When most U.S. journalists try to cover Native America, they run into a cultural divide and don’t even realize it.
The result is a frustrating attempt to cover what should be a simple story under ordinary circumstances. The primary complaints are:
• Native Americans won’t talk with me.
• Don’t they realize we have freedom of the press in this country? They won’t give the information.
The First Amendment may provide press freedom for mainstream America, but most journalists do not realize that tribes are sovereign nations, and individual tribal laws do not necessarily fall under the Constitution or the First Amendment.
As sovereign nations, each of the 554 federally recognized tribes create their own rules when it comes to both internal and external news media. Although the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1967 applies the Bill of Rights to tribes, a 1978 Supreme Court ruling allows tribes to determine the application and enforcement at their own discretion.
The result of the legal issue is that only two tribes — the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee of North Carolina — have passed and adopted a Press Freedom Act. The Oklahoma Cherokee is the only tribe that has adopted a Freedom of Information Act. The remaining 552 tribes can restrict information and access, even to interview some tribal members.
So how can a journalist cover tribes?
First, start with the realization that each tribe is its own separate nation, complete with different laws that govern its people. Each tribe also has its own culture, which is typically very different from the majority culture of America. Journalists should realize that all native nations are different from one another, and that no two tribes are identical.
Bryan Pollard, editor of The Cherokee Phoenix, said reporters and editors must fully understand each tribe before trying to cover each separate nation.
“Research, research, research,” said Pollard, who is also vice president for the Native American Journalists Association.
It almost goes without saying, but reporters shouldn’t presume they know a culture from television, the movies or an American history class. Each tribe deserves its own research because it is a separate nation with its own history, beliefs and culture, he said.
Mark Trahant, editorial page editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, said mainstream journalists should also not wait to visit native lands or reservations until breaking news takes them there. He said reporters should get acquainted with tribes and tribal members in their areas well before a breaking news story.
“Don’t start with a pow-wow,” he said. “Go to the local (recreation) center and do a story about sports or the children. Hang around and become known. Earn respect.”
Respect is a major issue within tribes, said Gwen Spencer, a former reporter who now owns Sapphire Strategies public relations in Spokane, Wash. Tribal members want reporters and editors to respect them and their way of life, and not treat them as an oddity to be briefly examined or used for the occasional feature story. Conversely, the tribal members want to be able to respect the journalist as someone who will accurately tell their story.
Reporters and editors should realize that Native Americans do like to self-identify. Many are from two or more tribal affiliations and prefer to explain how they want to be known. Also, if the person prefers to be called Native American rather than American Indian (AP style), the news organization should respect the choice.
Also, most Americans move at a different pace than Natives Americans. What most Americans would consider slow (10 years to make a decision), Native Americans consider relatively fast. Once again, understanding the cultural differences will help the journalist better cover their assignment if they research and learn about the tribe before rushing in for a story.
Reporters and editors should become conscious that many tribes don’t trust journalists because information reported about them has been wrong in the past. To tribal members, it is not just because they were not available for comment; it is because the journalists did not do their homework and learn the history of a situation from the tribal perspective, which makes major differences in how issues are understood. To overcome this disadvantage, reporters will need to have patience, understanding and a willingness to at least recognize the Native American viewpoint.