Apocalypse Then and Now

In March 2019, HuffPost sent me to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota, to cover the work of an affordable-housing program. My editors had a particular story in mind, and so I was dispatched to source the material to write it. The article would be a piece of “solutions journalism,” positive in outlook and neatly framed, part of a philanthropically funded series called “This New World.” My assignment letter included potential headlines: “How The Poorest County In The U.S. Is Solving The Housing Crisis”; “How The Poorest County In The U.S. Is Breaking The Poverty Cycle.”

But a week before I arrived in Pine Ridge, a different story began to unfold. The reservation was pummeled by a blizzard. Gusts reached seventy miles per hour. The snowbank along the highways towered over the cars driving past. Then the storm became a bomb cyclone, the snow melted, and the reservation’s creeks overflowed. Pine Ridge sits on plains that are typically arid, so these extreme weather events were unusual—a result of shifting jet streams and increasing ocean evaporation driven by climate change. They were also catastrophic. Roads became impassable, cutting families off from medicine, food, and outside assistance. Water lines across the reservation broke, depriving eight thousand people of drinking water. At least four deaths were reported.

Amid the flooding, I drove all over the reservation to survey the damage, eventually arriving at Wounded Knee, site of the infamous 1890 massacre and 1973 American Indian Movement occupation. I parked and trudged up a small hill, the mud pulling at the heels of my boots. At the top was a mass grave of one hundred forty-six Lakota. Feeling the weight of this solemn place, I was compelled to offer a prayer. Lingering awhile at the peak, I watched residents of a nearby housing development walk along the highway to the closest post office to collect rations from the National Guard. I checked Twitter and learned that Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, had driven onto the reservation with a convoy of military vehicles carrying potable water. She was not welcome. Just two weeks earlier, Noem had passed a bill that held protesters opposing projects like the Keystone XL oil pipeline liable for what the state called “riot boosting.” (The Oglala were among the tribes opposed to the pipeline and the bill.) Here before me, in one scene, were the interlocking forces of genocide, ecological apocalypse, resistance, and repression—the imperial roots of the climate crisis and their colonial fallout.

After my visit to Wounded Knee, I could not in good conscience write the story that my HuffPost editors had assigned. A fifteen-hundred-word article treating the housing program as a worthy but isolated effort felt like a betrayal of the material I had gathered on the ground. As an Indigenous journalist, I decided the only appropriate way to tell a story like this was to simultaneously hold in frame poverty, climate change, and resilience, and to layer all this on the history of colonization, settlement, and genocide—one apocalypse on top of another.

To be Indigenous to North America is to be part of a postapocalyptic community and experience. Indigenous journalists have always grappled with earth-shattering stories: either as historical background to current events or in the deep despair of the still-unfolding legacy of Indigenous dispossession, displacement, and death that brought nations like the United States and Canada into being. This perspective tests the limits of journalism, asking reporters to cover marginalized subjects unfamiliar to most readers with an eye on the people, histories, and systems buried and erased by colonization—all without losing the thread of the narrative.

“The forms and styles that are dominant in journalism practice don’t always allow us to get at the historical context that is vital.”

 

I got my start in journalism through a fellowship covering Indian Country for HuffPost. The challenge of the beat was to turn stories about an invisible people into news. I generally employed two strategies. The first was to work from a timely headline. “Fight For Marriage Equality Not Over On Navajo Nation,” I wrote, the week after the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges. The second was to jujitsu ignorance into curiosity. One of my most-read articles was “13 Issues Facing Native People Beyond Mascots And Casinos,” with the clickbait subhead “These are the problems you’re not hearing enough about.”

These two approaches succeeded in attracting readers, but neither felt adequate. The former forced Indigenous stories into existing media narratives. The latter hinged on disproving misconceptions or explaining unknowns, implicitly re-centering a colonial perspective. I knew there were complicated and emotional stories afoot in Indian Country, and those were the stories I desperately wanted to tell. Yet they felt much bigger than my beat and my skill set at the time. In the years since, as a freelance writer, I’ve tried to hone my craft so my journalism can rise to the challenge of my subjects.

This is the premise from which journalism begins: the assumption that well-trained reporters can go out into the world, gather up the facts, and shape that material into narrative and argument. Indigenous stories test the limits of this enterprise. They require journalists to draw upon centuries of history, elucidate structures of annihilation, and build trust with people who have learned to be wary of misrepresentation. The task feels almost ludicrous, like balancing a skyscraper atop a tiny plinth. When you consider a news market in which few consumers are seeking Indigenous media and would rather spend their leisure hours with the New York Times or HBO, it feels nearly impossible. Kyle Whyte, a Citizen Potawatomi philosopher and professor of environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan, described the challenge facing Indigenous journalists succinctly: “In the space of a short piece that’s widely accessible, how do you write in a way that includes a structural analysis and a sense of history that many readers don’t initially understand?”

For insight, I called Candis Callison, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Journalism and a member of the Tahltan people. She described her preferred approach as “systems journalism”—a methodology that treats news items not as isolated events but as “windows into what’s happening in underlying systems and structures.” The narratives we tell about our past and present delineate possible avenues for future action, Callison said. She urges journalists to consider how white and colonial perspectives frame our current society as normative and permanent, erasing the history of genocidal colonialism that brought us here. Systems journalism often brushes up against established methods, however. “The forms and styles that are dominant in journalism practice,” Callison told me, “don’t always allow us to get at the historical context that is vital.”

As a model, Callison pointed to the work of Tanya Talaga, an Anishinaabe journalist. Talaga, a former investigative reporter at the Toronto Star, is the author of Seven Fallen Feathers, which examines the deaths of seven First Nations youths in the town of Thunder Bay, Ontario. To tell stories about immense pain and loss, Talaga developed close relationships with her sources, many of whom she keeps in touch with today. “Be careful, be kind, be respectful, and listen,” she said. “There’s nothing worse than being one of those journalists who crashes in and out of a community, takes a story and leaves.”

That last point is vital. When I called up Waubgeshig Rice, a member of the Wasauksing First Nation who produced broadcast and radio pieces for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) for fourteen years, he said something similar. “White journalists assigned to Indigenous or marginalized communities think about the story until the end of the workday,” he told me. While they might be empathetic, their relationship to the story is different. “You get to go home where you’re comfortable and white and it’s not there anymore. It’s not there until the next time you’re assigned to one of those stories.” CBC segments often adhered to a formula, Rice added: In the morning he’d get an assignment. Then he’d do research, schedule interviews, and head out to record. He’d do two or three interviews, shoot relevant visuals, write, edit, and go live at six o’clock. That experience, he explained, sometimes pushed him into uncomfortable situations; he’d be asked to go into Indigenous homes and communities, extract a story, and be ready to air by evening. “The nature of broadcasting conflicts directly with our old ways of telling stories,” Rice told me.

Knowledge of the apocalypse caused by colonialism helps make Indigenous peoples aware of ongoing tragedies.

 

Recently, I picked up Moon of the Crusted Snow, Rice’s dystopian novel. In the book, a mysterious apocalyptic downturn has led to a mass blackout, bringing the formal economy to a halt. Evan Whitesky, a traditional hunter, and his Anishinaabe community find themselves uniquely prepared for these events. This is a new spin on an old idea in Indigenous literature—the notion that Indigenous peoples are survivors. Gerald Vizenor, an Ojibwe literary critic, calls this “survivance.” It’s an intriguing idea—one that could bring Natives from the forgotten margins to the center of the humanities in an era of apocalyptic circumstances.

“Understanding who we are as Indigenous peoples is about understanding how our lives were impacted by colonialism, which was the ending of a world,” Rice told me. “The knowledge of the apocalypse also helps us make people aware of what the consequences of apocalypse are—understanding those ongoing tragedies.” Since writing the book, Rice has left the CBC, though he maintains his practice as a journalist. His years in the field, he said, have informed his literature, but he’s not yet sure how his fiction might shape his nonfiction.

As I write, another apocalypse feels close at hand. The coronavirus has killed more than a million people worldwide. Vast swaths of California and many other parts of the western United States have been devastated by wildfire. At times the air quality in Oakland, my hometown, was the worst on earth. The sky looked like a scene out of the Blade Runner sequel. Much of the news coverage has rightly connected the wildfires to climate change, but a reporter keen on telling a more complicated story—one that illuminates the structures underlying the crisis—might visit the gentrifying flatlands of West Oakland, to understand how the tech boom pushed families out of the Bay Area and into the smoldering urban-wildland interface. Another might consider how the near extermination of Indigenous peoples, and their land and fire management practices, transformed the Golden State into a tinderbox. A third might consider how past epidemics opened the land to settlement in the first place. All of these stories would, of course, require deep and trusting relationships with sources.

Our stories, field notes, and communities ask a great deal of us as journalists—and, particularly, as Indigenous journalists and journalists of color—especially in moments of grave consequence, like the present. It’s hard, and in some cases impossible, to give yourself, your audience, your community, your sources—and perhaps also your land, your water, your relations—everything they want and deserve in your work. Indigenous experiences and perspectives challenge the notion that a press corps equipped with notepads and recorders can capture the whole truth. More often than not, I’m convinced that reality defies the disciplined space of stories, waging an epistemic resistance against the tyranny of language, text, and form—something we Indians can relate to.

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Julian Brave NoiseCat is vice president of policy and strategy with Data for Progress; narrative change director of the Natural History Museum; and a fellow of the Type Media Center, NDN Collective, and the Center for Humans and Nature. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and many other publications.

TOP IMAGE: Mengxin Li