In a column on Indianz.com last week (“Freedom of the Press Not Really Alive in Indian Country”), the publisher of the Native Sun News charged the Indian Country Today newspaper (soon to be in glossy mag format) with censorship and control of news, and failure to recognize and acclaim him as the father of Indian Country Today. The column in its stridency made me think on what Native American journalism should mean to Indian country today, and especially to Indian leadership.
John G. Neihardt wrote excellent poetry and stories about Native American people, including his most famous work, Black Elk Speaks. That book is the self-told story of old Nicholas Black Elk’s life as an Oglala holy man, and has some of the most beautiful prose ever written. Neihardt’s poetry is also outstanding and enjoyable, especially his “A Cycle of the West.” It is written in the classical epic tradition of Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey, and tells of the Indian wars, and great leaders like Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and Spotted Tail.
In the poetic account of Sitting Bull’s death, Neihardt tells of Dakota policemen Bull Head and Red Tomahawk coming into the chief’s house late at night to arrest him on agent McLaughlin’s orders. As they hurry him along while he is getting dressed, it appears that Sitting Bull will go peacefully, and his old wife was haranguing him to resist and to fight. Neihardt’s verse has her exhorting him:
“Have you forgotten who you are
that cowards come and drag you out of bed?
It would be well if Sitting Bull were dead
and lying in his blood. It would be well,
for now what stories will be good to tell
in other winters?”
To the Sioux man, his reputation was everything. Warriors, for example, were very individualistic, from their spiritual preparation for battle, to the amulets they wore, and to the individual courage they displayed. The stories of warriors’ courage were important to the people in their ability to select leaders. It was important to the tribe in its status among the nations, and to the warrior’s family’s status in the community. And it was important to his own legacy in the tribe’s history. That’s why Sitting Bull’s wife exhorted him to fight to the death for his freedom; and, of course, the chief died fighting.
The Eyapaha, or village crier, heralded the stories of courage around the camp when warriors returned from battle, and were important people themselves. They and the keepers of the Winter Count were the journalists of their time. But it wasn’t the warrior who told the Eyapaha of his brave deeds; it was the warrior’s companions, who recounted and attested to the stories. Bragging was beneath the Akicita, and that is why others did it for him.
This anxiety over a person’s legacy – if his or her legacy merits saving – causes tribal leaders to be especially vulnerable to journalists, and often mistrustful of them.
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. That is why Native journalists often wield considerable power in Indian Country – because he or she can have such an impact on a person’s legacy, or on the other hand, such a deleterious effect on a person’s reputation. This power is recognized in Indian country, and tribal leaders tend to be fearful of it. This places many Native journalists in a powerful position, and that power can be abused for a journalist’s own reasons – even more so on the part of a publisher. And as Native journalism has grown as a result of computer technology, new capital sources, and education and training, we have seen instances of abuse for political gain, financial gain, revenge and retribution, and self-aggrandizement.
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.
I remember the days of the American Indian Press Association, which was the forerunner of the Native American Press Association and the Native American Journalists Association. It was started a full decade before the NAPA/NAJA. The original founding Board members of AIPA recognized their power but were idealistic and wanted to have high ethical standards. The first head of the AIPA’s Washington News Bureau, Richard LaCourse, was one of the most principled men I have ever met, and his standards for ethics, truth and responsibility were stringent. I recall especially when we met at the National Press Club in DC to write the constitution and bylaws, and to outline our goals and objectives and standards. On a pillar in the Press Club was a brass plaque that contained the following statement by Joseph Pulitzer, the historical publisher of the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch. These were his words:
“Our republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mould the future of the republic will be in the hands of the journalists of the future generations.”
Most of the AIPA Board members copied down that statement, and we worked to hold true to it. But AIPA had a fatal flaw that we could not reconcile – we tried to hold to the priority of our members among the small tribal newspapers for a Washington news bureau to provide original news stories. Unfortunately, such a service could not meet the requirements for tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the IRS Code, and our membership fees could not meet the costs of what we tried to do. Accordingly, the organization folded in 1975, six years after our first meeting.
But the standards we set were exemplary, and many tribal newspapers still carried the AIPA spirit long after the organization died. It’s a spirit that should guide the Indian Press today, especially in the relationships between our Native media, and our respect for one another.
Charles Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association – forerunner of the Native American Journalists Association – in 1970, and served from 1972-1978 as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.iktomisweb.com.