A journalist’s solo mission to cover native peoples across the globe

Tristan Ahtone. Photo by Tomo Muscionico

Tristan Ahtone is an award-winning journalist whose pieces have appeared on Frontline, Wyoming Public Radio, NPR, and the Newshour with Jim Lehrer. He is also a member of the Kiowa tribe, and he has often found himself cringing when white journalists parachuted into reservations to write sensationalized stories about crime or poverty. 

“Indian Country is often just an afterthought” when it comes to news coverage, he says. He quotes a colleague’s “WD4 rule”: Native Americans only make news as warriors, or when they drum, dance, drink, or die.

In 2013, an Al Jazeera America editor approached Ahtone, whom I first met when he took my class at Columbia’s Journalism School eight years ago. The news organization was creating a vertical called “Indian Country.” For the first time, a major news outlet in the US would cover the 567 federally recognized tribes as a beat. They wanted short-form features, long-form magazine shows, digital content, briefs, and television stories. Would he be interested? Would he ever.

For the next three years, Ahtone produced print and video stories that generated little interest among mainstream editors elsewhere. Given a big budget, he could invest the time to hunt across the country for tales that otherwise went untold. He wrote about Seminole and Navajo tribes as well as Native rodeos, veterans, and gangs. He interviewed World War II code speakers and covered toxic spills on Indian land and neglect by presidential candidates. Colleagues contributed articles about Eskimo sporting events, indigenous comic book artists, and Navajo gay dating. In short, not your ordinary “misery on the rez” pieces.

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Al Jazeera America could try a new tack precisely because it was new itself, says former network president Kate O’Brian. Bankrolled by the Qatari government, it didn’t have to worry about shareholders and profits. Its mission was an anomaly: to dive deeply into areas under-covered by the mainstream press. This meant not only Native Americans, but also African American and Latino communities. “We saw an opportunity to differentiate ourselves by covering the more disenfranchised parts of the globe,” says O’Brian. “It was where we put our budget and energy.” 

But Camelot came and went. AJAM closed in April, and with it went Ahtone’s platform. He has yet to find a new one. Ahtone didn’t want to return to reporting the occasional article about Indians or hyper-local news, so he embarked on an ambitious and perhaps quixotic experiment: forging a global indigenous beat on his own. He’s got a cushion of savings from his time at Al Jazeera America, a luxury shared by few others interested in the beat.

Ahtone’s Native colleagues are watching closely, hoping his efforts succeed. If anyone can pull it off, they say, it will be Ahtone, one of the few to study at an elite journalism school and get hired by high-profile organizations. 

Native Americans journalists often write for tribal outlets because there are so few opportunities for them elsewhere. These include the Osage News, The Navajo Times, and the Indian Country Today Media Network, which is operated by the Oneida Indian Nation of New York. The National Native News provides programming for tribal and public radio stations. These tend to be under-resourced and often have a narrow geographic focus. That leaves digital and social media to fill information gaps. Many readers turn to Facebook or Indianz.com, a news aggregator. Twitter and Instagram were all over the Standing Rock pipeline protests months before The New York Times and other major organizations caught on. 

 

I don’t think we have the culture to be accepting of real indigenous voices. Maybe people just like us better as sports mascots.

 

So far, this solo mission has taken Ahtone from the Arctic to Latin America. He’s written about a Finnish forest law that endangers indigenous reindeer herders and about disappearing Aboriginal languages. In Panama, Ahtone reported on a fight for land rights in a mangrove swamp. His next stop is Siberia, where he plans to explore an anthrax outbreak. Where Ahtone goes after that will depend on what freelance assignments he gets. He hasn’t found a single organization that will back him as Al Jazeera America did. “I don’t think we have the culture to be accepting of real indigenous voices,” he says. “Maybe people just like us better as sports mascots.”

Ahtone, who is vice president of the Native American Journalists Association, found common ground at the group’s recent meeting in New Orleans. Nearly everyone voiced dissatisfaction about the scarcity of tribal news and the reinforcement of stereotypes through pictures of gloom. Television was a favored punching bag. Participants were particular disgusted by a survey published by the Washington Post that claimed only 10 percent of Native Americans objected to the Washington team nickname “Redskins.” They felt the story demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of how Indians define themselves. 

Native issues are just not on the mainstream media’s radar, asserts Karen Michel, a member of Wisconsin’s Ho-Chunk Nation who formerly led NAJA. “The stories are too complex, so they go for the easy ones like gaming and casinos.” She concedes it’s hard for outsiders to gain trust in Indian communities. But that makes it all the more important to hire more Native reporters and build the relationships required to cover any beat well, not just pop in during protests or times of tragedy.

A few outlets win kudos for meaningful content, among them the High Country News, an independent magazine and website covering the American West, and the Oregonian, Seattle Times and Arizona Republic. But coverage tends to be too spotty to do justice to America’s first people in a sustained way.

Native Americans comprise less than 1 percent of US citizens, making them easy to overlook. NAJA itself claims just 450 members, compared to 10 times that amount at the National Association of Black Journalists. But the community’s small size doesn’t let media companies off the hook, says Mark Trahant, a member of Idaho’s Shoshone-Bannock Tribe. A former editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s editorial page, he now teaches journalism at the University of North Dakota. He sees the mainstream media missing many stories, including important elections for Native American candidates this season. “I don’t think the country can be what it wants to be without those voices,” Trahant says. “It’s lack of vision. What bugs me is that public television has a particular mandate to cover all of America, but it doesn’t.”

News organizations should have a foundational commitment to Native people, says Bryan Pollard, the newly appointed NAJA president. He’s the former executive editor of the Cherokee Phoenix. Headquartered today in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the Phoenix was the first newspaper published by Indians in their own language. He points to Finland, whose public broadcasting service has written into its bylaws a promise to cover aboriginal affairs. The Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation has made it corporate strategy to strengthen indigenous Sami language and culture programing. And in New Zealand, television produces content in Teo Reo, the Maori language. Australia, Mexico, and Canada also have robust indigenous content producers.

The comparative paucity of Native American coverage here speaks to a general dearth of minorities in newsrooms and boardrooms, says Margaret Holt, who is Standards Editor at the Chicago Tribune. She is one of the very few Native Americans in a top editorial position at a prominent outlet. Holt has been in the business for 45 years, and is tired of being the only one in the room calling for diverse voices.

Nonetheless, she takes heart that some big media companies have begun diversifying their staff and paying more attention to multicultural concerns. “For a long time, it used to frustrate me that high-level leaders in many organizations were merely giving lip service to the need for change and action,” she says. “I now understand that even lip service is good.”

 Lip service won’t help Ahtone, however. He’s still struggling to monetize his global vision. Most recently, he was in Europe, building contacts among Sami people and Tartars. Ahtone was mainly pitching to online outlets, wagering they would be more receptive than traditional legacy media. It would be to everyone’s gain if they all saw the light, he says. “It’s a big, marvelous, extraordinary area with a lot of cool, interesting stories.”

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Judith Matloff teaches at Columbia School of Journalism. She is a veteran foreign correspondent. Her third book, No Friends But the Mountains, about impoverished mountain people, will be published next March. She is also the author of Fragments of a Forgotten War and Home Girl.