The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council has approved a resolution requesting that Pine Ridge Indian Reservation businesses halt sales of the Rapid City Journal.
The action was in response to the newspaper’s January 31 front-page headline, “Did Native students stand for National Anthem?” The article elaborated on a disputed anonymous claim that Pine Ridge schoolchildren who were taunted and sprayed with beer at a Rapid City Rush hockey game had not stood for The Star-Spangled Banner.
The article and its headline caused lasting outrage. The Native American Journalists Association called the story “troubling” and “irresponsible.” Native News Online called it “blaming the victims.” At a public forum, Rapid City Mayor Sam Kooiker held the newspaper upside down and described it as “an example of institutional racism,” wrote David Rooks in ICTMN.
The Associated Press article on the council’s February 24 resolution — and the newspapers, TV and radio stations and blogs that picked it up — described the action as a “ban.” As word spread, so did accusations that the council had trampled on freedom of the press and the First Amendment.
Not so, said leading Indian-law expert Carole E. Goldberg, professor of law and vice chancellor at UCLA. “I have read the resolution carefully. It does not bar sales of the newspaper. It merely supports a ‘request’ by an entity of the Tribe that reservation businesses not sell the paper.” The mainstream press has a tendency to sensationalize Indian-country stories, and that may have been what happened here, Goldberg added.
“With the resolution, the tribal council was making a point,” said James Mitchell, a manager at Big Bat’s store and gas station, in downtown Pine Ridge. “The Journal published something they shouldn’t have, and the council made an example of them.”
Big Bat’s is not selling the paper, Mitchell said: “This is a sovereign nation, and stores here are complying with the request.” Calls to other reservation stores with newsstands found similar policies. Both Mitchell and Lisa Spotted Horse, a cashier at Pinky’s, in Manderson, said customers were divided between those who supported the resolution, those who didn’t, others who didn’t care, and yet others who said they could pick up the paper off-reservation. Mitchell noted that Pine Ridge village residents could find a copy in Whiteclay, Nebraska, just over the state line; in South Dakota, Martin and Interior are nearby options.
The Rapid City Journal has long been described as racist and divisive on South Dakota reservations and increasingly throughout the state. Oglala tribal member and former tribal attorney Brett Lee Shelton said he sympathized with the decades of irritation that lay behind the council’s action.
“In my experience, the Rapid City Journal seems to set aside any consideration of journalistic ethics or the impact of its approach when it reports on Pine Ridge,” Shelton said. “A few years ago, I finally blew up at one of the editorial staff, told them exactly what I thought and have since refused to work with the paper.”
RCJ executive editor Bart Pfankuch has denied that the paper is intentionally divisive, pointing out to NAJA that its coverage condemned what happened to the children at the hockey game. He said in future the paper’s aim will be to “try our hardest to bridge gaps and not deepen them.”
In the portion of the February 24 resolution pertaining to attorney Patrick Duffy, the council used unmistakably strong language. Because Duffy is representing the man alleged to have harassed the children, the council “removed” him as a tribal contractor, “banned” him from doing business on the reservation and “revoked” his tribal-court privileges. The resolution also linked Duffy to the Rapid City Journal, where it claimed he is a writer. (He is not, said the newspaper’s HR department, though his son, sportswriter Padraic Duffy, is on staff there.)
Tribal Vice President Tom Poor Bear criticized the council’s position on Duffy, according to Native Sun News, which quoted Poor Bear saying at a recent public meeting, “Every one accused of a crime has the right to a lawyer, and an attorney cannot be held responsible for the alleged crimes of his client.”
True, said Shelton, but noted that the tribe nevertheless retains the right to regulate business, and whom it allows to conduct business, within its borders.
Goldberg said she’d be surprised if the Oglala constitution and laws didn’t allow a tribal-court challenge to this portion of the resolution.
The tribe’s spokesperson, Kevin Steele, created additional uncertainty when he told the AP last week that the ban will be in effect until RCJ prints an apology (it did so on February 2). Steele did not respond to requests for comments on the resolution as a whole or the apparent mix-ups.