Media, for many indigenous peoples of this country, continues to be a double-edged sword, with a history containing moments of both immense pride and interminable consequences. During the last several hundred years of European colonization, media, in the form of books, newspapers and, later, cinema, were powerful tools in a perpetual attempt to suppress the Native voice from having a place within the dominant dialogue. Dominant media has historically, and even into the present day, excluded the Native voice, writing history for or without them altogether. This is an act that has perpetuated the erroneous idea that because Native Americans are a “vanishing” or “vanished race,” there is no point in listening to or asking a people that don’t exist. And this is only one way in which the written word has degraded indigenous people, who, by being left out of the collective conversation, are susceptible to misrepresentation and down-right lies in regards to their identities, cultures, and sufferance of epic historical injustices.
As a people whose identity for the last 400 years has largely been shaped around survival, the very act of writing became a source of survivance for Native people, even as it was being used against them.
Writing, in several instances throughout history, become a clever weapon against disappearance, if in no other way than through the simple act of signing a name, confirming an existence in the face of systematic oblivion.
While the European idea of literature relied on print, indigenous literature depended largely on verbalization. A common theme in Native cosmology is the acknowledgment that nothing lasts forever, thus, where a text might have an indefinite and unchanging shelf life, an oral story has the flexibility to evolve and change. It is no wonder then that journalism caught on early in Native communities as an instrument against disappearance, as journalism is but a constant, and constantly changing, chronicle of history.
In his book Native Liberty, Gerald Vizenor, White Earth Ojibwe, writes: “Daily newspapers observe the moment and then vanish the morning after, as the commerce of news awaits an invitation to history. I was a journalist for about five years and never gave much time to consider my stories in the last edition of the newspaper. Every morning was the start of new stories on the elusive road to history.”
In Native Liberty, Vizenor writes about his discovery of The Progress, a newspaper published by his ancestors. “I was inspired by the dedication of the editor, and the news stories created a singular sense of Native presence. … I was transformed, inspired, and excited by a great and lasting source of a Native literary presence and survivance. … The newspaper countered the notion of a Native absence, and sustained instead a personal source of solace, enlightenment, and a unique historical identity.”
In the first issue of The Progress, published March 25, 1886, it announced that the “novelty of a newspaper published upon this reservation may cause many to be wary in their support, and this from a fear that it may be revolutionary in character… We intend that this journal shall be the mouth-piece of the community in making known abroad and at home what is for the best interests of the tribe.”
The newspaper was confiscated by federal agents shortly after its first publication. Its next publication would not come out for a year, after a subcommittee testimony and hearing in federal court.
Today there are tribal newspapers on nearly every reservation in the country that are dedicated to being an undeniable presence for Native people. They are run by a host of brave publishers, editors, reporters and staff that are determined to present a Native voice in the dominant dialogue. In a January column published in This Week From Indian Country Today, Charles Trimble, Oglala Lakota, principal founder of the American Indian Press Association, writes: “A noted former publisher of The Washington Post is credited with the famous saying that journalism is a ‘first draft of history.’ And that is why Native journalism is so important to the history of the tribes in the future. … The Native press, even more importantly than the mainstream media, must recognize its importance in a society struggling to preserve its culture and a tribe striving to preserve its sovereignty and govern its people. The Native press must serve its role, not through fear but through understanding and a passion for truth.”
This column was originally published in the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
Ungelbah Daniel-Davila studies creative writing and Indigenous studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts.