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Nez Perce traditions in a journalist’s job

imageAccording to the elders of my tribe, the Nez Perce Indians handed down their values and history through oral tradition for centuries. Particularly during the long winters when people gathered in longhouses, stories were passed on to younger generations who in turn, would repeat those passages for their children.

To keep the culture preserved, such speakers had to be observant, accurate, objective, and bear excellent communication skills.

Sound like a familiar job today?

I often reflect on my work as a journalist, and wonder if I’ve some inherent genetic code that comes from this time-honored practice. And while print, television and the Internet have given us more venues to learn of events and culture, I’m still drawn to the spoken word. 

I like to hear a voice, conversational and assuring, as it provides me news of the day’s events or a profile of a compelling person.  I sometimes even wish the walls of my house or car could vanish, and be replaced with a makeshift lodge of deer hide or tule grass, a fire burning in the center like the days of old.

But then a car horn blares somewhere behind me, or the phone rings.  The modern world’s intrusion reminds me of my place and time.  I return to my computer and begin to think how best to share the next story for my audience.

-- Brian Bull, Wisconsin Public Radio

Posted on 03.17.05 at 11:09 AM by Victor Merina

Notes from the Road

The ugly truth about frybread


I have had such a rude awakening about frybread. I said earlier that I associate it with tribal meals because it was so prevalent at Swinomish events.

The first time I had it was at the Earth Day celebration in 2003. I wasn’t even there as a reporter. (I so rarely eat when reporting anyway, because it’s hard to eat and write—or talk). A reporter from an area weekly asked if I’d ever had it and told me it was good. I was surprised to see so many people pile more than one piece of the fattening carb on their plates.

It was basically a donut that wasn’t sweet and yes, it was very good.

But since the first day of the seminar, when I so joyfully ate the frybread at the National Museum of the American Indian, not a day has gone by that someone hasn’t brought it up. And not in a good way.

What I’ve learned is that frybread is not part of the traditional diet, but rather a byproduct of colonizing Indians and giving them nothing but flour and lard.

One of our speakers, Suzanne Shown Harjo, wrote about getting rid of frybread in this article, and it caused such a stir, several other speakers have brought it up, not realizing we’d met Harjo.

Harjo was even a speaker on a Native America Calling radio show about frybread.

“Frybread has killed more of my people than the U.S. government,” radio host Patty Talahongva said.

Everyone curious about frybread had their chance to eat it Friday at the Diné Café Quality Inn Navajo Nation Capital (its full name). Our lunch options were mutton stew, beef stew, Navajo sandwich, Navajo taco, Navajo burger and Navajo vegetarian burrito.

“Navajo” meant on frybread.

--Kari Neumeyer, The Olympian (Olympia, WA)

Posted on 03.13.05 at 11:01 PM by Kari Neumeyer, The Olympian (Olympia, WA)

Tips for Journalists

Fearless Indian paper takes on native government

imageGetting access to tribal government documents can be a headache sometimes and nobody knows that better than the staff of the Navajo Times newspaper.

Like many American Indian communities, the Navajo Nation in Arizona does not have an open records law. That makes it harder for the public and journalists, “especially non-tribal members“ to get information about the inner workings of tribal government.

The Navajo Times, with 21,500 paid subscribers, is the country’s largest Indian-owned paid circulation newspaper. Nearly all of its 40 staff members are Native Americans. Yet even they have a hard time getting tribal records sometimes.

“Generally you have to work to get the documents,” Editor Duane Beyal told participants in the Western Knight Center for Specialized Journalism’s seminar on covering Indian Country.  “Even getting police reports is a tough job. Now we’re getting them.”

Over the years, however, the weekly publication has persevered over many more serious challenges than closed record books.

In the late 1980s, when the paper was still owned by the Navajo government, staff uncovered a shady land deal involving a former Navajo president. The revelations tore the reservation apart, leading to a riot in which two people were killed.

Critics harassed the paper’s staff. They hung the employees in effigy, made bomb threats, vandalized their cars and killed one reporter’s dog.

“We never backed off from covering the issues that were important to us,” Publisher Tom Arviso said.

In February 1987, tribal government closed the paper and reopened it two months later staffed by people handpicked by the tribal chairman.

Eventually Arviso and his staff were vindicated when the former president went to prison. Passions cooled when a new administration took over. In October 2003, the tribal council voted 66-1 to sell the paper to Arviso and make it independent.

“It all comes down to a freedom of the press issue,” Arviso said. “The only way we would be able to get past the censorship was to break away from the Navajo government.

-- Faith Bremner, Gannett News Service

Posted on 03.12.05 at 4:00 AM by Victor Merina

Notes from the Road

How to make people care about Indian stories? Find the compelling people

What story are you working on? As a journalist, I get asked this question often. And when I mention that it’s a story about Indians, the response is usually: ‘’Oh.’’ Some are intrigued, but the topic usually doesn’t spark a lot of dialogue. Why is that?

We have just finished day six of the ‘’Covering Indian Country’’ fellowship. We’ve toured the National Museum of the American Indian, met with policy folks in Washington, D.C., and heard from academics.

But Thursday and Friday, we met members of the Navajo Nation and Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico. On the Navajo reservation, 43 percent of the population falls below the poverty level and the unemployment rate is too high. Homes are overcrowded and lack plumbing and electricity.

Jennifer Watchman lived with her Navajo husband and her two children in a tiny trailer for years, never able to save enough money to buy a home. The Navajo Partnership for Housing helped them repair their credit, taught them about home buying and today they live in a three-bedroom home.

But her husband has struggled with alcohol and abused his wife; he is in a rehabilitation center. This, said Richard Kontz, executive director of the partnership, is a family trying to break the cycle of poverty and abuse.

So how do we make people care about stories like this?

We listen, and we watch mothers like Jennifer Watchman tear up when she talks about finally owning her own home. Kontz was emotional, too, saying he hoped her husband eventually becomes a leader in the community.

Too many times our stories are so full of comments from officials and experts that we forget the real story _ the people. It’s up to us to find them, no matter the topic, and tell the larger story through them. And next time someone asks me what story I’m working on and I tell them it’s about Indians, I hope they’ll say ‘’Wow. What a great story.’’

-- Angie Wagner, The Associated Press

Posted on 03.12.05 at 3:58 AM by Angie Wagner, The Associated Press

Tips for Journalists

Claiborne’s tips on covering Indian Country

When Dennis McAuliffe Jr., a Native American journalist and director of http://www.reznetnews.org at the University of Montana, offered some basic reminders, to journalists who deal with Native American sources, he turned to the words of a former colleague.

McAuliffe said William Claiborne, a former reporter for The Washington Post, had these suggestions:

--Be absolutely straight with Indian sources.
--Know the subject and do your homework to avoid asking stupid
questions, which turns Indians off.
--Don’t be patronizing.
--Don’t sound overly sympathetic. (Indians can spot a phony liberal a mile away, he said.)
--Don’t overpromise. Educate your sources that stories get edited,
cut, etc.
--Cultivate your sources and call them from time to time just to
--Don’t be formal, pompous or self-important.

Claiborne’s full list can be found here.ClaiborneTips.doc

One of our fellows, Brian Bull, assistant news director at Wisconsin Public Radio, encouraged colleagues to meet with sources to break down what can be an inherent mistrust of media and to review appropriate and inappropriate behavior on the reservation (such as checking when, where and if cameras can be used).

--John Stearns, The Arizona Republic

Posted on 03.12.05 at 3:01 AM by Victor Merina

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About the Blog
The Covering Indian Country Blog is dedicated to fostering excellence in media coverage of Native American issues, communities and cultures through the sharing of resources, stories, viewpoints and journalism tips. Learn more about the blog or begin by reading the introductory post.

Photographs at the top of this page taken by Lee Marmon.


  Economic Development and Indian Gaming
  Health Care, Housing and the Environment
  In the News
  Notes from the Road
  Personal Stories
  The People, The Culture
  Tips for Journalists
  Tribal Recognition and Identity
  Tribal Sovereignty and Tribal Trusts


Links and Resources

Councils, Organizations and Governmental Bodies:
National Congress of the American Indian

Bureau of Indian Affairs

U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

Health, Housing and the Environment:
Acoma-Canoncito-Laguna Health Service Unit

American Indian Environmental Office

National American Indian Housing Council

Tribal Justice and Legal Affairs:
American Indian Law Review, University of Oklahoma

National Tribal Justice Resource Center

National Indian Law Library

Native American Rights Fund

Tribal Recognition and Identity:
"Lost Tribes" series in the Sacramento Bee, Steve Magagnini

Indigenous People:
Center for World Indigenous Studies

Economic Development and Gaming:
The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

National Indian Gaming Association

The Media:
Indian Country Today


Native America Calling

Native American Journalists Association

Navajo Times

News from Indian Country


Sequoyah Research Center – American Native Press Archives

Museums and Other Sources:
National Museum of the American Indian

Native Web

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