Native Press Ungagged

By:

E&P Editorial

There’s been good news and bad news out of Indian country in recent days. The good news — and history-making news, at that — is that the Navajo tribal council voted overwhelmingly Oct. 23 to free from tribal government control the weekly Navajo Times, already one of the most aggressive newspapers publishing on a Native American reservation.

The bad news is that the very same week, the chairman of the Fort Hall (Idaho) Tribal Business Council of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes fired the respected editor of the Sho-Ban News — and even temporarily shut down the tribe-owned weekly while he whined about its coverage. Council Chairman Fred Auck was continuing a long and shameful tradition of tribal government interference with Native journalism when he fired long-time Editor Lori Edmo-Suppah, the treasurer of the Native American Journalists Association, because the paper was reporting both sides of the bitter recall campaign against him.

This interference is a story as old as American Indian journalism itself. The editor of the very first Native American newspaper — the Cherokee Phoenix, founded 175 years ago in New Echota, Ga. — was assassinated by fellow Cherokee disgusted with his editorial support of the forced migration of the tribe that became known as the Trail of Tears.

Still, the heartening fact is that Fred Auck and other bullying leaders who try to muzzle Native newspapers are on the wrong side of history now. One day after Edmo-Suppah was fired, furious tribal members held a protest rally to demand her reinstatement.

Throughout Indian country, people on “The Rez” realize that a free and aggressive press is vital to understanding and deciding the many issues they face, from tribal politics to casino gambling. The best example of this growing spirit is what just happened in the Navajo Nation.

For decades, Navajo leaders fought against press freedom. Since its founding in 1961, six editors of the Navajo Times had been fired by tribal leaders, most famously in 1987 when then-Chairman Peter McDonald sacked Editor Tom Arviso Jr. and the entire newsroom. For good measure, McDonald — who would later spend seven years in jail on federal bribery charges — shut down the paper for four months.

Two weeks ago, that same Arviso, now publisher, stood before the tribal council and made a case for an unfettered Navajo Times that was so convincing that members shouted for an immediate vote — and approved independence 66-1. “The tally board lit up all green,” Arviso told Richard Prince’s Journal-isms online newsletter. “It was a great moment. I can’t tell you how happy I was.”

It will be, no doubt, the first of other great moments throughout Indian country, where a journalistic Trail of Tears of tribal and self-censorship is at last coming to an end for Native American newspapers.

This unsigned editorial appeared in the Nov. 3 print edition of E&P.

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