Community , Culture

The Importance of Native Journalists

I recently attended the annual conference of the Native American Journalists Association at the Mystic Lake Conference Center, owned by the Shakopee Mdwewakanton Sioux Community, located south of Minneapolis-St. Paul. On the way to Prior Lake, I visited the lush farmland west of the Twin Cities where my husband’s family settled when they emigrated from Norway in the mid-1800s. I enjoyed our visit, but their comments about a local Native community made me glad to be surrounded by Native people at a Native facility. Native media fills an essential role in covering Native news effectively.

This year, Karyn Pugliese and Justin Brake of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) earned The Elias Boudinot Free Press Award for bravery in the face of legal consequences while covering the occupation of a hydroelectric dam in Labrador. Pugliese (Algonquin First Nation of Pikwàkanagàn), executive director of news and current affairs at ATPN, supported Brake, a non-Native independent journalist when he was charged criminally with mischief and disobeying a court order for following an indigenous group onto Nalcor Energy property. Brake described his experience staying with protesters at NAJA’s banquet. As a result of his decision to fight the charges and APTN’s decision to support him, protections for journalists were strengthened when the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal sided with the news media in March 2019.

Conference sessions focused on skills needed for investigative news stories as well as creating features that profile tribal citizens or groups. Workshops focused on reporting education and health care, as well as solution-focused journalism.

A presenter from Google shared research tips, which reflects the ways traditional news and social media influence each other.  Danielle Noriega, from Facebook Strategic Partner Development, guided participants in creating Instagram/ Facebook stories. In “Going Viral,” reporters from Minnesota Public Radio discussed ways they used social media to bring readers to their stories.

This year’s NAJA conference met while both the Muscogee (Creek) and Osage nations were considering amendments to Independent Press legislation. Tribal media with codified independent press acts include the Cherokee Nation, the Osage Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde and the Navajo Nation.

During “Mythbusters: Free Press in Indian Country,” Jodi Rave SpottedBear (Mandan-Hidatsa and Lakota) moderated a discussion among reporters from Mvskoke Media, Osage News, and Andrew Jenness (Grand Ronde) a member of Grand Ronde Smoke Signals Editorial Board.

Benny Polacca, Senior Reporter for the Osage News described how questions from the public led to investigative reporting resulting in former Osage Chief John Red Eagle’s impeachment in 2014. Angel Ellis, a Muscogee (Creek) citizen and reporter for Mvskoke Media described working for Mvskoke Media when Free Press legislation was repealed, with tribal officials citing the need for more positive coverage.

“I’m working under a suppressed tribal media,” Ellis said. In response to questions from readers about stories not covered, she explains that stories have been quashed, while others have been stalled for months in editorial review.

Mvskoke Media is operating under a shield law, which gives the tribe’s Secretary of Commerce and the Nation, editorial oversight. Ellis said people confuse having a press free from tribal editorial control with a press that’s financially independent of tribal support. Ellis favors a model that gives the news financial support, but with editorial independence. Ellis left NAJA to testify at tribal hearings regarding Free Press amendments to the Muscogee Nation’s constitution. Osage News Editor Shannon Shaw Duty stayed in Pawhuska to address Osage congressional committees regarding ONCA 19-78, an act that amends the Independent Press Act to establish alternate board members, to make the Editor a hired position rather than an appointed position and to establish a shield law. The Government Operations Committee discussed whether the editorial board should be a governing board or advisory.

Traditional news outlets, communications departments or press secretaries sometimes cover similar material. Jennifer Loren (Cherokee) of OsiyoTV, a former investigative reporter, uses a documentary style with a cultural rather than news focus. Each OsiyoTV segment focuses on both a historic and a contemporary Cherokee figure such as novelist Brandon Hobson, whose novel, “Where the Dead Sit Talking,” was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2018. The aim of OsiyoTV is to preserve language and culture, and Loren discussed the skills needed to keep the program free from political influence.

Holding the conference with the Conference on Native American Nutrition brought the energy of resurging indigenous lifeways and delicious foods to the events. We had gourmet indigenous food, while the Osage News staff picked up twelve awards for excellence this year. It was good to spend time with Benny Polacca, Cody Hammer and Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton, and to ponder the importance of mainstream and Native news organizations and the ways my contributions to Osage News can be better.