Courtesy Katherine Lanpher
Tristan Ahtone holding the five plaques he won at the 2014 National Native Media Conference. Photo by Katherine Lanpher.

Don't Eat a Big Mac on a Bear Hunt: Tristan Ahtone's Journalism 101

Jason Asenap

Tristan Ahtone is a Kiowa Journalist. Tristan Ahtone is also a journalist who happens to be Kiowa. Tristan is both of these things.

I’ve known Tristan for a while, and it’s always nice to catch up, whether it’s over a cigarette outside Matador bar during Indian Market in Santa Fe, NM or attending a screening at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. I’ve often admired Tristan’s chosen field of work and envied his many travels. Since I’ve known him, he’s worked in Montana, Japan, and everywhere in between.  I think Tristan’s doing some of the best journalism out there right now, in particular his recent work with Al Jazeera America. I recently caught up with him at a bar in downtown Albuquerque. Not long after this conversation, he headed to the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) 2014 National Native Media Conference, where he won five awards, three of them for his work with Al Jazeera.

Over pints, Tristan discussed what it means to be a "Native journalist"—or a "Native" anything—and shared a great, terrible story about a bear hunt that didn't go as planned.

Where did you get your interest in journalism?

I was a really shitty painter, and they had a good journalism course at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

How did you come to work for Al Jazeera?

Pure luck.

What does it take to become a reporter?

General curiosity. And a penchant for coffee and cigarettes help. Also, knowing how to write helps a little bit too—not much though.

Are there many Natives in journalism? 

There are lots of Natives in journalism, most of them are working around the country, sometimes you don’t see them. I think right now even just with NAJA, I think we have 350 people registered with us.

Do you have a position in that organization?

I’m the treasurer. My last year.

What do you mean when you say we "don’t see" the Natives in journalism?

I think it depends on the outlet you’re looking at. A lot of these folks are working on tribal papers, which we don’t get to see very often—you know, a lot of local stuff. A lot of our reporters are doing the good work in their communities. It’s kind of hard to see. It would be like me saying are there a lot of Native filmmakers you know? Or are there a lot of Native painters? You can think of a couple that you know right offhand.

Do you even think in those terms? “Native journalist” Does that even cross your mind? Because I know a lot of Native filmmakers who don’t like that term at all.

I mean, I think it’s always a loaded term, putting "Native" in front of anything.

During Gathering of Nations when they always have these “Native models”, to me, it seems—it seems less than when you put Native in front of it. Like, kind of corny. I’d rather just see real models—whatever that means.

Native models means they're snaggin' dude!

You know what I’m talking about though?

It’s a loaded word, to some degree. You put "Native" in front of something  and you’re pigeonholed almost automatically.

Exactly. The thing about some writers in particular, fiction writers, they exploit the hell out of that. They don’t even care as much as being classified as that, in fact that’s the territory that they mine. Whereas some painters, maybe they aren’t as interested as being classified as "Native painters." Except during Indian Market, when they are trying to make money, which is okay with me you know?

Using that term, it has an ability to pigeonhole you: You’re going to have a market, it’s going to be a very small market. I think, generally, it can be very dangerous to do so. Are you a painter or are you a “Native” painter? Are you journalist or are you a “Native” journalist?


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