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.”

Familiar Territory

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.