Press performance: Reporting Trump, Native code talkers, and viral outrage

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Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

How does the national press cover Indian Country? That’s often an easy question to answer because it’s so rare for the media to weigh in on events that matter. And when they do? Damn.

The White House ceremony to honor code talkers turned into a frenzy. As ABC News reported, “MOMENTS AGO: Pres. Trump at White House event honoring Navajo code talkers, makes joke about “Pocahontas” Sen. Elizabeth Warren.”

That, of course, became the story. It sells. It’s the president disrespecting veterans, history, and Native Americans. It also fits the narrative of the president’s incompetence. This story had This Will Go Viral encoded into every frame.

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But the telling of the story missed. Hundreds of media outlets from National Public Radio to  The Washington Post reduced the event to one that only honored Navajo code talkers. Headline after headline. (Interesting: Just a week ago the Post advanced the story broadly. “While the contributions of Navajo code talkers have been honored by Congress and featured in films, the role of dozens of other Native American tribes has been overlooked. But on Wednesday, Congressional Gold Medals, the nation’s highest civilian honor, were awarded honoring the service of hundreds of overlooked code talkers from 33 tribes,” the Post said.)

Perhaps it’s ignorance, right? The news media doesn’t write about these issues often. (And the diversity in the White House press corps is right up there with, say, the Trump cabinet in terms of hearing Native voices.) But here’s the thing: Several media reports quoted the National Congress of American Indians news release. And in paragraph one that says: “Today was about recognizing the remarkable courage and invaluable contributions of our Native code talkers. That’s who we honor today and everyday – the three code talkers present at the White House representing the 10 other elderly living code talkers who were unable to join them, and the hundreds of other code talkers from the Cherokee, Choctaw, Comanche, Lakota, Meskwaki, Mohawk, Navajo, Tlingit, and other tribes who served during World Wars I and II. We also honor the service and bravery of all of our veterans and those currently serving from Indian Country. Native people serve in the Armed Forces at a higher rate than any other group in the country, and have served in every war in this nation’s history.”

The information was in front of the reporters. Did they miss nuance? Or facts?

To me this story is disheartening because of what the national media does not cover. There was hardly any reporting about the hiatus of Indian Country Today Media Network (with the exception of one NPR post and Mary Annette Pember’s excellent Columbia Journalism Review piece). But nothing in The New York Times or Washington Post (and therefore nothing on network television).

And there are so many critical stories worth writing about now, such as the tens of thousands of Native children who will lose health insurance soon unless Congress acts. This might sound bureaucratic to reporters, but when the Indian health system runs short of funds many, many patients will be denied medical treatment unless it’s life or limb. That should be an outrage worth the front page.

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

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Exploring the business of Native news; inventing a medium that does not exist

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Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

It’s tempting to think of “news” as the business model for Indian Country Today. What are the stories? Does it represent an authentic voice (or voices) for Indian Country? Who are the great reporters? Where should they be? How much video? Text? Opinion? Is the story compelling? Does coverage match the experience of our readers? What’s on our digital front page? What stories do people want to read? What’s new?

These are great question for any editor. But they should be dismissed. For now. If Indian Country Today is to revive there are other questions that must be asked and answered. Starting with: Is there funding? Is Indian Country a viable market? If so, what does that look like? Where will the revenue come from? How much will it cost to produce? And how often? And, by the way, where is the money coming from?

There are really only two answers that need to be figured out: Where the money comes from and how that money is spent. Everything else is just detail.

When I first read that Indian Country Today lost (I’ll say invested) some $3 million in its last year, I thought, wow, that’s more than I lost running Navajo Times Today back in the day. Then I did the math. Uh oh. If you look at the value of a dollar now compared to 1987 then, well, let’s just say the total exceeds $5 million.

Problem: It costs a lot of money to produce news.

Then the media world is upside down. Today so many costs are a fraction of what they were in 1987. As a daily newspaper the Navajo Times Today, I still believe, needed about 4 years to break even and then would have been profitable. Our advertising projections were solid but what slowed us down was the costly nature of delivering the paper daily throughout the Navajo Nation. The internet has sharply reduced those costs — any organization can publish on the web for far less than what it cost us a generation ago. But, at the same time, advertising no longer works to pay the bills. (The funny thing: Had we been successful in 1987 … the paper would still be in deep trouble because so many of the elements required for a successful daily newspaper have evaporated.) 

The Navajo Times of today (owned by the tribe, but chartered and operated independently) is quite successful. It’s a weekly and it still attracts significant advertising and readership. But the strength of those ads are regional, not national.

The challenge for Indian Country Today is that it generated a large readership, at least by Indian Country’s standards, but not enough of a readership for a national advertising strategy which measures success by the millions. Most digital ads are sold using a measurement of cost per thousand or CPM. So if there are 100,000 readers and let’s say 2 percent click the ad, that could generate about $2,000. So it would take a whole lot of those kinds of ads to fund a newsroom.

I don’t think a subscription model works for Indian Country either. The problem is that a few people will pay, but not enough to cover the costs, so you end up producing a publication for the elite. I almost went down this road a couple of years ago for Trahant Reports. I was thinking of converting the report into a paid newsletter that probably would have sold to a few law firms, lobbyists, and tribes particularly interested in public policy. Hell, I might have even made money at it. But the true cost would have been high: I try to make public policy interesting for everyone. And those readers would have been gone. Fortunately a friend pointed this out to me — and I reversed course. My content remains free for readers and for other news organizations.

So what models are there that might work? How can Indian Country serve readers as an independent news organization? And, just as important, how will that enterprise get started?

I won’t explore the for-profit model here because it’s not an option. But that mechanism does work for News from Indian Country, Native News Sun, and many other regional publications. It’s also important to remember that there will be competition for resources and content. Any non-profit enterprise will compete for many of the same dollars raised by tribal radio stations, the Native Voice One network, Native Public Media, Native American Journalists Association, and on and on. The Indianz.com and Pechanga.net attract the same web readers with their content and aggregation. (See the Native Media Universe, an always unfinished database.)

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News that’s Not-for-Profit

Indian Country Today’s next chapter is likely to be some kind of not-for-profit venture. The Oneida Nation of New York, the owner of Indian Country Today Media Network, donated the assets of the venture to the National Congress of American Indians. It’s now up to NCAI to figure out what will happen next (starting with many conversations at the annual convention next week in Milwaukee).

This is a bit complicated because NCAI is an advocacy organization for tribes and its members. Just imagine the first time a journalist writes a hard-hitting story that a senator on the Appropriations Committee does not like. Or a tribal leader.

But this is a problem that can be solved.

One of the best news operations in Washington is Kaiser Health News, owned by the Kaiser Family Foundation. They are both non-profits. Kaiser Health News is in the same building as the Kaiser Family Foundation, often uses that research, or speakers, or other resources. Yet Kaiser Health News operates independently and partners with existing mainstream media such as National Public Radio or The Washington Post. Another hybrid, Think Progress, operates independently of its sponsor, the Center for American Progress. There is another model — a completely different approach — that works in Seattle, the Sightline Institute. This organization focuses on actionable research about the Pacific Northwest region and its view of a sustainable future. This could be something that the NCAI Policy Research Center could do. It’s a smaller operation that builds on existing scholarship.

But Kaiser Health News and Think Progress do something else that’s essential: They employ dozens of journalists. Indian Country Today did that too. And that ought to be at the top of the list in terms of developing a “what’s next?” plan.

Two other non-profits that have a significant presence in Indian Country’s media universe are Yes! Magazine and High Country News. Both publications treat Indian Country as an important beat and pay freelancers for coverage. High Country News also has a Native issues editor, currently Graham Lee Brewer, a member of the Cherokee Nation. Yes! invested significant resources into covering Standing Rock. Both of these non-profits have a long track record. High Country News began in Lander, Wyoming, in 1970. And Yes! started in 1997.

There is a newer model to consider, ProPublica. This is an independent, stand alone, news organization that’s funded by philanthropy. Imagine a bunch of journalists being hired with an agenda to do news. The work is done by professionals and then given away to other news organizations. There are several regional variations of ProPublica throughout the country that lay out a road map for the how to operate Indian Country Today as a non-profit enterprise.

That’s the money out. Spending it will be simple. There are a lot of talented people who would love the opportunity to keep doing what they’ve been doing, or better, to do more. The distribution of the news could be by web, a wire service, through other media, or all of the above. Technology has made distribution much easier.

A summary of the money out: The cost of a staff, buying freelance, travel, and some administrative costs. But how much money, who decides who gets the jobs, and how much will freelancers be paid?

The data is interesting. According to Pew Research, 73 percent of all non-profit news sites employ less than three people. Only 19 percent have between five and ten employees. “Small budgets tend to mean small staffs and that is the case for a large majority of the digital native news outlets,” according to a Pew Research survey of nonprofit outlets.

What about the money in? As I have already written: I don’t believe there is a national market for advertising. Indian Country’s numbers are just too small for a mass market. There could be, from time to time, some ads. But nothing comprehensive and not in amounts that would make a difference. I also think a subscription model won’t work for the reasons I’ve already said.

So what does that leave?

I’d start with the public media model. It doesn’t matter who “owns” Indian Country Today. We all do. We have a stake in an intelligent account of the day’s events in a context that gives them meaning.

So a public Indian Country Today could challenge us with semi-annual fundraisers, crowdfunding, and a call to action. Twice a year at least. And, like other public media, that means raising additional money from foundations, companies, tribes, basically, any group willing to write a check.

One recent Pew Research report estimated that roughly $150 million in philanthropy now goes to journalism annually.

And much of that comes from crowdfunding. Pew Research: “From April 28, 2009 to September 15, 2015, 658 journalism-related projects proposed on Kickstarter, one of the largest single hubs for crowdfunding journalism, received full – or more than full – funding, to the tune of nearly $6.3 million.”

Then if that sounds like a lot of money, Pew also reports, “the journalism projects produced and revenue gained from these crowdfunded ventures is still a drop in the bucket compared with the original reporting output that occurs on any given day and the roughly $20 billion in revenue generated by newspaper ads alone.”

But as a revenue stream — perhaps not the only one — crowd funding could be significant for Indian Country Today. If, the news operation is credible and compelling. If.

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There is a lesson from ProPublica that ought to apply to any model (or blend of models) that eventually surfaces, and it raises another question, what business are you in? No, really?What business?

At a recent Google Hangout with the Online News Association, ProPublica’s Vice President of Business Development and ONA Board Member Celeste LeCompte drew parallels between the news industry and other enterprises. She said she visited a go-kart factory in China and she discovered they also made trampolines. Why? Because she said the company was “not a go-kart business. It was this crazy machine-bending, metal-piping, powder-coating and spring-attaching business. And that got me thinking about the ways in which companies make their money.”

That same principle applies to information. ProPublica, for example, collects a lot of data as part of its reporting. It then sells that data to other clients for other uses.  “We are storytellers in this business,” she said. “That’s all we’re asking to do in the business side as well. When you’re creating real value for an audience, you probably have an opportunity to ask them to compensate you for that.”

What parallel market exists from information in Indian Country? And, what are the prospects and the ethics of marketing that information?

Of course the minute you have the answer, the rules change. One funder — even a good one — can keep an operation going for some time (as in the case of Indian Country Today) but what happens when priorities change? Is there a route to sustainability that includes lots of sponsors and supporters?

Answering these questions is difficult in the media world we all know. Newspapers. TV. A little web. Podcasting. The familiar. But that world is vibrant. And it’s gone. The challenge is to invent a news ecosystem for Indian Country that builds on models that do not yet exist.

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

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Previous: When the Native press is strong, so is Indian Country

Indian Country Today had its beautiful moments

Disclosures: I have been working in Native media since 1975 — so I have a long list of disclosures for this piece. I am currently a board member for Yes! magazine. I am a former board member of Sightline and a long time ago, High Country News. I was editor and publisher of the Navajo Times Today in the mid 1980s (and was fired from that job.) I had a fellowship with the Kaiser Family Foundation. And I am a former president of the Native American Journalists Association. And, finally, my weekly radio commentary is distributed via Native Voice One. I am also an owner, stockholder in News From Indian Country. 

The story is not over: When the Native press is strong … so is Indian Country

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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.)

 

 

Journalism Fail: Standing Rock arrest puts the First Amendment on trial

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Native American media have been quick to jump to the defense of journalist Jenni Monet. She was arrested near Standing Rock last week. But most of the press has been silent about the charges she faces (and the implications for the First Amendment). Photo: Aboriginal People’s Television Network.

Jenni Monet faces criminal trespass and rioting charges

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Jenni Monet, a Native American journalist, was arrested last week while covering Standing Rock. You’d think that would trigger a lot of support from the national and regional news media. 

There is an idea in law enforcement called the “thin blue line.” It basically means that police work together. A call goes out from Morton County and, right or wrong, law enforcement from around the country provides back up.

You would think journalism would be like that too.

When one journalist is threatened, we all are. We cannot do our jobs when we worry about being injured or worse. And when a journalist is arrested? Well, everyone who claims the First Amendment as a framework should object loudly.

Last Wednesday Monet was arrested near Cannonball, North Dakota. She was interviewing water protectors who were setting up a new camp near the Dakota Access Pipeline route on treaty lands of the Great Sioux Nation. Law enforcement from Morton County surrounded the camp and captured everyone within the circle. A press release from the sheriff’s Department puts it this way: “Approximately 76 members of a rogue group of protestors were arrested.”  Most were charged with criminal trespassing and inciting a riot.

As was Monet. She now faces serious charges and the judicial process will go forward. The truth must come out.

But this story is about the failure of journalism institutions.

The Native press and the institutions that carry her work had Monet’s back. That includes Indian Country Media Network, Yes! Magazine, and the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal. In Canada the Aboriginal People’s Television Network reported on the story during its evening news. And, The Los Angeles Times has now weighed as well in with its own story written by Sandy Tolan who’s done some great reporting from Standing Rock. The Native American Journalists Association released a statement immediately: “Yesterday’s unlawful arrest of Native journalist Jenni Monet by Morton County officers is patently illegal and a blatant betrayal of our closely held American values of free speech and a free press,” NAJA President Bryan Pollard said, “Jenni is an accomplished journalist and consummate professional who was covering a story on behalf of Indian Country Today. Unfortunately, this arrest is not unprecedented, and Morton County officials must review their officer training and department policies to ensure that officers are able and empowered to distinguish between protesters and journalists who are in pursuit of truthful reporting.”

Yet in North Dakota you would not know this arrest happened. The press is silent. (UPDATE on Feb. 7: Bismarck Tribune reports on the arrest.)

I have heard from many, many individual journalists. That’s fantastic. But what about the institutions of journalism? There should news stories in print, digital and broadcast. There should be editorials calling out North Dakota for this egregious act. If the institutions let this moment pass, every journalist covering a protest across the country will be at risk of arrest.

After her release from jail, Monet wrote for Indian Country Media Network, “When Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman was charged with the same allegations I now face—criminal trespassing and rioting—her message to the world embraced the First Amendment. ‘There’s a reason why journalism is explicitly protected by the U.S. Constitution,’ she said before a crowd gathered in front of the Morton County courthouse. “Because we’re supposed to be the check and balance on power.”

The funny thing is that journalism institutions were not quick to embrace Goodman either. I have talked to many journalists who see her as an “other” because she practices a different kind of journalism than they do.

Monet’s brand of journalism is rooted in facts and good reporting. She talks to everyone on all sides of the story, including the Morton County Sheriff and North Dakota’s new governor. She also has street cred … and knows how to tell a story. Just listen to her podcast — Still Here — and you will know that to be true.

So if we ever need journalism institutions to rally, it’s now. It’s not Jenni Monet who will be on trial. It’s the First Amendment. Journalism is not a crime. 

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