By: Mark Fitzgerald
Unity’ 94 panelists discuss the censorship that still exists today sp.
THE FIRST NATIVE American newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix in New Echota, Ga., was launched February 1828 ? and destroyed by Georgian troops about seven years later.
Unfortunately, the Phoenix’s suppression may still say more about the state of Native American journalism than its hopeful beginning, says Gary Fife, news anchor for the Heartbeat Alaska radio network.
“Since that day to this day hence, there has not been freedom of the press in Indian Country. I just haven’t seen it,” Fife declared at the Native American Journalists Association’s “town hall” meeting at the recent Unity ’94.
Native American papers, Fife and other journalists said, operate under tremendous pressures. Often published in isolated reservations, they have few financial resources. In addition, they face intense social and political pressures from tribal councils and leaders.
Too often, Fife said, the newspapers or broadcast outlets buckle under to those pressures.
“In all my experience in broadcasting so far, the weakest link has been the tribal outlets,” Fife said.
“There can’t be the ‘real’ press and then . . . the Native press,” he added. “The one thing I’ve always fought for is we have to do the tough story. For change to come we have to bring daylight to these situations.”
Indeed, there were indications even at the meeting itself of the pressure on American Indian journalists.
For instance, one Indian leader, JoAnn Jones, chairwoman of the Wisconsin Winnebago Nation, reflected the views of several audience members as well when she spoke quite plainly for “censorship” of the Native press.
“We believe, of course, in freedom of the press,” she said, “but I have stated publicly that we have to have this censorship . . . in certain stories that involve confidentiality.”
Jones complained that Native papers themselves sometimes practice biased journalism.
In her campaign for chairwoman, she said, “We had to fight our own paper.”
She also said that her council’s experiment with giving greater access to the tribal press was a failure, because the paper published “confidential” material such as finances.
Similarly, the chairman of the Oneida tribe, Jerry Hill, said closed meetings are a leader’s “privilege.”
“Generally the kind of rule that I have is that that which should be know will be known,” he said.
Jones’ solution to this supposed press problem is one that is unlikely to reassure independent journalists: “We would like to have tribes owning bigger papers.”
Another tribal leader, Wilma Mankiller, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, also called for tribal control of newspapers.
“I think there can be good tribal newspapers,” she said, adding that they might be organized along the lines of a British Broadcasting Co.
Mankiller herself, however, has kept her nation’s government unusually open to the press.
“We have no closed meetings, our audits of finances are available to the public, and once a year we even publish my travel states, so people can know what I paid for a hotel,” Mankiller said.
And she says she has grown to appreciate the press’ power.
“I think we’ve come to understand that the media can help change the way we are viewed, change the stereotypes about us,” Mankiller said. “I understood clearly I could use the media to tell the story of the Cherokee people. Because the stereotypes are still out there. Sometimes I feel like wearing a pin that says, ‘I am not the Mazola corn [oil] lady.’ “
Much of the criticism of the Native press is unfair, argues Mark Trahant, executive news editor of the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah.
“Most of the time we look at these tribal newspapers as if they are supposed to be the Washington Post,” he said. “But if you look at [non-Indian] weekly papers of the same size, they are lousy, too.”
Tribal newspapers, Trahant said, can be “just as honest as independent newspapers,” but probably need to work more on their style than on their investigative skills.
“I really think one thing we can borrow from tribal tradition is that of storytelling. It’s even more important, I think, than freedom of the press [access issues]. Why not just tell a story?” said Trahant, a Shoshone-Bannock.
Trahant said despite closed meetings ? “the Navajos, they close meetings each time they sneeze” ? his paper has always been able to get news information from other sources.
Indeed, investigative digging is the key to the success of the Native press, argues radio anchor Gary Fife.
“I’m a cranky old skeptic editor,” he said, “and that’s what we need in the Native press ? someone to say, ‘Hey, you’re missing the big point of this story.’ “