Indian Country Today returns. Can it protect its editorial independence?

National Congress of American Indians/Flickr

SCRAPPY AND RESILIENT as the population it covers, a reinvented Indian Country Today recently announced its return after a nine-month hiatus.  The National Congress of American Indians acquired the site (formerly called Indian Country Today Media Network) via donation from the Oneida Nation in February, and restored its original name. The NCAI appointed Mark Trahant—a 60-year-old veteran of the legacy and Native American presses and a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe—as its executive editor. According to Trahant, ICT will launch its new leaner, mobile-focused version of its site, a longtime leading source of national Native American news, on June 4 during the NCAI Mid-Year Conference in Kansas City.

“The Oneida tribe of New York left us a great legacy of an enormous built-in following of readers,” says Trahant, a journalism educator who has worked in numerous newsrooms and blogs at TrahantReports. “Even during the hiatus, the site has had over 500,000 unique hits per month.” Trahant, who recently won the Native American Journalists Association’s Richard LaCourse Award for Investigative Journalism for his extensive work on how Native Americans figure into US elections, tells CJR that the relaunched ICT “will honor that legacy by trying to produce the best daily report of everything going on in Indian Country.”

In September, the Oneida tribe unexpectedly announced plans to cease publishing ICTMN while it considered other business models. Trahant says the site had struggled with an outdated advertising-based business model—a problem compounded by Facebook—and had spent more than it could afford to on freelance work. “It simply wasn’t sustainable,” he says.

According to Trahant, the new ICT is based on a public-media model. It will fund itself through membership drives, and seek additional support through charitable foundations and employment advertising focused on tribes. A fundraising effort to auction the spot of ICT’s “first founding member” has so far topped $40,000.

The return of Indian Country Today comes as tribes face federal threats to their sovereignty and to historic US treaty agreements, as well as policies concerning land use and resource extraction, the intersection of Medicaid and treaty rights, and more. However, while Indian Country may welcome its return, ICT’s comeback brings with it concerns for the publication’s editorial independence.

“NCAI is a political institution, just like tribal governments,” says Bryan Pollard, president of the Native American Journalists Association and a member of the Cherokee Nation. “There are inherent conflicts between government and a free press.”

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TIM GIAGO, a well-known Oglala Lakota journalist, launched what would become ICT in 1981 on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Originally a weekly newspaper, ICT was rebranded as Indian Country Today Media Network following its purchase from Giago by the Oneida Nation and tribal chairman Ray Halbritter in 1998.

During the tribe’s ownership, Indian Country Today moved away from print to daily online news publishing, and its reporters won several mainstream and Native American media awards, including Clarion Awards for coverage of violence against Native women and other issues, the Herb Block Award for editorial cartooning, and several awards from NAJA for groundbreaking reporting on the impact of the Indian Child Welfare Act, opposition to the  Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, and more.

Like many news organizations, ICTMN struggled to sustain itself financially. “It is no secret that with the rise of the Internet, traditional publishing outlets have faced unprecedented adversity,” Halbritter wrote to readers in September. “These economic headwinds have resulted in ICTMN operating at an enormous—and unsustainable—financial loss.”

Pollard says Indian Country received news of ICTMN’s publishing hiatus with “an audible, collective gasp.”

“Even if we didn’t all agree with ICTMN’s style or coverage, we recognized that they played an essential role in covering Native American issues and getting our stories out there,” says Pollard.

Rumors circulated that tribes and individuals were interested in purchasing the publication. (Neither Halbritter nor former ICTMN staff responded to CJR’s request for comment.) In October, NCAI announced via press release that the Oneida Tribe had donated the assets of Indian Country Today Media Network. Indian Country’s collective gasp soon gave way to a few murmurs of concern, especially among Native American journalists.

“We have plenty of anecdotal experience among our membership at NAJA of tribal media professionals being fired or forced out of their jobs by tribal leaders who disagreed with their reporting,” says Pollard.

In one prominent example, Lori Edmo-Suppah, a past NAJA president, was fired from her job as editor of the Sho-Ban News after she published letters to the editor that were critical of tribal leadership. The tribal newspaper is owned by the Shoshone-Bannock tribe on the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho. Several tribal members protested her dismissal, stating she was dismissed for standing up to tribal government. Edmo-Suppah, a Shoshone-Bannock tribal member, was eventually reinstated and continues to serve as editor of the publication.

Freedom of the press is a thorny issue in Indian country, where tribes are sovereign entities. According to the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, tribal government can’t deny its citizens a free press. However, since tribes own most reservation-based media, tribal leadership controls the purse strings and can therefore control the news content, theoretically. Although some tribes have adopted guarantees for freedom of the press in their constitutions, leaders can choose to ignore such guarantees.

Groups such as the NAJA, a nonprofit professional association for Native journalists “can issue statements that shine a light on unfair firing of tribal journalists,” says Pollard. “But there is little recourse against the actions of sovereign governments.”

Such concerns predate ICT’s return, and extend beyond that news outlet. Giago detailed conflicts between several papers and tribal leaders in a 2005 Nieman Reports feature. Jodi Rave Spotted Bear, executive director of the Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance, wrote in December 2017 that her organization’s goal is to “support independent media operations to offer news free of tribal council interference.” Several Native American journalists shared a pledge from Trahant’s first letter to ICT’s leadership: “The best way I know how to demonstrate our independence is to produce solid, thoughtful journalism.”

Suzette Brewer, a member of the Cherokee Nation and a long-time independent journalist, tells CJR that she is “reserving judgment until I see how the relationship between ICT and NCAI plays out.”

“Although I have concerns, I have unequivocal support for Mark and his staff to do their job as journalists,” says Brewer.

 

GIAGO, WHO FOUNDED the NAJA and describes himself as a fierce guardian of press freedoms in Indian Country, says the windows of his newspaper were shot out and the office firebombed after he published articles critical of tribal government and the American Indian Movement. He has also reported that he and his staff have received death threats over coverage.

“I have great respect for Mark,” says Giago. “He’s a good newspaper man. But this will be a mighty big challenge.”

Giago notes that NCAI depends in part on membership fees from tribes for organizational funding. “How will NCAI handle it when ICT encroaches on the interests of its tribal membership?” he asks. “Will they have to courage to support the publication?”

Jacqueline Pata, executive director of NCAI and a member of the Tlingit tribe, insisted that the organization would support ICT’s independence. “We knew that folks would be concerned about ICT’s independence, and frankly we shared that concern” she says. NCAI has spent the past few months working to build an effective firewall between the organization and ICT, says Pata, who adds that NCAI’s board members “agree that Mark will direct his own staff on the editorial front.”

Trahant says he explored potential conflicts with NCAI leadership before he accepted the job. “All of our discussions ended with the same outcome: editor resigns,” says Trahant.

In the coming weeks, Trahant plans to hire two additional journalists who will be based at ICT’s office—at NCAI’s Washington, DC headquarters—and will provide daily news coverage. He also says ICT hopes to launch a visiting fellowship series in which tribal media contributors will visit DC for three months, to “learn how Washington works and take that knowledge home.” Pata says NCAI is currently fundraising to support various fellowship and internship opportunities for Native American journalists at ICT.

As Indian Country Today takes its next step, Indian Country itself remains watchful.

“We’ve learned time and time again that if we want our stories told in a way that is accurate and provides context, we have to tell those stories ourselves,” says Pollard.

Giago concurred.

“The Native press offers a voice to the voiceless,” he says. “That’s the most important thing about Native media.”

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Mary Annette Pember works as an independent journalist focusing on Indian issues and culture with a special emphasis on mental health and women’s health. Winner of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, the USC Annenberg National Health Fellowship and Dennis A. Hunt Fund for health journalism she has reported extensively on the impact of historical trauma among Indian peoples. She has contributed to ReWire.News, The Guardian, and Indian Country Today. An enrolled member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe, she is based in Cincinnati, Ohio. See more at MAPember.com.