enterprises in New York state, bought the 30-year-old weekly paper in 2011, to see more journalism by and about Native Americans, he said.

See http://irjci.blogspot.com/2017/09/indian-country-today-shuts-down-maybe.html for more information. The Rural Blog is provided by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues based at the University of Kentucky.


Georgiana Vines is a long-time member of the Society of Professional Journalists. She was on the founding board of the East Tennessee Chapter of SPJ, is a former ETSPJ president, and served as national president of SPJ in 1992-93. She is on the board of the Front Page Foundation. She also is retired News Sentinel associate editor.

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