Indian Country Today hiatus is a blow to nuanced coverage of indigenous peoples

Author photo by Joanna Eldredge Morrissey.

THIS INDIAN NEEDS A JOB.

On September 4, Indian Country Today Media Network ceased publishing. Although the site’s existing content will remain available online through January 2018, the owners of ICTMN, the Oneida Nation of New York, has decided to call it quits. The self-described “leading source of news and information for contemporary Native cultures” is for sale.

The Oneida Nation bought the Indian Country Today newspaper in 1998 from Tim Giago, a Lakota journalist from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Giago, who is 83 years old, is currently publisher of the Native Sun News; in August, the Native American Journalists Association selected Giago as the recipient of the 2017 NAJA-Medill Milestone Achievement Award. Although a successful journalist, Giago found it challenging during his time at Indian Country Today to financially sustain a privately owned newspaper.

Indian Country Today was rebranded as the Indian Country Today Media Network in 2011. From the beginning, the news organization was mostly a losing financial proposition for the Oneida Nation—part vanity project, part desire to influence movers and shakers in Washington. However, while I’ve never spoken with Halbritter or leaders of the Oneida Nation, I think ICTMN was also a genuine source of ethnic pride for them. Rather than being misquoted and overlooked by the media, Indians were finally part of setting the news agenda.

Now—if I’m lucky—I return to what one colleague aptly described as the lot of most Native American journalists: explaining Indians to white people.

 

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

HERE’S MY FIRST POST-ICTMN ACT OF EXPLANATION: When in a group of people from various tribes, we often refer to each other as Indians. Individually, we usually identify ourselves first by our tribal and clan affiliations. Labels meant to describe and distill more than 500 diverse federally recognized tribes into one monolithic group are mostly a white man’s search for convenience. So I leave the choice of “Native American,” “Native,” “Indigenous,” “American Indian” or “Indian” up to the person editing this piece. [Editor’s note: CJR uses its writers’ preferred identifiers, and has not altered them here.] In my house and family, we are Ojibwe first; anything beyond that really doesn’t matter to us.

While writing for ICTMN, I was freed from engaging in such debates over semantics. The editors and owners of ICTMN encouraged writers to reach for higher quality fruit. As Ray Halbritter, chairman of the Oneida Nation of New York, wrote in his farewell letter, “We wanted to generate award-winning journalism that gives voice to Indigenous Peoples, wherever they lived, to the widest possible audience.”

Until yesterday, I was a part of that mission. In our work, we depicted Indians as whole people, imbued with the same complex frailties and glories that define other races and ethnicities. And although we won lots of awards—several Clarion Awards, repeated recognition by the Native American Journalists Association, and several individual awards and grants from the Society of Professional Journalists, USC Annenberg Center and others—it was always the work that sustained us. And that work greatly enriched the limited media coverage of Indian Country.

My colleague Wilda Wahpepah, former metro editor at The Oregonian, noted that Indians are often caught in a “3-D paradigm” in the legacy press. Wahpepah—of the Kickapoo and Ho Chunk Nations, and a master of brevity—noted that, if Indians appeared in the newspaper, then they were usually, “dead, drunk or dancing.”

Our plight as described in the mainstream press is not recent news in Indian Country. Rather, it is the long-term fallout from federal policies designed to separate us from our lands and our cultures.

While the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline project near the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota elevated Indians a bit in the media, overall we remain defined by our “plight” and our gold standard of despair. We are reliable chart toppers in the categories of poverty, addiction, violence and suicide.

At ICTMN, however, writers dove into the complex historical and political underpinnings of these narrow depictions that define us in the legacy press.

We reported like Indians, from the ground up. We spoke to the aunties, cousins, grandparents and kids who do the business of living in Indian communities. Jacqui Banaszynski, former Knight Chair in editing at the Missouri School of Journalism and fellow at the Poynter Institute, once described great journalists as wing walkers, those air-show barnstormers who wandered the edges of airplanes mid-flight. ICTMN editors urged us to walk way the hell out.

Although the outside world may define us by our social problems, topics such as sex trafficking, violence against women and suicide are off limits within many Indian communities. Openly discussing these problems is often seen as a form of community betrayal and can have painful repercussions for reporters and their families. As Amanda Takes War Bonnett, communications director for the Great Plains Women’s Society, has said, “The silence from Indian Country regarding sexual violence and other problems is deafening.” We took these difficult topics head on and, in the end, helped create a public space that emboldened Indian people to come forward from the shadow of fear and shame.

We challenged the mainstream press’s coverage of sexual violence epidemics and high rates of murdered and missing Native women. At ICTMN, we explained that these “epidemics” are sudden only in their acknowledgement by white folks. Violence—including instances of murder, sex trafficking, and domestic abuse against Native women—are ongoing issues that have been hundreds of years in the making. Suzette Brewer of the Cherokee Nation tirelessly reported on challenges to the Indian Child Welfare Act for ICTMN. She shined a light on common state, county and federal social welfare practices that have historically stripped children away from Native communities with impunity and undermined tribal sovereignty in the process. ICTMN supported Jenni Monet of the Pueblo of Laguna as she reported tirelessly from the Water Protector camps near Standing Rock, and received the Paul Tobenkin Memorial Award for her coverage.

Our plight as described in the mainstream press—take this coverage by ABC News, for instance—is not recent news in Indian Country. Rather, it is the long-term fallout from federal policies designed to separate us from our lands and our cultures. Well-meaning as they may have been (and, in some cases, continue to be), these policies reduced Indian lands, encouraged Indian people to relocate to urban areas, and coerced Indian parents to send their children to boarding school in order to assimilate them  into American culture. Such policies punished us for being Indian, and continue a legacy of trauma that we are only now beginning to understand.

Indian Country is a tough and complex beat. Meaningful coverage demands a depth of historical, legal and social knowledge that reporters are seldom allowed the time necessary to acquire. ICTMN gave reporters that time.

At ICTMN, writers reported on scientific findings regarding the connection between trauma and ongoing social ills in Indian Country. Rather than excuse the widespread “dis-ease” that touches Indian Country, the reporting helped communities gain a measure of authority and knowledge over seemingly intractable problems. ICTMN produced a special report based on my research and writing about this issue.

We blew the lid off Hollywood-style stereotypes that would have the world believe we are stoic, humorless creatures who somehow remain unengaged in contemporary life. ICTMN covered Indian rappers, artists, filmmakers, entrepreneurs and chefs.

This is a brief list of issues and events covered by Indian journalists for ICTMN. Few other news organizations have covered these topics in comparable depth.

Indian Country is a tough and complex beat. Meaningful coverage demands a depth of historical, legal and social knowledge that reporters are seldom allowed the time necessary to acquire. ICTMN gave reporters that time. Although reporters were not highly paid, the wage was enough for us to continue the work, and sent the important message that our work was valued.

 

AS A YOUNG WOMAN, I DREAMED of reporting stories and issues that reflected the depth and importance of the Indian experience. Editors informed me, however, that since I am Ojibwe, I lacked the necessary objectivity to cover Indian Country.

“What about the white male reporters we send to cover city hall, where most of the employees and political representatives are white men?” I asked. “Maybe you should scrutinize their abilities to distance themselves from their kind?” The editor to whom I posed this question shook his head dismissively. I was branded a troublemaker and an advocate, incapable of doing serious journalism.

An elder once told me that, for matters of the earth, Indians are like canaries in a coal mine. In other words, what befalls Indians eventually befalls others.

After about 15 years in the mainstream press, I left in order to write about Indian people. I have never looked back, except with gratitude to the few kind non-Indian colleagues who helped me learn my craft. After several years as an independent writer and photographer, I found a home in 2010 at ICTMN.

Editors as ICTMN encouraged me to write from my point of view as an Ojibwe woman—a perspective we describe as “the heart way.”  A distillation of all things Ojibwe, the heart way is grounded in fact but includes knowledge from the heart. Rather than being mutually exclusive from western style deductive reasoning, the heart way acknowledges the presence of spirit in humans, the earth, and the creatures upon it.

ICTMN’s enormous popularity among both Indians and non-Indians alike reflects a growing desire to understand a worldview like the heart way. Faced with the global uncertainties tied to climate change and environmental tragedies, people are eager to learn that as human beings we are a part of—and not apart from—the earth.

An elder once told me that, for matters of the earth, Indians are like canaries in a coal mine. In other words, what befalls Indians—Type 2 diabetes from a lack of whole foods, polluted groundwater from mining practices such as fracking, loss of land due to government-supported corporate claims of eminent domain—eventually befalls others.

Indian peoples have much to teach a world hungry for guidance in these uncertain times. Unfortunately, one of our main forums for sharing this wisdom has gone silent.

As I write this, I am approaching a certain age during which Ojibwe women are called mindimooyenh, “the ones who help hold things together.” As ICTMN suspends publishing, I’ve decided to fully embrace the mindimooyenh role, in the hope that by writing about Indian people’s issues and joys, our accomplishments and failings, I may still play some small role in holding us together.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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 is a contributor to ReWire. News and the Guardian. An enrolled member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe, she is based in Cincinnati, Ohio. See more at MAPember.com and Indian Country Today.