Who's Got Reservations? A Discussion About Journalism in Indian Country
If the many issues facing Indian country are not better known or understood it is partly because the major media have failed to cover them properly. So concluded a wide-ranging panel discussion that took place at the Graduate School of Journalism of Columbia University in New York City on the evening of April 1.
“Who’s Got Reservations? Journalism in Indian Country” offered a frank look at assumptions, misperceptions and double standards. Many of these, the panelists found, are endemic—down to the very language of journalism itself.
For example, observed ICTMN contributor Simon Moya-Smith, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation and graduate student at the Journalism School, why do news reports so often use the word “costume” to describe regalia?
“When you write about a priest, you don’t call it a ‘costume,’” he told the audience of nearly 100. “But when it’s an Indian, it’s Halloween. When an Indian sings, he ‘chants.’ But Frank Sinatra didn’t chant. Lady Gaga doesn’t chant.”
Other problems were found to be just as fundamental. “Where is ‘Indian country,’” rhetorically asked forum moderator and Columbia graduate Lauren Amsterdam, “when we’re all on occupied land?”
There was consensus that journalists have little ongoing appreciation of the richness of Native culture and lives.
“The way most media covers the Native American population is some kind of precipitating event that makes them say, ‘It’s time to do a story about Indians,’” observed William Grueskin, the Journalism School’s dean of academic affairs. “Either it’s a crime or a study of alcoholism or the opening of a casino.”
That is because “journalists are predisposed to choose stories that are familiar,” said Anishinaabe journalist and musician Wab Kinew, who reported for many years for the CBC News and is director of Indigenous Inclusion at the University of Winnipeg. “It’s like a rock band with greatest hits. We revert to our old habits. It’s much easier for a journalist to tell a story in the manner to which he is accustomed, rather than in a new and novel fashion.”
True enough, said Grueskin, a Vista volunteer for more than two years in the 1970s on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. “Reporters would come to Standing Rock with the story already decided,” he said. “They just needed a couple of people to populate it.”
“It’s just as Bill says—we go for the easy out,” said Kinew. “Too many journalists only want to do stories where there is only one representative or a press release. It’s one-stop shopping.”
Chaske Spencer, the well-known Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux star of the Twilight series, spoke of Hollywood’s historically negative portrayal of Native peoples in the movies.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t want to be an Indian,” he said. “I wanted to be Luke Skywalker, this blonde, blue-eyed kid with a sword. We’re all depicted as drunken or in cutoffs, or romanticized as noble savages. It wasn’t until later when I realized how my perceptions had been shaped by mainstream media, and I discovered how beautiful my culture was. When I go out, I have to let people know that we’re not the stereotypes that are put out there by the media.”
That can be a challenge, said Amsterdam, a founding member of the Native Resistance Network: “So many times, when people ask me what I do, and I tell them I’m working with a Native hip-hop artist, they say, ‘They do that?’”
Negative self-image doesn’t help, said Kinew, who often receives scripts that depict Indians as wife beaters, drug dealers and alcoholics. “And these are scripts written by Native people!” he exclaimed. “So we have to direct our gaze inward if we want to change our perceptions.”
The old stereotypes are bad enough, said Moya- Smith. “But there’s a new stereotype,” he noted, “which is that Indians are doing just fine. They have casinos. They have reparations. They have education. But that’s not the case.”
Solutions are elusive, the panelists agreed. One approach, though, is the increased use of social media. Adrienne Keene, Cherokee, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard University School of Education, has found her blog Native Appropriations to be a powerful corrective.
“Blogging is an amazing medium because I can sit down, write an article, have it on my site an hour later and reach a fairly wide audience,” she said. “There isn’t a lot of media for us, so that’s important to me. I want my posts to be used as teaching tools.”
Keene spoke of the potential of social media when she recalled last September’s “Dream Catchin’” party thrown by the apparel company Paul Frank Industries. The event featured offensive depictions of Native regalia and specialty cocktails with names like the “Rain Dance Refresher” and “Neon Teepee.” The party took place on a Thursday; over a thousand pictures of it were on Facebook on Friday. Almost immediately, bloggers began protesting with outrage that quickly went viral.
“By Sunday night,” Keene said, “all of the pictures were taken down and Paul Frank had apologized. And that’s something that can’t happen in traditional media.”
And sometimes, journalists and Natives alike must make principled stands. Kinew recalled that in 2008, the CBC decided to cover Ottawa’s apology for the residential schools era. But the network refused to refer to its survivors as such; it insisted that they be called “former students.” Kinew’s superiors refused to budge.
“It reeked of paternalism,” he said. “It’s like they were saying, ‘You people don’t understand what happened to you. We professional journalists will tell you.’”
Only when Kinew threatened to resign on the eve of the apology did the network organize a conference call among some of its personnel.
“To give full credit, we went around the horn and said, ‘It has to be “survivor”’,” Kinew said. “And it was overturned. And that was important to me because now that’s on the record. And every Canadian who watched that coverage had a more accurate picture of that event.”
Thus do such small victories offer cause for at least some hope of greater media sensitivity.
“It’s an uphill battle,” said Spencer. “I see it getting a little better. But it’s not happening as fast as I’d like it.”