Indigenous journalists speak up

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Native reporter Tristan Ahtone rides the bus while on assignment, reporting on a story for Al Jazeera America in 2015. Photo by Tomo Muscionico

Story by Emilee Gilpin

Different forms of journalism existed long before settlers arrived in North America.

And sometimes, people forget that these types of storytelling, documentation and news sharing have always existed in Indigenous cultures, says Tristan Ahtone.

“In my tribe we have winter calendars. We look differently at historical events important to our families and relatives — that’s a form of journalism,” he told me over the phone. “It’s the same with all the different ways that nations, tribes, and families have preserved their stories and important events — we come from that tradition.”

Ahtone is a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. He was one of five journalists I interviewed to chat about the past, present and future state of media as it transforms from older platforms like print into the new digital landscape of the 21st century.

This transformation is redefining some of the rules of the past and Ahtone said he believes it's helpful to review this metamorphosis in the context of the practices and traditions that existed prior to colonization. Storytelling is an Indigenous tradition, practiced by nations across what is now known as North America since time immemorial. The sharing and witnessing of stories in any significant place of gathering acts as a form of community governance, preservation, identification and more.

Ahtone and other Indigenous journalists say that the traditional practices help bring journalism back to the storytelling roots that established bonds of trust between the journalists and their audiences — a level of trust that has been fading in an era of "fake news" and polarization, as many readers are increasingly cynical or skeptical about what they're reading in older media outlets.

Ahtone followed a unique path to journalism. He went to school for painting at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Speaking to me over the phone, he said that he realized pretty quick he was a “terrible painter, but a pretty decent journalist.”

He followed the news closely, devoured magazines and non-fiction, and one day realized the “power of journalism” and how he might contribute to a field where “mainstream coverage of Indian Country was bad, offensive, degrading and one-dimensional.”

Unlike western journalism, which he says was born to protect a colonial agenda and later to uphold democracy, Indigenous journalism supports tribal sovereignty and determination, he added.

History of journalism

Simon Moya-Smith, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, is also Chicano, an Indigenous Nation to the north and south of the so-called U.S./Mexico border. Moya-Smith feels a responsibility to be a writer, because anyone who knows anything about journalism, knows we're not in it for the money, he joked over the phone.

Moya-Smith said his tribe used to have a type of reporter, known at the time as scouts.

"In my tribe, scouts had to put themselves in harms way to go check on an enemy, study their comings and goings, he said. "They came back with weather reports too."

Indigenous-led journalism continues to be intuitively upheld by outlets like Canada's oldest First Nations newspaper Ha-Shilth-Sa, and other independent outlets like Anishinabek News, First Nations Drum, and Windspeaker, to name a few. But there's still a long way for older media to go, say Indigenous journalists.

In their book Seeing Red, authors Mark Anderson and Carmen Robertson (professors at the University of Regina) investigated the history of the representation of Indigenous peoples in Canadian newspapers from 1869 to 2011, when the book was published.

Seeing Red examines how newspapers portrayed Indigenous peoples, from reports on the North-West Rebellion, post WWII, Bill C-31 (bill to amend the Indian Act), to the Oka Crisis (which community members have said they prefer to remembered as 'The Resistance at Kahnesatake'). Seeing Red presents overwhelming evidence that colonial narratives dominated news coverage of Indigenous peoples, cultures and resistance movements, perpetuating stereotypes of inferiority that in many ways normalized genocidal systems, laws and policies of control that continue to oppress Indigenous peoples today.

The official press room in the Canadian Parliament building in Ottawa still features pictures of the white founding fathers of Canadian journalism, giving insight into the continued lack of diversity in newsrooms across the country.

Chapter 1

Colonial gaze

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Simon Moya-Smith quotes his grandfather, an 83 year-old Chicano elder who once told him, "Mijo (my boy), do you know what? It has to take the death of one, two even three generations, for us to evolve and recognize our faults." Moya-Smith said he thinks it will take this long to see drastic shifts in journalism. Photo provided by Moya-Smith from a gala at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Candis Callison, who's Tahltan and an associate professor in the Graduate School of Journalism (working at Princeton University for a year), teaches media ethics and leadership and requires all of her students to read Seeing Red.

"It’s vital for journalists to understand the history of how Indigenous people have been represented in Canadian media, and the ways in which colonial narratives have been actively supported and reinforced since before Confederation right up to the present," Callison wrote in an email. "These representations create a sedimentation that newer narratives and stories run the risk of repeating if journalists aren’t aware of the ways in which stereotypes persist and endure, even with all this shiny new digital media."

Callison said one of the main mistakes older media outlets make when reporting on Indigenous peoples and communities, is starting with a deficit model and/or "wanting to be the saviour that sheds light on what the Indigenous problem really is." She said perpetuating a victim/deficit-based narrative centers a colonial gaze and reproduces the notion that Indigenous peoples are the problem, not the systems put in place to eradicate Indigenous cultures, lands and lives.

"The other huge error is glossing over the fact that Indigenous people are diverse with different languages, cultures, and historical relationships with colonialism. Yes, there is commonality, but specificity matters just as much as (and sometimes more than) the commonality," Callison added.

Callison said reporters need to recognize Indigenous peoples as the experts to their own situations, rather than calling on researchers, professors or anthropologists to interpret Indigenous histories, environmental conflicts, social challenges, political change, or any other topic.

As associate editor of the tribal affairs desk at High Country News, Ahtone works with a team of mostly Indigenous reporters well versed in media ethics. His assistant editor is non-Indigenous, he said, but a fantastic reporter who has come to learn which spaces are reserved for Indigenous peoples, that she shouldn't be in. This "knowing when to step back" might be counterintuitive for a lot of reporters, he said, but he sees it as a strength — knowing when to delegate stories to people who come from those areas of expertise.

Ahtone also worked with PBS Newshour and has freelanced for well-known media outlets like National Geographic, where he has said might get ten times the amount of page views to other stories, but he puts in ten times the amount of work to describe "what an Indian is" to larger audiences. Ahtone said painting Indigenous people in a negative frame is a way to put the responsibility on those most impacted by colonialism and imperialism.

Painting a person, community or nation in a negative way makes people less inclined to care and makes it seem like people got themselves into their own mess, or might even to be blame for their situation, he said. Like all media, framing and tone impact both the conscious and subconscious mind.

"It's the same thing as thinking about certain countries that we cover around the world," he said. "Which countries does mainstream bother to cover? The ones that have pretty sites and the ones that are security threats. All the rest are like... who the hell knows?"

The original gaslighting

Moya-Smith agreed, calling Canada and the United States, "the original gaslighters." Gaslighting, a fairly new term to the public lexicon, is a form of psychological manipulation that makes a targeted individual or group of people question their own memories, perception or sanity.

"We usually use gaslighting in reference to relationships — a boyfriend or girlfriend gaslighting their significant other, making them feel like they’re crazy, even though they’re probably being pretty damn logical and human," Moya-Smith said. "When you present facts, you’re either going to get humble acceptance of the information or aggressive denial. There are going to be people that humbly accept the information — the incontrovertible data, evidence, research, history, stories — but you’re also going to find people that aggressively deny it."

Presenting facts as facts is one of the more difficult tasks for Indigenous journalists, Moya-Smith said. Journalists are expected to present accurate information and to identify trustworthy sources and expert evidence, but there are often conflicting worldviews at play.

What may seem to be an established fact for a settler can be different from the reality experienced by Indigenous people.

"As journalists, we’re supposed to report what is accurate, we're supposed to report the facts, he said. "The fact is, that we're not talking about pilgrims or settlers, we're talking about invaders, but you can’t use language like that, it’s uncomfortable for people."

People forget, journalism is a business, he added.

"At the end of the day, the New York Times, NBC, PBS, it’s all a business and they have to be able to sell their product. If they can’t sell their product, because there’s something that makes people uncomfortable, they’ll be afraid they’ll lose readers and losing readers means they’ll lose ad-dollars," he said. "That's a concern for me, that at the end of the day, it’s still a business where they’re looking at the bottom line."

Moya-Smith said one of the ways Indigenous journalists are prevented from presenting factual information is the way in which they are asked to qualify certain evidence. One example he used was the name of the Washington football team, which he would not say aloud.

"The R-word is a dictionary-defined racial slur, which the American Psychology Association has called out and said these mascots need to be repealed immediately. But in journalism, they say 'Native Americans believe…,' Moya-Smith said. "Excuse me, jackass, we don’t just believe it’s a slur, it’s a dictionary-defined slur. What other word do you do that with? How can you make that argument it’s our belief when it’s dictionary-defined?"

Qualifying information that hasn't often appeared in mainstream news coverage, which might incite feelings of discomfort or challenge dominant narratives, goes back to protecting a colonial agenda, he said.

"That's why they put people like me in the opinion section," he added.

Jenni Monet, award-winning Indigenous journalist based in the U.S. tweeted on Dec. 6, 2018, "I live for the day when stories from Indian Country stop getting relegated to the 'Opinion' section and just become news."

Some of the interviewees said when Indigenous journalists aren't named opinion, they're often named 'advocacy journalists' or 'activists,' or told they are 'too biased' and unable to report with a degree of partiality, or without a conflict of interest, in order to uphold their objectivity.

Chapter 2

Objectivity

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Angela Sterritt said she is happy to see producers, managers, and journalists who are making a concerted effort to understand and to do better on Indigenous stories and bring more Indigenous reporters into their newsroom. Photo provided by Sterritt

Objectivity is an ongoing debate in journalism classrooms and newsrooms across North America and it's a concept that may be more complex than some older media outlets have been willing to admit.

Callison, who started working as a journalist in the mid-1990s (because she didn't see, hear or read anything from people that looked like her) said western journalists adopted a 'view from nowhere,' relying on professionalism and objectivity to guide their practice. Callison said Indigenous journalists come to stories with prior knowledge, experience and connections, which doesn't mean that they can't tell a story fairly and accurately, but actually means they are often positioned to tell a more sound story.

"In some cases, it means a journalist can tell it better, with more complexity and nuance, because they understand it personally and professionally," she said.

Ahtone agreed, saying Indigenous reporters, usually come in with background knowledge, lived experiences and relationships on varying topics, and that they can "cut through and do some really interesting work." Ahtone said he's proud of the reporting he did with Al Jazeera America, about an Indigenous war veteran, as it was an opportunity to write about his own tribe.

Responsibility to right wrongs

Ahtone used the Standing Rock movement as an example of the difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous outlooks on events of national importance. While mainstream media wrote about the mass gathering of Indigenous Nations in defence of the land and rights of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe as "pipeline protests," the issue ran deeper for Indigenous people.

"If you Google Standing Rock, all of the data has to do with pipelines, missing the deeper historical and legal ramifications of what was going on there," he said. "It was painted as if this was a new movement. Standing Rock wasn't a new movement, it was a part of 500 years of resistance, another battle in the ongoing fight against colonialism."

Ahtone said non-Native reporters didn't incorporate the history in their coverage, but isolated the event. Indigenous reporters, like Jenni Monet, who was arrested for 'trespassing' while covering the escalated events, developed relationships that allowed her access and information to be able to recount the events in a meaningful, informative and accurate way. The charges against Monet were dropped.

Ahtone said non-Indigenous reporters writing about Indigenous peoples can fall into the trap of turning what could be a fascinating and informative story into something overly romantic about their culture or the meaning the writer posits (from their own subjective ideas). Ahtone would like to see stories written by Indigenous peoples, about any subject, as well as stories written by any reporter, featuring an Indigenous person, but not necessarily a stereotypical "Indigenous theme."

Often, when writers share a story about an individual, nation or place, they can romanticize it, rather than just letting the facts speak for themselves, and rather than just humanizing people and drawing on our connections. Stories about BMX riders become stories about connecting to culture, he said, which is fine, but it would be nice to see a wider range of narratives.

It's a willful ignorance, on some level, he said, having education in North America to thank for large gaps of understanding.

"In terms of education on Indigenous peoples and history in the U.S., it's designed to erase us," he said. "I think back to my high-school and I sometimes wonder if I shouldn't just file a lawsuit against the place, for some of the stuff they were teaching. Not only was it offensive, but it was wrong, incredibly wrong. It should be criminally negligent to teach kids some of this stuff."

As far as Moya-Smith is concerned, the media has a responsibility to play a role in righting some of these wrongs.

"I got into journalism, not to change the narrative, but to correct it," he said. "My approach to everything is, instead of crossing it out or blocking it out, I red-pen it. Here in the U.S., people think we should take the 'merciless savage Indian' part out of the declaration of independence, and I say, no, I think we should circle it. I think that it should be examined.

We need to learn from those mistakes. That form of blatant racism and hypocrisy, because if we white it out, then no one is going to know and who’s going to learn?"

Moya-Smith said it's any reporter's job to raise awareness on important issues, so that people understand them, where they came from, how they affect people today and what we can do about it.

Chapter 3

Journalism of tomorrow

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Julian Noisecat spoke with Jorge Ramos on his 'Real America' segment about the 'Untold Story of Thanksgiving' on Nov. 23, 2018. Photo provided by Noisecat

Angela Sterritt, Gitxsan, doesn't want to spend too much time analyzing and criticizing where the media has gone wrong, but would rather get to work fixing it, and telling stories she believes desperately need to be told. Sterritt leads CBC Vancouver's Reconcile This program, telling stories about the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in BC. While she believes positive stories that feature Indigenous arts and cultures are important, it doesn't mean reporters should shy away from the hard issues and hard facts.

"It is still often difficult to explain Indigenous stories and why they are relevant and explain things that people might not have ever learned about (the 60's scoop, racism, discrimination in health care, cycles of violence, institutionalized poverty for example)," Sterritt wrote in an email. "I still see a huge discrepancy in the way that missing Indigenous women and girls and white women and girls (or boys and men) are covered."

Sterritt said there needs to be more investigative stories on Indigenous communities, that provide a more in-depth understanding of issues, rather than a glossed over narrative that cuts out the historical contextualization of events. She wants to see informative stories that educate the public and believes investigative pieces are a great way to spread awareness and showcase resiliency and beauty at the same time. To lead journalism in this direction, Sterritt said there need to be more gatekeepers in positions of power.

"We need to have better leaders in newsrooms — Indigenous and non -Indigenous — who understand what it means to be Indigenous or have the capacity to learn and champion more Indigenous stories," she said. "We need more producers who are willing to admit they made mistakes and hence moving forward to create change."

Julian Noisecat, a proud member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq'escen and a descendant of the Lil'Wat Nation of Mount Currie, grew up in Oakland. Noisecat said over the phone that he too thinks of his work as fulfilling a greater responsibility, in a "moment of immense power and change for Indigenous communities across North America."

"I think journalism — getting that story out there — plays a huge role in gendering social change," he said. "If it weren't for journalism, and Indigenous journalists specifically, people wouldn't know about ongoing water advisories in Canada today, Standing Rock wouldn't have taken off in the same way and we would still be in a world where nobody reads or cares about this stuff."

Julian Noisecat discussed climate change with Rolling Stone writer Jeff Goodell at the Haystack Book Talks in Norfolk, Connecticut on Nov. 2, 2018. Photo by Cindy Ma

Noisecat, who did his undergrad at Columbia University and post-secondary at Oxford University, works as a policy analyst at 350.org and freelances for a variety of publications, like The Guardian, The Nation, High Country News, CBC, and Canadian Geographic. He said he sees a growing desire for mainstream media outlets to want to diversify their coverage.

"I can see growing interest in diversity to address the huge issues of representation in newsrooms," he said. "If the newsroom does not reflect the people they’re reporting on, the issues won’t be covered well and there’s potential for harm. The opportunity to change the narrative and to have Indigenous reporters, interacting with editors, subjects, on T.V., in people’s living rooms, will inevitably shift the pervading perspective of dominant society towards Indigenous peoples, or at the very least, undo the erasure and invisibility that our communities face."

Ahtone agreed, saying that if older media organizations want to do a better job of covering a wider range of communities, they need to hire people who come from those communities.

"We know that diversity brings in more readers, more money, raises levels of trust, all things that news organizations have been freaked out about for over a decade — declining revenue, trust, subscriptions. All of these things are things that can be fixed very easily by diversifying," Ahtone said.

The Canadian federal government recently released a $595-million package over five years to help Canada’s media sector. An independent panel, comprised of "members of the news and journalism industry" will unpack the application and decide which journalism jobs and news organizations might be eligible for new funding. Whether or not there will be a diverse demographic of people that comprise that panel is yet to be determined, but if Callison had a say on how the funding is distributed, she would encourage news outlets that hire and work with Indigenous peoples.

"As we move into a world in which we are all living with climate change, we need to stop thinking of Indigenous knowing as something in the past, but rather as a living evolving knowledge base with expert practitioners that can help us adapt to an unpredictable future," she said. "This is the kind of story I hope to hear more of."

Noisecat agreed, looking to the development of digital technology to open some of the doors that have been shut to a wide range of voices in the past.

"I think the digital technology can help advance the huge issues of representation in newsrooms," he said. "Nobody has really figured out a viable business model for the internet. A lot of journalism is supported through a nonprofit model. We have to figure it out. I think Canada uniquely has an opportunity to do this — press freedom, public state, putting funding behind it, is an essential part of any democracy, any liberal multicultural society. I'm hopeful we'll realize the problem and address it."

Editor's note: This article was updated at 8 p.m. PT on Dec. 13, 2018 to clarify that the author of the article commented on Native reporter Jenni Monet, not attributed to any of the interviewees.