The art of storytelling always has been an important part of Native American life. In addition to traditional songs and prayers, it is through the telling of stories that the history, legends, myths and customs of Indian people have been preserved and passed on through the centuries.
Long ago, in the Navajo tradition, a good storyteller was held in high esteem among his band of people, so long as that person was honest, trusting and entertaining. Many of the good storytellers were also medicine people. They were viewed as being special because they had been blessed with the power to heal and the talent to communicate.
The words of the storytellers were thought to be sincere and their message meaningful. They were a good source for hearing important news and also could be counted on to tell a good joke, deliver a humorous tale or relate an interesting anecdote.
Many of the truly gifted storytellers eventually became leaders of their tribes or bands of people. As such, they were responsible for communicating the good news as well as the bad.
As for the bad storytellers, they were viewed as being the tribal gossips and were often looked down upon because they seemed to prey on the tragedies and misery of their own people. Their stories usually were based on rumors and contained lies and exaggerations.
The bad storytellers were not to be trusted, but, because of the naïve curiosity of their people, they continued to exist and even thrived in some places where they developed a captive audience.
So as the years passed and the generations went by, the status of the storytellers became more prominent, systematic and, of course, profitable. As a result, today’s Native journalists and the tribal media have now largely inherited the role of the original traditional storyteller.
And just like the days of old, you will find there are good Native journalists and bad ones, too, throughout Indian Country. Regardless, today’s Native journalists are the modern storytellers.
The primary difference I have noticed and come to truly appreciate in my 20 years as a Navajo reporter and editor is that most Native journalists and Native American-owned publications will not “sell their soul” in order to break a story or “scoop” the competition.
In other words, gaining fame and fortune is not the primary reason for why Native journalists do what they do and Native journalism exists. Many of us will not sacrifice our own personal ethics or violate our cultural beliefs and tradition in order to sell a story.
We believe that the Almighty Great Spirit has blessed us with the gift to communicate in the written language as a means to help our people, not to hurt them. We feel that if you abuse this blessing, then ultimately it will lead to hurt and sorrow for yourself and those close to your heart.
I use the words “most” and “many of us” because I do know of one particular Native American-owned newspaper and of several Native journalists who have put their tribal culture and tradition behind them and sought riches and notoriety through their craft.
What is most disturbing about these “bad” Native journalists is that they report and sell stories on Indian death, tragedy, misery and religion. It does not seem to bother them to have their byline on a story that continues to perpetuate negative stereotypes of Native American people and culture, so long as they get paid for their efforts.
I spoke recently with a non-Native journalist from Phoenix about Native journalism and his basic response was: “So, what’s the big deal? That’s the way today’s journalists and media operate everywhere. They want to have the big breaking story so they can sell newspapers and make money. Look at the headlines, the tabloids, the television programs. It’s all about fortune and fame, making big bucks. You guys need to move up with the modern times, man.”
I then went on to explain to this guy that this kind of thinking was what made Native journalism so different from mainstream media and the major daily newspapers. Making money at all costs was not our primary reason for existing. There are some things in this world that are not for sale.
I work for the Navajo Times newspaper, one of the largest Native American-owned publications in the world. We are owned by the Navajo Nation government, but we operate solely on the revenue that we generate from our circulation and advertising sales. We also have fought many battles throughout the years to gain our independence and respect from the Navajo tribal government – from an editorial and business standpoint.
As a business and newspaper with a $1.2 million budget, we do all that we can to generate revenue so that we can continue to grow, but we will not violate our personal ethics and traditional Navajo beliefs and customs in order to do this.
We will not report on some subjects in full detail, or not at all, and those include death, religion and traditional ceremonies. We also will not photograph or print photos of these subjects.
An example of this type of coverage occurred recently. Early in the morning on New Year’s Day, a mother of six children (ranging in age from 11 years to 14 months) shot her three oldest kids in the head with a .22 caliber rifle while they slept. This 31-year-old Navajo woman was arrested at her home on the Navajo Nation and currently is being held in federal detention in Phoenix on pending murder charges.
The news media from Phoenix, Tucson and Albuquerque – plus the reservation border towns – swarmed onto the Navajo Nation seeking any and all details they could get on this terrible tragedy. Television, radio station and newspaper reporters and photographers all were trying to scoop each other with a news story angle or a photo of this tragedy.
The reporters gave little regard for the fact that the immediate family and the surviving children – ages 5, 2 and 14 months – were in a state of shock and confusion and that the Navajo traditional process of acknowledging death and mourning had begun.
The Navajo Times stayed away from the crime scene and left the family alone so they could mourn in private. Through our sources, we were able to contact family members to let them know that when they were ready, we would like to hear their story.
In the meantime, the other news media ran stories that consisted mainly of interviews and photos of so-called friends of the family, school and government officials, the police and the FBI.
During the funeral for the children, the immediate family requested that the news media stay away and allow them their privacy, which the Navajo Times did. But the other news media still congregated outside the place of the funeral services and photographed grieving family members. They interviewed non-family members about the funeral proceedings and produced stories based on second- and third-hand information.
Prior to the funeral, sisters of the accused mother took time to give a personal interview to the Navajo Times and offered much factual and specific information that no one else got. The Navajo Times also was able to secure the only photo of the accused mother after she had been arraigned in a county court.
The Navajo custom for mourning is that the family is to be left alone to mourn privately for four days beginning the day of the funeral. The Navajo Times honored this custom and left the family alone. After the four days passed, we got a letter from the father of the children who wanted our newspaper to give his side of the story because he felt that we were the most credible and respectful.
As a direct result of our showing respect for the immediate family and their request for privacy and recognition of Navajo tradition, the Navajo Times was able to publish articles on the tragedy based on factual information and personal interviews with family members.
We reported the truth about a tragedy that will live with the Navajo people for years to come.
As a direct result of not showing respect for the immediate family and Navajo tradition, the rest of the news media reported stories based on second- and third-hand information, which were basically not totally true. What they presented to their readers were sensationalized stories about another tragic incident on an Indian reservation in Arizona. I’m sure they sold a few copies.
Tom Arviso Jr. is the editor of the Navajo Times.