Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

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Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Indian Country Today, a national voice for Indian Country, went dark while its owners look for a new buyer or a new business model. The “press,” even a “digital press” is the story.

It’s true that most tribal leaders have been annoyed by media, including tribal media, from time to time. It’s the nature of our roles. When we in journalism are at our best, we’re independent. And tribal leaders have a different charge; to govern. That sometimes puts us into conflict — at least a little bit.

But in the long arc of history both roles are crucial. In fact: Some of the best days in Indian Country occurred during periods of a vigorous and independent press. And, at the same time, some of our darkest days took place when there were few national voices.

To be blunt: An independent press is a pain in the ass. Especially for tribal leaders. But the alternative, darkness, is far, far worse.

One such period was the Indian Removal Era.

The Cherokee Nation was one of many tribes that had an independent press in the 1830s as it was facing the challenge of President Andrew Jackson and ultimately the removal from tribal homelands.

The editor of The Cherokee Phoenix was often at odds with tribal leaders. In 1832 he resigned as editor because  he believed he could not do his job properly. His duty, as he saw it, was to “reflect upon the dangers with which we are surrounded; to view the darkness which seems to lie before our people – our prospects, and the evils with which we are threatened; to talk over all these matters, and, if possible, come to some definite and satisfactory conclusion.”

This is a simple definition of the role of the tribal press, an instigator of discourse. The power of the tribal press, then, should follow once the people have reached a definite and satisfactory conclusion.

The evils faced by the Cherokees during Boudinot’s time were among the darkest, but they were not the only dangers before us.

I am interested in the pattern suggested by Boudinot: the warning of dark clouds, followed by community discourse, and, if possible, a community-based satisfactory conclusion.

The issue Boudinot wanted debated – the federal government’s desire to relocate the Cherokee Nation – was about as dire as can be imagined, but other schemes have, to varying degrees, also threatened the very prospect of Indian survival.

Consider how some fifty years ago many tribes were faced with removal in a political context – termination. There were a few voices of dissent from tribal media, including a newspaper published at Menominee. But the voices were primarily local.

In 1952 there was no national Indian newspaper or medium of any kind.

So it wasn’t huge news when Congress enacted House Resolution 108 calling for the termination of tribes that were “ready.”

And to get ready, various provisions were inserted into routine legislation that required tribal governments to prepare a plan to accept termination. Imagine that. As part of your government’s regular funding stream, the tribe would need to prepare documents planning termination.

This would have been a great story; had there been a national Native press.

One of the tribes ordered to prepare a termination plan was the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington state. A termination plan was required in order as part of legislation that included title to tribal lands lands. Most tribal members probably didn’t think much about termination – at least at first – but in the decade that followed pro-termination supporters gained support of the tribal business council, telling tribal members that termination would mean a sale of all the reservation’s assets and a distribution of those assets to tribal members. In other words: folks were promised they would be rich.

Beginning in the early 1960s, U.S. Senator Henry Jackson, a Democrat from Washington, introduced Colville termination bills only to be blocked by the House of Representatives. And, at the same time, a pro-termination tribal business council built up a solid majority.

In October 1966, the tribe asked its members this question:

“Do you favor termination and liquidation of the tribal owned reservation assets at a fair value with the proceeds distributed equally to the members of the tribes?”

The result was one-sided: More than two-thirds of the membership approved of termination.

The Colville people, then, had gone on record for termination.

Chairman Narcisse Nicolson, Jr. said it was time for the Colville people to end their relationship with Washington, to stop taking money from the BIA, and to terminate the reservation.

He said the case was clear because “with only a relatively few exceptions, the tribal families of today are self-supporting.” He added, “Lack of employment, to the degree that it exists, is largely due to character faults which cannot be cured by paternalism.”

In Washington, D.C., BIA Commissioner Robert L. Bennett, even though he was personally opposed to termination, said he would “honor and carry out any decisions that are made by the people of the tribe, whether or not this may be in agreement or disagreement with what may happen to be particular policy of the Bureau.”

The stars seemed aligned. Think of the players on board:  Tribal members, its governing body, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Even the Congress was set. Senator Henry Jackson could be counted on to introduce the Colville termination bill again; this time, some thought, it followed by House enactment.

We can only imagine what it must have been like: Every major political force, the state, a powerful senator, the tribal council, and, perhaps, even a majority of tribal members, all wanted termination.

Only someone forgot to explain to Lucy Covington and her allies that it was a done deal.

In 1966 when that membership poll was taken, Covington was a minority member of the tribal council along with Frank George, Paschal Sherman, and a few others.

There were many voices challenging the wisdom of termination.

One of the tools that she used in this fight: A tribal newspaper. She started “Our Heritage,” a newspaper with the mission of informing tribal members about the issues. She would lead a quiet campaign to quiet what she called “the present fever and fervor for termination.”

And like Standing Rock, there was national call put out for writers, cartoonists, and journalists to come (at their own expense) to chronicle this important moment.

Chuck Trimble once wrote why he went. Covington “enlisted me after I gave a brief talk on the birthing plans of the American Indian Press Association at the 1970 NCAI convention in Anchorage, Alaska. She asked if I would come to Colville and help put together a newspaper. She made no offers of compensation for travel and expenses. The Press Association was not yet established and there were no funds for travel or anything else; so I went at my own expense. And when I arrived in Spokane where she met me, she sat me down in a room at the Indian Center there and told me what she expected of me. She wanted a newspaper that would tell what a tribe means to its people, and its true worth to them in terms of land, natural resources, and most of all their cultural heritage. She wanted the newspaper to be called Our Heritage, and she even described the logo she wanted for the masthead. It would be a pair of hands holding together the shape of the Colville Reservation. The logo would signify that the future of their reservation, indeed their nation, was in the hands of the people, not in the U.S. Government or the State of Washington, or anyone else.

“I was not familiar with what termination of a tribe entailed, and how it was carried out. I thought the U.S. Congress unilaterally determined that a tribe’s unique trust relationship with the Federal government would be severed, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs would execute the congressional order. When I learned that the tribe, through its elected leaders, had to approve the dissolution of their own nation, and that a majority on the existing Colville Council was forcefully behind the measure, I felt disheartened. Gaining an anti-termination majority on the Council meant internecine warfare, and Indian against Indian was always mean and messy.”

But Trimble wrote — and he drew cartoons. And Our Heritage was published.

Our Heritage profiled candidates opposed to termination and reported on the legislative battles in Washington about the advancing termination bills.

The anti-termination side won on May 8, 1971. Nicholson was defeated in his district, Omak. He was replaced by a council member who was opposed to termination, joined by a new majority of like-minded representatives.

Mel Tonasket, then-thirty years old, was the elected by the business council as the chairman. The new business council called for more federal support, closed a reservation lake to outsiders and voted to take back law enforcement powers that had been ceded to the state of Washington.

The new council also went further, claiming the inherent power of a government through an affirmation of tribal sovereignty.

And even a longtime supporters of termination reversed course. Sen. Jackson, a Democrat from Washington, in 1972 introduced a repeal of the termination resolution and recast himself as a champion of tribal governments and Indian people.

The dark clouds of termination almost ended the Colville reservation and that tribe’s unique relationship with the federal government (something that did occur in dozens of other tribal communities).

But the danger of termination was identified by both the tribe’s political leadership and the press. This fit Boudinot’s model: A description of the dangers, followed by community discourse, until a satisfactory conclusion was reached.

I recall a tribal politician speaking at the National Congress of American Indians. I am not sure who he was nor where the meeting was but I remember him identifying the tribal news media as “war correspondents.” This image stuck with me because it is so telling: Tribal political leaders identified us as soldiers in the defense of Indian country. Our work is important when we serve that war effort, helping to defeat the enemy. But that metaphor suggests that when journalism moves closer to home, when we do stories that aid the enemy, then not so much.

“Our Heritage” fit this notion perfectly. The newspaper had one purpose: stopping termination. And, at the beginning of the termination era there was no national Native press. But at the end, when tribes won, the press was actively helping tribal citizens reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Perhaps one of the reasons why I remember that NCAI speech about “war correspondents” was because of when it was given in the late 1970s. This was a time when most tribal governments truly felt under siege, it was the era the “backlash” era.

And it was a story that most of us working for tribal newspapers tried to fully cover.

“So strong is this threat and so pervasive is its national presence that Indians are referring to it as ‘the new Indian war.’ Its sources, most observers of the national Indian scene agree, are the results of that very progress; in particular, the long and significant train of court victories in the 1970s upholding tribal rights,” wrote Hopi journalist Rose Robinson from Washington, D.C. “Whatever its sources, white backlash is, by every measure, the major concern of people today.”

The backlash was promoted by organizations with names that suggested a noble calling: South Dakotans for Civil Liberties; Montanans Opposed to Discrimination and the Interstate Congress for Equal Rights and Responsibilities. These groups defined American Indians as “special citizens” who, because of treaty rights, were getting a better deal than the rest of the nation. A book, “Indian Treaties: America’s Nightmare,” was sent by the group to members of Congress, the secretary of Interior and other Washington officials. “The liberal treatment of minorities has reached unheard of proportions in denying equal rights to all citizens of our so-called democracy,” a brochure for the book said.

“Sportsmens (sic) – organizations – fishermen – hunters – land owners – commercial fishermen and just plain tax paying citizens who have just about had it with Indian take-overs make up the membership of ICERR.”

The backlash was a nationwide movement that discounted two centuries of federal-Indian policy. “That the Indians’ claims are being given any legitimacy at all is nonsensical,” wrote a columnist in the Boston Herald American about the land claims in Maine. “Whatever happened 200 years ago, the culprits were not the current land owners, so there is no justification for punishing them.”

“After so many quiet years, what has got into the Indians?” asked a two-page essay in Time. “Probably no other country would take quite so seriously land claims that propose, in effect, the impossible rolling back of history. The inherent absurdity of such a proposition might be clearer, say, in a suggestion that Australia be handed back to the aborigines. …Congress should be able to be fair without suffering the delusion that the country can really be given back to the Indians. The time for that passed forever with the vanishing of the pioneers who took it from them.”

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The movement had one goal: abrogate treaties. These efforts were on two legislative tracks: The first was led by a U.S. Rep. Jack Cunningham, R-Washington, who introduced bills directly calling for treaty abrogation; and, the second track was more moderate legislation that was introduced by a U.S. Rep. Lloyd Meeds.  Meeds, a Democrat, was also from Washington state and his role was interesting because he had once been a supporter of tribes – even honored by the National Congress of American Indians for his work on the Hill.

The Interstate Congress dismissed Indians as “treaty Americans” or “first-class citizens” and it said it had no objection to “being treaty Americans or full-fledged American citizens, but we do object to them claiming both. “Until they decide what they want to be, treaty Americans or first-class citizens, but not both, they will feel the bite of the backlash, and it will get stronger until a more equitable solution is found.”

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The Indian Country Today of that era was Wassaja, a San Francisco-based, national newspaper. Wassaja covered the annual convention of the anti-treaty group because it represented, “the first step toward abrogation.”

Wassaja – and most tribal newspapers – devoted lots of space and attention to the backlash movement. Tribal leaders saw the threat and worked to build coalitions to defeat the ideas behind the backlash, as well as their representatives in Congress.

Again, though, the dark clouds were identified and community discourse was disseminated through the native press. Indeed, the leaders of that era agreed with the label of “new Indian wars,” and even promised a literal battle if things proceeded.

Navajo Chairman Peter MacDonald Sr., for example, called for an emergency summit of all tribal leaders to develop a strategy. He said that if the backlash reached its logical conclusion, taking Indian people backwards, then Indians might return to waging war. “I don’t think anyone wants to go back to that situation.”

MacDonald’s rhetoric was harsh, but his position was not unique. He was joined on the effort in groups ranging from the conservative National Tribal Chairman’s Association to the American Indian Movement.

Discourse prevailed. Tribal leaders developed a successful strategy and their voices reached tribal and U.S. citizens. The national Native press was taking notes.

The termination era as well as the backlash era shared a language. Termination supporters wanted to “free the Indians.” The Interstate Congress proclaimed the goal of “equal rights.”

Of course in a large part what drove both of these efforts was competition over scarce natural resources. All of the tribes that were terminated had a resource that someone wanted  — often timber. And the so-called equal rights effort of the Interstate Congress were led by hunters and fishers who objected to the “preferential” rights of treaty hunting and fishing.

In both of these examples, too, there were characters willing to advance the ideas. Utah Sen. Arthur Watkins was the champion of termination. And the backlash had Jack Cunningham and Howard Grey (once identified in Wassaja as the “der Fuhrer of ICERR).

That leads me to the next threat: Slade Gorton.

Slade Gorton – who was again from Washington state – took the ideas of an early generation and led them to new, sophisticated heights.

Some context. It doesn’t take a lot of calculating to see that so much of this backlash and termination support came from Washington state. Why Washington? One reason was the intense battle for salmon fishing rights – and the favorable ruling by the federal courts.

Columnist John Mohawk wrote in another national publication, Native Americas magazine, that Gorton was “an anti-Indian activist all his political life. He fought against Indian treaty rights when he was attorney general for his home state, and he leads perennial attacks against Indian rights in the Senate.”

But unlike Cunningham, or even Meeds, Gorton developed a more sophisticated attack against tribal interests. He used his power as a Senator – and later as an appropriations committee leader – to limit how federal dollars might be used to support tribal rights.

He occasionally proposed radical rewriting of federal Indian law, advancing his idea that tribes were social clubs and not legitimate governments.

“Over time, Gorton settled into the style of the Senate, where tone trumps content most days of the week,” wrote Indian Country Today columnist Suzan Harjo. “He began using the scalpel more than the machete, but was ever-focused on his task: undercutting federal Indian law.  He was gaining surgical precision, along with seniority and clout on key committees for energy and natural resources, budget and commerce, science and transportation.

“After the 1996 election, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., announced that he would step down as chair of the Senate’s select committee on Indian affairs. Gorton was next in line for the job. The sound of alarm from Indian country was loud and effective. Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., interceded and Gorton withdrew in favor of Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Republican from Colorado, who became the first Native American to head the Indian panel.”

But Gorton continued his political attacks whenever and when ever he could be effective.

Here is where another difference emerges between Gorton and his predecessors, such as Jack Cunningham or Arthur Watkins. Instead of being a character in a larger drama, Gorton became the lead in the play.

An intertribal coalition built was launched to “Dump Slade.” And when someone said those two very words, nearly everyone in Indian Country knew exactly what was meant. Gorton was a modern-day Custer – and his defeat was essential for Indian Country’s survival. Gorton became the issue.

I remember a conversation I had with Joe Delacruz at an Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians’ meeting. He promised that Slade would be defeated. We’re raising money, we’re building a coalition, he told me, and we’re going to win.

Delacruz was right. The Dump Slade effort worked; Maria Cantwell was elected in his place.

And because Slade was the actor, the issue went away as far as tribal discourse was concerned.

But did Slade really go away? Well, if you think about him as a central character in a drama, then, yes, perhaps.

But what of his ideas? We face many of those same notions today. Even his idea that tribes are more like social organizations than governments was effectively advanced by the Supreme Court in decision after decision. Starting with the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist the Supreme Court quietly transformed Indian law. And not in a good way.

Another story I’d like to tell is from Alaska. The community of Point Hope had a huge problem in 1962. The United States government had this wacky idea of testing nuclear devices in their homeland. There was a removal plan. The government had decided that Project Chariot made sense and should go forward.

The Arctic Slope Native Association turned to a young Inupiat artist by the name of Howard Rock and asked him to start a newspaper. The Tundra Times was born in October 1962.

“He was the most soft-spoken man,” said reporter Tom Richards, who worked at the Tundra Times from 1968 to 1974. “But he had tremendous impact with just a few words.”

The Tundra Times followed Boudinot’s model perfectly. The paper warned about the dangers, the community came together and talked over these matters, and then reached a satisfactory conclusion. The Atomic Energy Commission’s Project Chariot was no more.

But Rock did not stop telling the story. He thought Alaska Natives ought to be a stronger, inter-tribal community. The newspaper’s masthead reinforced its vision of Native harmony that eventually led to the creation of the Alaska Federation of Natives. As AFN said: Rock, through his newspaper, unified Alaska Natives by “knowing the hearts and minds of the people.”

“Perhaps more than anyone else, he (Rock) helped weld together the frontier state’s 55,000 Natives for their successful years-long fight to win the largest aboriginal land claims settlement in American history,” wrote Stan Patty of the Seattle Times. He added that Rock was their voice; at times about the only calm voice when crescendos of dissent threatened to tear Alaska apart.

And that led — along with the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay — and to a modern treaty, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Rock’s Tundra Times had a national voice. Its correspondent in Washington, Tom Richards, worked alongside other native journalists at the key moment in history. The Tundra Times was no cheerleader. It talked about the good of ANCSA and warned readers about some of the consequences.

“Let’s turn it around and look at the real situation,” Richards wrote. “The natives are being forced to give up their land under the traditional American principle of manifest destiny and all they’re asking is a fair shake.”

We lost the Tundra Times in on December 16, 1991. Its announcement said the board voted to “suspend publication” until a March meeting.

Suspensions, rarely result in a re-start. But the financial problems of Tundra Times were well known. The paper had been writing about its own challenges for some two decades. Its readers were familiar with the challenges.

That’s not the case with Indian Country Today. It’s darkness was a surprise, one that left little time to explore options from a broader civic community. This is a fail.

But that also brings me to Standing Rock.

As we all know, Standing Rock was a social media story. News was instant. Shared, reshared, and liked on Facebook.

It’s interesting some of the same elements from Standing Rock were present at Alcatraz or Daybreak Star or Frank’s Landing … but what was different was social media and a viral connection across Indian Country. Technology even played a role: A few months before Standing Rock Idle No More generated the same kinds of stories scattered first across Canada and then worldwide. But one explosive difference in Standing Rock and Idle No More was Facebook live. Someone could turn a camera on and generate an audience of thousands or even hundreds of thousands. We are all related, we are all connected.

Social media — well, Facebook — can even take credit for informing the President of the United States. A year ago tomorrow — imagine that — a year ago President Obama was asked about  the Dakota Access Pipeline and the #NoDAPL movement at Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative  town hall. This social media story popped the presidential bubble. It alerted him to an issue that he could no longer ignore.

A social media story to be sure. And important because we all remember the many, many stories asking, where were the mainstream reporters? Why was Standing Rock not the front page, network TV news story that was required? When a few armed protesters take center stage in Oregon and Nevada and it’s a big story; but when thousands of people come to stand with Standing Rock …  it’s only occasional news.

So it was a social media story.

But here’s the thing. If you go back and look at the many social media stories the ones that were the most shared, the most liked, and most respected, were stories generated by the press, and often that was Indian Country Today.

The reason is clear and easy: No one had to explain to editors at Indian Country Today why it was a story. As one editor told me: “We knew we had to blow out our budget for this one.”

Early on Valerie Taliman was on site working with reporters and letting them know that Indian Country Today was going to extraordinary lengths. I have counted more than a dozen bylines on this story, including my own. Jenni Monet was compelled to leave a teaching post and write full time from here. And to this day she faces criminal, legal peril for her reporting — something that should never be allowed in a country with First Amendment protection. “Congress shall make no law … “ yet a prosecutor in Morton County is doing just that, making up a law.

This was a story of a generation — and Indian Country Today answered. 

But it’s also a story without an ending. The newspaper helped tribal citizens across the country consider the darkness before us and the evils with which we are threatened. It helped us talk over these matters. But we still have a lot of work to do before we come to some definite and satisfactory conclusion.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com

(This is a speech Mark Trahant gave to the Tribal Leaders Summit September 6, 2017, in Bismarck, North Dakota.)

 

 

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