To be a Native American reporter—to be Native at all—is to be constantly active, constantly tired, and constantly mad.
I’ve written ledes that open this way numerous times in just the past few months. The repetition is part of a long history of Native issues being ignored or erroneously covered by the mainstream American media.
Depending on who you talk to, the non-Indigenous crowd’s coverage of Indian Country issues is either stagnating or improving too slowly. But no one who regularly covers Native issues will claim that the major publications are doing a good job. It’s not because they’re not trying to cover our issues; it’s because they’re trying to cover Indian Country without the journalists that call that place home.
“Are they doing it better? No, in short,” Native American Journalists Association President Tristan Ahtone, member of the Kiowa Tribe, told Splinter on a phone call earlier this month. “I think there’s effort there, but those organizations move at glacial speeds when it comes to change. They move fast on reporting but any internal change is just slow, and lifetime slow. They’re making the sounds and they’re making the small efforts here or there, but it’s definitely nowhere near enough.”
The American Society of News Editors reported that, in 2018, across the 184 digital and print outlets that responded to their annual diversity survey, there were just 41 total Native journalists employed. According to NAJA and their “Reclaiming Truth” study from 2017, Native journalists represent just 0.2 percent of mainstream media employees. Even if those numbers were on par with the Native makeup of America’s population, reparative justice should mean making the staffing and financial efforts to make up for years of publishing misinformation.
“Native issues requires more than 1.5 percent proportional representation,” Phil Deloria, Harvard’s first tenured Native studies professor, said in an interview. “That means there’s got to be more than two famous writers at a time; there has to be more than two Congresswomen.”
So rather than waiting around for another outlet to stick a headdress on the Capitol like The Economist, I sought out a handful of the Native journalists showing the mainstream how to cover their people and their culture, regardless of whether those outlets listen or not. The idea was not to list issues that are under-covered—read their work if you want that—but to reevaluate the three biggest stories featuring Indigenous people that managed to capture the American public’s eyes, however briefly, in the past half decade: Standing Rock, a pipeline protest that swelled until America could not ignore it; Elizabeth Warren’s misstep of a DNA test; and the mess that was the clash between Nathan Phillips and the Covington Catholic MAGA crew.
Every Native journalist is aware there are always other pressing issues to cover. Each second dedicated to deciphering the latest apology or outrage is one spent away from Savanna’s Act; the initial terms of the first-ever Native women in Congress; the limits of the Indian Health Service; the decades-old crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women; the monumental legal cases about land rights and the sanctity of treaties; or the shrinking of tribal newspapers.
But those issues cannot be solved if Natives are relegated to the shadows when America decides to pay attention. After all, if Indigenous people can’t help lead the conversation on topics as symbolic in nature as a white person’s DNA test, how can the media be expected to tackle the vastly more complicated and necessary issues that need to be addressed in Indian Country?
Past The Pipeline
Nick Estes is a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. He was born and raised in Chamberlain, SD, about 20 minutes outside his reservation. His rez is just as much his home as America—he stays there there when he travels back to his home state and regularly works and volunteers there when he’s not teaching or mentoring the next generation of Native reporters and activists.
After obtaining his Master’s from the University of South Dakota and PhD from the University of New Mexico, Estes spent a decade writing and researching water rights in relation to Mni Sose, otherwise known as the Missouri River. For the longest time, it felt like he was preaching to the choir, or to nobody at all.
“To be honest, nobody really cared. I was just the guy who talked about dams and the rivers,” Estes told Splinter in a January interview.
Then, Standing Rock happened.
“People started caring again,” Estes said. “I had a captive audience.”
To tell the story from an American perspective, the protests at Standing Rock started in 2014, when the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, or the Oceti Sakowin, started organizing against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was planned to cross the Missouri River, the tribe’s main source of water. The ensuing protests brought thousands of Natives from dozens of tribal nations to North Dakota; the mainstream media decided the issue was worth covering months later. That’s when images of Native people standing down security forces in riot gear armed with tear gas and bulldozers and attack dogs flashed across the television and phone screens of millions of Americans. For a moment, the nation cared, because the injustice was in front of their face and it was undeniable.
But the mainstream American perspective is deeply limited, and after President Donald Trump plowed ahead with the pipeline in January 2017, the reporters cleared out.
“[Standing Rock] really had its roots in a longer history,” Estes said. “I think people...don’t think about it as a moment within a larger movement.”
The history of the Great Sioux tribes’ fight for water rights and tribal sovereignty against corporate, capitalistic greed stretches back centuries, to 1803, when the white explorers Lewis and Clark crossed the sacred Missouri River to survey the Oceti Sakowin’s land, recently sold by the French government to the United States without their permission. The United States turned its Army on the Native nations that didn’t comply with its every whim, leading to military conflicts throughout the region. Then came the time of allotment, and settler invasion, and seizure of the water channels, and the dams, and the forced flooding, and the mass incarceration. And peppered in each one of these hellish developments are enthralling stories of Native resistance.
This facet of the Standing Rock story—of an Indigenous issue not being sudden and isolated but wrapped in centuries of underreported history—is not unique. It is present in nearly every story that comes out of Indian Country.
Estes has a book, Our History Is Our Future, coming out later this month. It’s his attempt at telling that history. When we spoke on the phone, Estes explained that one of the major issues with American media coverage of Standing Rock was the insistence on focusing solely on the Standing Rock Sioux’s interaction with the American oil company behind the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners. In fact, Standing Rock was part of an issue faced globally by Indigenous cultures, context that never seemed to make its way into the mainstream narrative.
“Often times, Native politics are just seen as domestic, internal, parochial affairs, and we’re never seen as global actors, as people who have something to say about the rest of the world,” Estes told me, adding, “In many ways, Native people in the United States aren’t exceptional in the way that they’re treated by a colonial power.”
The United States, on the whole, has done a piss-poor job when it comes to educating its citizens on the nation’s history in relation to Native people. So when issues as complex as Standing Rock come across the assignment desks of non-Native editors or producers, their ability to transcend the misconceptions that are formed early in life and report on a developing story without falling victim to preconceived notions of Native identity, or to think about the story in a wider historical context, is kneecapped from the start.
While Indigenous journalists produced the best coverage of Standing Rock, their voices were too frequently excised from the mainstream narrative; as a result of the poor representation in non-Native media outlets, the attention paid to Standing Rock, while an improvement relative to other Native issues, laid bare the glaring blind spots in media.
An article published by the Wall Street Journal in August 2016 failed to quote a single Native voice. In a September 2016 article from the Washington Post that sold itself as an explainer, the framing focused on environmentalists and left the Native perspective as a side note. In a New York Times piece from October 2016, the only Native voice was saved for the 15th and final paragraph, below statements from the police and three tweets from celebrity supporters. In December, CNN aired a staunchly pro-police segment in which it largely allowed the police manning the pipeline area to slam Native protesters—referred to repeatedly as “agitators”—and claim that any protesters they dosed with high-pressure hoses “got wet on purpose.” In another segment, the news station gave actress Susan Sarandon eight minutes of air time to speak against the pipeline rather than a member of the Standing Rock or another Indigenous protester.
By corralling Native voices in pieces separate from the straight news coverage, or by not featuring them at all, the same half-truths and caricatures of contemporary Natives as horseback, face-painted teepee dwellers were communicated to an American audience that has long been woefully lacking in knowledge of Native history and contemporary culture. And it’s having to make up for that poor foundation that rang out as one of the most common laments I heard from the Native journalists I had the chance to speak with over the past month-and-a-half.
“A lot of the times, I think it’s because of the education they receive in the public education system,” Indian Country Today reporter Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, of the Diné (Navajo), told Splinter. “They’re gatekeepers and with what education they have, they fail to filter things in that they think paints the big picture, which ends up being a 1900s caricature of us, which isn’t right.”
Feeling a responsibility to make up for the vast educational gaps, young journalists at non-Native outlets often find themselves writing explainer posts aimed at non-Native audiences, rather than investing in more rigorous Indigenous stories. Ahtone called it a “big hurdle” during the beginning of his career, one that he’s left behind for his new gig as head of the tribal affairs desk at High Country News, a bi-weekly magazine and daily digital outlet that focuses on Western and Indian Country issues. There, he commands a team of reporters and editors well-versed in Indian Country that put out pieces for Indigenous audiences.
“You can’t tell an American story without Native people in it,” Graham Lee Brewer, a contributing editor at High Country News and a citizen of Cherokee Nation, told Splinter. “We’re such a fundamental part of what it means to American, but people don’t recognize that yet. I see that every day in my job... It’s a hard balance to strike because it’s like, I don’t want this to be the same old ground for Indigenous people, I want them to read me and see something of value in what I do. But at the same time, I’ve got to write this story as if this is the first time some white person has ever learned about this.”
That Damn DNA Test
I couldn’t even make it all the way through Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test video—in which she said that she had Cherokee ancestry—the first time I watched it last October. It took me a few tries to complete it. When it was done, I let out a deep sigh, followed by a sharp, “Fuck!”
Rebecca Nagle, of the Cherokee Nation or ᏣᎳᎩ, is in the second year of a tribally funded program where she works for her nation to teach citizens young and old their language. In addition to offering her the chance to reconnect with her people, in the past year, she’s become a widely followed Native columnist, writing about the history of her family and the Cherokee Nation. One of her first widely shared pieces, written for ThinkProgress and headlined, “I am a Cherokee woman. Elizabeth Warren is not,” focused on Warren’s claims to Cherokee heritage.
When Nagle saw the Warren video, she was pissed. Not just because of what Warren did, but because it provided fuel to those that have been critical of Cherokee voices that have been raising the issue for the past seven years.
“I woke up and I had all these Twitter mentions,” Nagle told Splinter. “And it was all these people being like, ‘See, you’re wrong [about Warren]!’ And I was trying to figure out why they were telling me I had to apologize,” Nagle. “Then I saw and it was, ‘Oh shit.’”
In the days following her DNA test release, Warren was excoriated by Native journalists, myself included. Momentarily, the larger moment felt unique. For the first time since the Standing Rock protests, Native voices, while not the only ones featured, had managed to pierce the bubble and enter the average American’s mind. The direction of the story seemed to be trending in a way that would actually be inclusive of our opinions and thoughts. Of course, that was just naiveté at work.
Like Standing Rock, the DNA issue had its roots in a much longer history. The topics of tribal sovereignty and blood quantum laws and white cultural theft were all intertwined, present in the subtext of the video and the dozen or so columns published by Native journalists in its wake. Then there’s the fact that Native voices like Nagle have long been calling on the Massachusetts senator to publicly disavow her decades-old claims of being Native American and of boasting Native heritage with little more to point to than high cheek bones. But because most non-Native people don’t understand any of this and don’t care to find out, a great deal of the coverage was flatly terrible.
The day after the video was released, The Boston Globe featured a column by a non-Native writer declaring that for reasonable people, the DNA test “should be enough to back [Warren’s] contention that according to ‘family lore’ she has some Native American heritage.” The same day, the New York Times’ national political correspondent, Jonathan Martin, published a 36-paragraph story that dropped an abbreviated version of Cherokee Nation’s statement rebuking Warren to the 19th paragraph and failed to interview a single Native or Cherokee citizen.
In an attempt to weather the storm caused by the DNA test, Warren’s staff made the worst possible decision: They maintained radio silence for two months. And when they broke that silence, the statement provided to the New York Times offered little in substance. In the void where an apology and an explanation should have been, confusion manifested, followed swiftly by a white, liberal backlash to the Native people who dared to say that the story wasn’t over. You can look no further than the lovely commentariat on this very website, or you can venture out to white folks on the left, like David Klion and Judd Legum, who sat firmly atop their social media timelines and sneered down at anyone—including Natives—that dare disagree. There were also repeated lazy comparisons to Hillary Clinton’s emails.
“The [HuffPost] article and the Salon article that was just copy and pasting that because that guy doesn’t know how to do journalism—and you can quote me on that—it was just a matter of time before the Warren camp tried to pull a Dan Snyder and be like, ‘Look, these Natives don’t find it offensive,’” Nagle said. “It’s so predictable, and it’s predictable that the white liberal media would go along with it.”
It’s in these kinds of situations that the Native American Journalists Association steps in. In addition to its role as a infrastructural support system for up-and-coming Native reporters, NAJA exists to help correct the path of non-Native outlets when these kinds of coverage mishaps happen.
Graham Lee Brewer is a member of NAJA’s board. As he and Ahtone both told Splinter, it is very difficult to get non-Native journalists to admit shortcomings in their reporting on Indian Country. (There are rare exceptions. For instance, after NAJA and NPR’s ombudsman pressured the outlet to fix a flawed story on a legal challenge to the Indian Child Welfare Act, NPR’s editorial staff agreed to update the story and issue a clarification at the bottom of the piece.)
NAJA called the HuffPost story a “shallow analysis” of the DNA issue, noting that “the idea that a handful of Indigenous people can speak for the majority is deeply rooted in hurtful stereotypes, colonial attitudes and ideas of racial superiority.” HuffPost refused to admit any wrongdoing.
“I think people think of themselves as allies to Indigenous people a lot, but they’re not listening,” Brewer said. “They think that they are listening but they’re not absorbing the material. I can’t tell you how many times a reporter has messed up something on Indian Country and you go back and try to explain to that reporter, ‘Well, here’s what you did wrong,’ and they just don’t [listen.]”
Even still, all the Native journalists and writers I spoke to professed to having an abundant desire to assist non-Natives looking to grow and learn about tribal cultures and the workings of tribal governments.
“I have infinite amounts of patience for people who don’t know, because it’s not on the individual; the ignorance about contemporary Native people is systemic,” Nagle said. “I’m like, don’t Google it, don’t read a book, I’ll explain it to you. I will use my time, I’m cool with that. But what I don’t have patience for is people who think that they know, when what they know is wrong. And I think that’s some of what we’re seeing in the media.”
A lot has happened since the HuffPost debacle. Warren apologized to the Cherokee Nation. Then, a week later, on Feb. 6, the Washington Post uncovered her registration card for the State Bar of Texas, prompting Warren’s first direct apology to the press on the issue. Warren followed this up by making an apology in front of news cameras, the first time she came anywhere close to making a thorough public comment on the matter since the DNA test reveal itself.
“I’m not a tribal citizen,” Warren told reporters. “My apology is an apology for not having been more sensitive about tribal citizenship and tribal sovereignty. I really want to underline the point, tribes and only tribes determine tribal citizenship.”
But the damage was done. The faint line that marked the ability to claim Native identity or Native heritage was blurred until the moment Warren’s campaign felt it could continue forward. The four month-late apology served its purpose, leaving Native journalists once again with a bitter taste in their mouths and the knowledge that the issue was far from resolved.
“The whole Elizabeth Warren thing, I thought about [a] quote a whole, whole lot,” Brewer said.
He paraphrased a quote from Dr. Kim TallBear: “Why is it incumbent upon Indigenous people to explain to racists why they’re racists? That’s not our fucking job.”
Vincent Schilling, an assistant editor for Indian Country Today and the first reporter to identify and interview Nathan Phillips in the wake of the now-infamous Covington Catholic viral video, was in the middle of an interview for this piece when his office phone rang. It was five days after the story first broke. He apologized and said he’d have to take the call.
A woman’s voice came through clearly. She had a Northern accent. She wanted to know how Schilling would account for what she called the “dishonesty” of Phillips—whom she initially accused, without evidence, of having “a history of attacking white students”—and staunchly defended the Covington Catholic students.
“[I’m] saying this as a woman whose grandfather was part-Indian,” she said.
The conversation between the two went on this way for about another five minutes. Schilling was patient. It seemed the woman had just called to complain.
“You know, m’am, I’m a journalist. If you’d like, I can put your words on the record—” he said at one point.
“I’m not looking to put anything on the record, I’m looking to talk to you! I’m not interested in being part of an article for you to exploit,” the woman snapped back.
A reporter having to listen through a frantic reader’s latest rant isn’t new, or specific to the journalists at Native media outlets. It was par for course for Schilling in the week following the Covington video’s release. At the peak of the news cycle, he said he was getting several hundred emails every couple days and calls like that at least once an hour—the upside to having his contact information online, he joked.
“Most people are between, ‘Eff you’ to ‘Great job,’” he said.
But there was something painfully familiar about the call Schilling received that morning.
The initial coverage of the Covington story was dominated by Indian Country Today, and Schilling specifically. Schilling wrote six stories over the course of the weekend that the story broke, and conducted the first interview by any news outlet with Phillips after the incident. Schilling told me he slept a total of one hour in a day-and-a-half, saying he did so because he knew this story—specifically the image of Sandmann standing in front of Phillips—would be a historically important moment in need of a Native vantage point.
But by the time the American media got its claws into the story, it had little use for ICT. The initial backlash soon gave way to gaslighting, which gave way to pulling from the He Was No Angel bag for Phillips. The mainstream news cycle was as vicious as it was predictable. As the conversation dominated the headlines in mid-January, the voice that began the conversation receded to the background. And so here Schilling was, not fielding interviews from NBC or CNN or MSNBC or Fox News, but listening to the loosely connected, slightly racist thoughts of a white stranger.
Schilling compared the life of being a Native journalist to the Dr. Seuss book Horton Hears A Who!—when a scandal comes along that involves this nation’s Indigenous population, he said non-Natives in the United States always tend to come to the same realization of, “Oh, they do exist.”
“Indian Country Today is the outlet that revealed Nathan Phillips’ identity and the rest of the world went with it and then they took it and never again looked back at us. It’s nowhere. Crickets,” Schilling said. “But even in the midst of tragedy, Indian Country goes, ‘Well, at least we’re being noticed.’”
Ahtone called it a “rough news cycle,” but agreed that, as with the DNA test, even if they were undercut by their non-Indigenous counterparts, Indigenous journalists led the field on the topic.
Two weeks after the incident unfolded, Julian Brave NoiseCat, a member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen, wrote a feature-length interview with Phillips for The Guardian. The piece marked the first time in the entire mess that a reporter at a non-Native outlet offered Phillips the opportunity to have the day framed solely through his eyes and not through the stale apology of Nick Sandmann.
Even then, there were still questions to be answered about Phillips’ past work with the Native Youth Alliance, but American eyes had long moved on. And another complicated subject had been smothered and simplified in order to adhere to the inherently anti-Native nature of the American media environment.
“What I think a lot of non-Native reporters have missed is that this is happening right now with Nathan Phillips. It happened with Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test,” Athone said. “Those are sort of versions of Standing Rock but I think non-Native reporters don’t necessarily have the eyes or lenses to see that those are also types of attacks, because the resistance to it isn’t physical like Standing Rock.”
Native reporters in America have spent the past couple years diversifying their bylines out of both ambition and necessity.
The announcement that the Indian Country Today Media Network was closing up shop in the spring of 2017 sent shockwaves throughout the Native news-reading world. Since its arrival in 1981, ICT had become the best source of nations-wide Native journalism in America. But the financial pressures that accompanied weekly newspaper operations left the cash-strapped Oneida Nation few options. For months, it was unclear what future the outlet would have. In September 2017, the Oneida announced they had gifted the publication to the National Congress of American Indians, a DC-based organization that serves as a representative collective of America’s Native nations. (Disclosure: In January 2018, I spent a day in DC consulting for NCAI on what its iteration of ICT would look like.)
The NCAI-funded digital operation is still in the early stages of rebuilding. Schilling, a member of the St. Regis Mohawk and a full-time journalist for the past 13 years, rounds out an editorial staff that presently includes editor-in-chief Mark Trahant, reporter Bennett-Begaye, and a rotating roster of freelancers. Even with the small staff, the night of the 2018 midterms, the group covered the rush of Native politicians across the nation more thoroughly than any other news outlet.
In the space where ICTMN long reigned, other Native outlets like NativeNewsOnline or Indianz have stepped up their operations and output. But in terms of non-Native outlets, there has so far only been one regional or national outlet in the United States that not only wholly dedicated itself to covering Native issues, but paid Native journalists to do so.
High Country News tapped Ahtone to lead the first tribal affairs desk of its kind in 2017. The outlet has gone on to commission a number of unique projects on the beat. Ahtone offered his experience at the nonprofit as a prime example of a publication advancing its commitment to Indian Country issues a step past lip service.
“I get a lot of calls and emails about how people can do better coverage of Native communities and Indigenous communities,” he said. “But High Country News was the only one that said they wanted to put money behind this and make it a core issue that they cover, not just like have a couple people doing it occasionally.”
Brewer said that as an editor at HCN, not only does he just get to gear his coverage toward Native audiences and expand their coverage past explainers, but the rising journalists he works with are all Native. He added that he’d prefer to “teach a Native writer how to be a good writer than teach a good writer how to cover Indian Country.”
This is where the mainstream falls short.
Natives in the mainstream media have more frequently been featured on panels or in guest op-eds during the heights of all the above news cycles and others, such as Nagle’s memorable Washington Post column on the Murphy v. Carpenter case before the Supreme Court. The Native journalists like Ahtone who came up in the early and mid-2000s can see the changes clearly.
“Ten years ago, you found like two Native bylines, maybe, a year in mainstream media outlets, or any sort of media outlets that were non-Native,” Ahtone said. “Nowadays, there’s a really, really wide variety of people that are getting bylines and pieces out there. I see that as a sign of success and I see that as a sign of recognition.”
But the number of Native on staff in mainstream outlets remains pathetic. And this doesn’t just lead to botched coverage, but also a lack of courage on the part of editors when it comes to taking on Native assignments. As Estes explained—and as has been often voiced by others— pitching legacy publications on stories that provide unabashed Native perspectives is difficult when they themselves feel unequipped to deal with the subject matter at hand.
“I remember I [co-wrote] a piece for the New York Times once,” Estes said. “It was around the time they were doing the coverage of the taking down of Confederate monuments. And they were like, ‘Why don’t you write a piece on racist monuments against Native people?’ And I wrote this piece and they were like, ‘Oh we can’t really use the word ‘colonialism.’’ And I think I used it once. It was just an op-ed, about how in New Mexico people had been protesting for decades against these symbols, whether its the conquistador or the frontiersman or whether it’s the Confederate monuments that don’t so much celebrate slavery as they do celebrate the killing of confederate soldiers by ‘savage indians.’ They were like, ‘it’s too complicated, we can’t do this’ and they ended up killing the piece.”
Neither the Times or Opinion editor Jennifer Parker, who rejected the column, responded to Splinter’s inquiry seeking to understand the reason they shot down the pitch from Estes and University of California Riverside assistant professor Melanie Yazzie. The paper also did not respond to a question about the Opinion desk’s general approach to Native issues.
While Nagle agreed with the assessment that the American media environment is improving—she cited Standing Rock as the flashpoint that opened the way for further coverage on issues like the effects of the Indian Health Service shuttering during the government shutdown—she said that American media outlets usually don’t employ the Native staff to responsibly handle or consult on all the necessary Native issues.
“I think what you have is a lot of well-intentioned but misinformed and ignorant folks flocking to cover these issues and are understandably making mistakes,” she told me. “News outlets need to hire Native people. We need Native writers, we need Native editors, we need Native columnists—there’s no Native columnist at a major outlet. Just like people have their immigration correspondent or Congress correspondent, every major news outlet in the United States with a large staff at least needs to have an Indian Country correspondent, if not a desk.”
It’s a daily, ongoing struggle to ensure that Native voices are included in the obvious spaces, let alone in a prominent enough place to be heard by the people that need to listen most. The climb to attain the kind of desks and coverage plans that Indian Country deserves is still long. It has always has been that way, and change is slow. Thankfully, as exhausting as that climb is, Native journalists are a restless bunch. And with or without the powerful institutions that dominate the media landscape, the coverage around Native issues is changing, and it’s changing thanks to the Native journalists that know better than to sit around and wait on the rest of America to catch up.
Correction, 8:27 a.m. ET, 2/20/19: This article initially said that High Country News was a bimonthly publication. In fact, it is a biweekly. The article has been updated to reflect this.