Photo Courtesy Indian Country Today
Indian Country Today — a media outlet covering Indian Country that was on hiatus less than two years ago — has roared back to life, opening bureaus in Anchorage, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C., in addition to a partnership with the Associated Press.
The AP partnership represents the first time that a mainstream news service will distribute stories published by a Native American publication. In addition, the groundbreaking Associated Press partnership will enable stories that appear in Native media outlets and are published by Indian Country Today to also be distributed on the AP’s wire service.
Although Native Americans make up 2 percent of the total U.S. population, currently Native Americans working in mainstream media make up less than one-half of one percent of all newsroom employees. When Indian Country Today’s Anchorage bureau is fully staffed, Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, editor of Indian Country Today, says their publication alone is likely to have met, if not exceed, that overall number.
Each of Indian Country Today’s three bureaus is in a city strategically located to cover key issues and developments in Indian Country. (Indian Country is the common and general reference for communities of Native Americans and all tribal governments in the United States.) The outlet lives in the digital realm and is cultivating a strong video and television presence via strategic PBS partnerships. It receives half a million unique visitors monthly; the majority of those visitors are between 24 and 35 years old.
Solid metrics aside, Indian Country Today is doing something with their AP partnership that, arguably, has not happened in the history of the United States — and throughout the colonial recorded history of the land’s occupation before the country was formed: It chronicles Native America, by Native Americans, for Native Americans, and amplifies those articles directly into the Western mainstream.
That Native American perspective has been absent from the contemporary Western mindset. For example, take a moment to Google Image search “American Indian.” The results indicate that many people in the United States believe Native Americans to be one homogenized group, whose members still live in the 19th century.
Twenty years into the 21st Century, the visibility versus invisibility of Native Americans is very much an issue. Casinos, gambling and mascots make up most of the damaging and dehumanizing impressions people see of Native Americans. Indian Country Today is now positioned to play an important role in bringing nuance, complexity and depth of understanding to issues and narratives that might otherwise remain unacknowledged, unexplored or absent from the national consciousness. Native Americans are everywhere — and everyone in the United States lives on Native land.
Mark Trahant interviews Montana Governor Steve Bullock, the first time a presidential candidate has visited a Native newsroom. (Photo Courtesy Indian Country Today)
The federal government recognizes 573 tribes in the United States. Still others are unrecognized, and yet their people still exist and remember where they came from.
Indian Country Today is telling their stories. It’s based in cities that are important centers of contemporary Native American life, and that serve diverse rural and urban Native American populations.
Native Americans have had the right to vote in United States elections since 1924, despite the fact that they’ve lived on this land for 10,000 years or more. Washington, D.C., itself sits on the lands of three different peoples (Anacostans, Pamunkey, and Piscataway), and is part of more than a dozen nearby tribal nations.
Native Americans also were not, until 1924, considered United States citizens. Fast-forward 95 years to 2019, and their voting power is reflected in Washington.
The United States Congress currently has four Native American representatives: Tom Cole (Chickasaw, R-Oklahoma), Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk, D-Kansas), Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo, D-New Mexico) and Markwaybe Mullin (Cherokee, R-Oklahoma). There is also the special election race in Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District, where Tricia Zunker, Ho-Chunk, is vying to be the 5th Native American Congressperson, the 2nd Ho-Chunk, and 3rd Native woman. That election is slated for May 2020.
“The overall politics of Indian Country is shifting,” says Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, Washington Editor of Indian Country Today. “Someone needs to be here to record it.”
Despite the shift, plenty of challenges remain, including voter disenfranchisement. “Lots of folks think about voter disenfranchisement as a black-white issue. It is an important Jim Crow-era issue. We should be mindful of it,” notes Bryan Brayboy, special advisor on American Indian Initiatives at Arizona State University and enrolled member of the Lumbee tribe. “What often gets buried is what happens with Native votes.
As happens in many marginalized communities, voter disenfranchisement occurs in Indian Country, for example, when states pass laws that say you can’t vote without a street address, or register to vote using a P.O. box as your address. “For Native people, many live on their traditional lands, and don’t have street addresses. Fundamentally lots of rural Americans live in places with P.O. boxes. To disenfranchise them is problematic,” says Brayboy, especially in states such as North Dakota, where Native Americans make up more than 6 percent of the state’s population.
Bennett-Begaye says Indian Country Today is working to ”create stories that leave a mark in Indian Country and make our readers smarter, with comprehensive coverage and context. It’s misleading otherwise, and creates misunderstanding about Indian Country. We’re not monolithic. We have different cultures, different histories, unique makeups, and we cover that with our stories.”
With the current administration, says Bennett-Begaye, tribal governments are trying to exercise their sovereignty. For example, Cherokee Nation plans to send delegate Kim Teehee to Congress. “That’s never been done before,” notes Bennett-Begaye. Cherokee Nation has had lobbyists, she notes, but never a delegate. Cherokee Nation will then have a seat at the table, and be a part of the decision making process. “That affects [financial] appropriations,” she adds.
The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in D.C. also does advocacy work, but the Cherokee delegate will be on the floor, and have the ability to sit on committees.
“In Indian Country, people don’t know there is a huge presence of advocates here [in D.C.] advocating for them on the Hill,” Bennett-Begaye says. “I expected it to be small, but it’s larger than I thought — people working together to get things done.” She notes there is plenty to cover from their Washington bureau; federal Indian policy is addressed every day and involves numerous federal agencies and other organizations, such as the Administration for Native Americans, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Indian Health Service, National Indian Education Association, National Museum of the American Indian, National American Indian Housing Council and Native American Rights Fund.
“Federal Indian law includes reservations, Indian removal, the Indian Reorganization Act — that’s something coming up again with the Wampanoag in Massachusetts. Even the  election coming up — We’ll be here for the election and inauguration,” says Bennett-Begaye, and covering all of it, including the 2020 census. “The data will be a huge thing affecting Indian Country.”
Indian Country Today Washington Editor Jourdan Bennett-Begaye interviews (at left) Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM), and (at right) Independent Mark Charles, the first Navajo presidential candidate. (Photos by Aliyah Chavez)
There’s also the Sharp v. Murphy Supreme Court case, which will decide questions on tribal land rights and the state of Oklahoma’s jurisdiction. Bennett-Begaye notes that Supreme Court justices are not required to have any knowledge of Tribal law, pointing out only Neil Gorsuch has some experience with it. The unfortunate reality is that the highest court in the nation doesn’t have much knowledge about Native Americans, yet the justices are tasked with deciding important cases.
But it’s not all politics and policy. It also means covering light-hearted, non-political moments, such as when the Nationals won the World Series.
Nedra Darling, Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and descendent of Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is former Head of Public Affairs for the Department of the Interior, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs. Indian Country Today’s nationwide bureaus, she says, are “a great way” to cover Indian Country’s issues. Most outlets, she notes, can’t cover so many issues in so many places.
In the heart of the Southwest, Phoenix is home to more than 43,000 Native Americans. Arizona has 22 tribal communities, and Native Americans make up 6 percent of the state’s population.
Indian Country Today’s Phoenix bureau lives at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications. Chris Callahan, Dean of the Cronkite School and CEO of Arizona PBS, says the coverage of Native American communities across the country is lacking, in terms of the amount of coverage, quantity, and quality. “Often what you do see lacks the nuance and sophistication the stories require,” says Callahan.
Indian Country Today can help to correct that.
Callahan says that because the school specifically seeks to serve underrepresented communities, being home to Indian Country Today’s bureau is important, noting they can provide support via Arizona PBS, the largest public television station in Arizona and, per Callahan, the 7th largest in the country. Cronkite News serves as the news division of Arizona PBS with a nightly news program and robust digital site, striving to offer Native American coverage.
In turn, Indian Country Today provides students opportunities to work with them. ASU serves 3,100 American Indian students from almost 200 different tribal nations.
Rhonda LeValdo, Acoma Pueblo, is on Indian Country Today’s board of directors and is the former president of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA). She spent some of her life in Phoenix, where she says the urban Native population faces issues like many others — Native and non-Native alike — including homelessness. One of the biggest Indian health service centers is in Phoenix, and many Natives have relocated from the reservations around the Southwest to the city for jobs.
Phoenix is also centrally located, LeValdo notes, providing easier access to the dozens of tribes across the Southwest, including in California, New Mexico, and Utah.
The NCAI conference was recently held in Albuquerque, and Indian Country Today was there, live streaming the debates for NCAI president to 15,000 online viewers. NCAI is the largest and oldest intertribal organization. The group passes resolutions that become policy positions, serving as a collective voice from Indian Country, calling upon the U.S. Congress to take certain actions, and to address issues such as changing a certain Washington, D.C., NFL team’s racist name.
On Election Night 2018, a collaboration between Indian Country Today, FNX Television, and Native Voice One Native Americacn Radio Network brought live results to Native populations nationwide. (Credit: Tapahe Photography, via Facebook)
In addition to large, intertribal events such as the NCAI conference, the larger region surrounding Phoenix teems with issues. “Sustainability and water intersect with Native American issues on a regular basis,” says Callahan.
Brayboy notes that water rights are intimately connected to tribes. Native Americans hold about a third of the Arizona’s water rights, he says, although the issue is often framed as Arizona v. California — a correction that more nuanced news coverage can address. “People couldn’t be here without [tribes] sharing their water. Municipalities understand that. Citizens don’t.”
Part of what Indian Country Today does, says Brayboy, is to “show that there is a small but mighty group of peoples who have a land mass, who have water, who have in many ways set up infrastructure that’s been in place for 1,000 years or more.”
“People in D.C. understand, but not entirely, that the battles to be fought in the West are going to be around water — clean, drinkable water.”
The folks in Washington — and the rest of the United States — most likely do not grasp the size of reservations in the Southwest either. For example, Navajo Nation is the size of West Virginia. “That’s another reason having Indian Country Today here is important. I don’t think people in D.C. understand the land mass, or the scale of the land,” says Brayboy.
In addition, the complex geo-politics of the region are often invisible to Western mainstream media. Parts of the Southwest, says Brayboy, are places that have always been tribal communities, “But …[historically] lands get confiscated, taken over, then all these people have relationships in present-day Mexico.” The people have always been Indigenous, he notes, with centuries, if not millennia, of tribal relationships — even though now the government classifies them as “Mexican” or “aliens.”
The saying “the border crossed us” is meant to be metaphorical, notes Brayboy. But “here in the Southwest, it’s true. The border split community into pieces, cut part of the community off, and it became much more of an issue after 9-11.”
For example, the Pascua Yaqui people have a sister tribe in Mexico with whom they share cultural ceremony. The people have been traveling back and forth between their lands since time immemorial. Today, that can be an issue.
In addition, the current U.S.-Mexico border travels through land of the Tohono O’odham Nation, but that tribe is often completely left out of any discussion of the border wall.
“There are large conversations in Washington, D.C., without a real understanding of what it looks like on the ground,” says Brayboy. “It becomes a US-foreign or ‘alien’ issue.”
Because the media often starts any discussion of U.S. history with statehood, the deeper history of the Southwest gets lost. “In Arizona, there are people who are proud of being sixth-generation Arizonans,” Brayboy says. “But there are groups of people who’ve been here 200 generations or more, and then they became Mexican or Mexican-origin or Indigenous.” Families that have been in present-day Arizona for thousands of years have stories that are totally erased or never told, he notes.
Worse, because of the invisibility and lack of understanding of Native peoples by others in the United States, racism against Native Americans in Phoenix and, indeed, across the Southwest is often presented as being anti-Mexican or anti-immigrant, despite the fact that the targets of such attacks are not only United States citizens, but residents whose family goes back on the land hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
“We experience a different type of trauma, because people don’t know who we are,” says LeValdo.
Often, the stories originally told were written, and repeated, by colonizers. Their eye-witness accounts are problematic, especially when looked to as the historical record.
“We start taking out eyewitnesses in legal trials because sometimes people don’t understand what they’ve seen,” notes Brayboy. It might be wise, then, to question some of the historical accounts in the Southwest taken as fact that were recorded by, for example, Spanish slave traders and Catholic priests. “People who see something in 2019, with roots in 1919, and 1819,” and further back, will see things differently, often through the lens of their own family history and understanding of what happened — an understanding that often runs counter to the standard narrative.
“In 2019 we understand [that] facts get taken up to mean different things based on one’s nuanced understanding of what’s in front of us,” says Brayboy. “The team at Indian Country Today ends up telling different stories. It’s part of a different whole, nuanced understanding. That’s the power of having Native and Latino and African American journalists. They see things that others don’t see.”
Indian Country Today’s newest bureau is on track to open by the end of 2019 at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage.
The university serves a student population that is more than 25 percent Native, and it is the first university founded by an Alaska Native. Alaska has the largest percentage of Indigenous people in the United States — about 20 percent of the population. Alaska is home to 229 tribes and 12 major language groups, and many different dialects within that. Many of those dialects are threatened.
Anchorage in particular has the largest population of urban Native peoples in the United States, often moving to the city for jobs, educational opportunities and health care.
LeValdo notes that Alaska Natives are a different community than Native Nations in the lower 48 states, including how tribes are structured. With an Anchorage bureau, Alaska Natives reporting from Alaska can explain those nuances that might otherwise be lost on someone who sees Indian Country as one homogenized group.
Indian Country Today’s Anchorage bureau will ensure their stories are being told, what affects the urban Alaska Native population, and the change that occurs when people leave their rural place to relocate to a city. In addition, there are issues relating to what happens when communities of different cultures come together in a new urban environment.
“There’s huge value having someone from that community tell the story,” says Robert Onders, President of Alaska Pacific University. “From an equity standpoint, Indigenous reporting is under-reported. Having increased representation will improve those stories in a meaningful way. For [Indian Country Today] to come on our campus is extremely meaningful.”
Indian Country Today will integrate with the school’s liberal studies curriculum, and offer students internship opportunities, and teaching opportunities for bureau members on the APU campus.
Onders says the university’s curriculum needs to reflect Indigenous ways of knowing and knowledge, and it is apparent as president he strives to incorporate that.
“Education is a huge tool of colonialism,” says Onders. “It’s an aristocracy, particularly post-secondary education. How do you change those dynamics? The system is not created to enhance the success of certain populations.”
Looking beyond the campus and Anchorage, Alaska is the reason the U.S. is an Arctic country, and climate change is happening in the Arctic at a rapid pace. Alaska, notes Onders, is on the cutting edge; it is primarily Indigenous communities who are affected now, and it’s those lessons that can come to the rest of the world.
In addition, there are Native people on both sides of the border with Canada. Onders says looking at a Native language map is a more accurate way to demonstrate boundaries between tribes, and how tribes are connected in the United States and Canada. “The [current geo-political] boundaries are artificial,” he says.
Often, these stories are not told from the Alaska Native voice. Indian Country Today provides the opportunity to tell stories by Indigenous people, with the opportunity to elevate those stories nationwide.
Onders says APU is on track to become a tribal university (TCU, Tribal Colleges and Universities), a distinction similar to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
APU is also home to Alaska PBS, and Onders anticipates Indian Country Today will move into a broadcasting partnership with them as well.
With Indian Country Today’s Associated Press partnership as well as movement into public television, Native Americans’ reporting from Anchorage, Phoenix and Washington — and all of Indian Country — has the opportunity to be broadcast to the national level, potentially helping to alleviate a common problem in mainstream media: stories written by the “parachute journalist,” who lacks an understanding of history, context, and culture, and who might rely on stereotypes to tell a story that might be otherwise described as “poverty porn,” such as a recent piece published in the New York Times.
A public service announcement video by Thoz Womenz, which underscores the the silent crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous woman, girls and two spirits. (Video produced by On Native Ground)
As one source for this story commented, “Indigenous people have been living in this area for ten thousand years. It wasn’t until white colonialism that people had the word poverty.” What is often seen through a non-local’s eyes might not be the reality of a situation.
Darling says that Indian Country Today’s transparency covering issues, including on language, cultural affairs and events — and the diversity of Indian Country — is important.
She also notes the importance of covering larger issues, such as missing and murdered Indigenous women and children.
“In every area of Indian Country,” LeValdo says, people are going missing. For LeValdo, the collaboration of Indian Country Today from Alaska to Arizona to Washington, with the AP sharing stories, can get more information about the problem out there. “We’re missing people, and nothing is being done [about it] outside Indian Country,” she adds.
The history of this issue isn’t contemporary. The Spanish raided Native American tribes for slaves starting in the 15th century. LeValdo’s tribe was targeted in the Acoma Massacre of 1599, when the Spanish took women from the tribe and sold them in Mexico. “It’s just gotten worse,” says LeValdo. “It’s past time to talk about it.”
One of the best things that can happen, she adds, is getting more information out there about the issue.
Darling echoes that sentiment, noting that the three bureaus covering complex and nationwide issues will elevate stories into the mainstream and into Washington politics, and also provide a pathway for those in Washington to reach Indian Country.
“We’re building on legacy that’s been there” for decades says Trahant, pointing to Indian Country Today’s origins at Pine Ridge Reservation in 1981 as the Lakota Times, although the publication has gone through multiple iterations and owners since then, and was on life support when Trahant took the helm in February of 2018.
In addition, with Indian Country Today’s university partnerships, a new generation of Native American reporter has the opportunity to learn, and be hired by, outlets in need of voices from Indian Country.
“Indian Country Today is providing jobs to up and coming journalists in Indian Country,” says Darling. “What a wonderful opportunity for journalists in their own communities. To have young journalists to be able to do that is a fantastic gift to Indian Country.”
“One thing that blows me away is how much talent is out there,” says Trahant. “It’s great to be able to say, ‘let’s put this talent to work’ and not have to ask anybody” else to do it.
After all, he notes, “Mainstream media could’ve been doing this for years.”
Valerie Vande Panne is a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow and a freelance writer. She travels extensively throughout the United States. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, Columbia Journalism Review, In These Times, and Politico, among many other outlets. She is a former news editor of High Times magazine, and the former editor-in-chief of Detroit's alt-weekly, the Metro Times.