Native American Newspapers

Telling uncomfortable truths in tribal journalism

I know the exact day when i started thinking like a journalist.

In 1977, I had a new job, editor of a tribal newspaper, The Sho-Ban News, published on the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe Indian Reservation in Idaho. I was 19 years old and working in what should have been an impossible climate to learn journalism: I was a government employee. My salary came from a federal make-work program, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). My boss was a tribal official, and ultimately we both worked for a political authority, the tribal council. This is not an unusual situation in Indian Country. Most tribal newspapers are divisions of government and editors act as public extensions of tribal councils. Some tribal editors are even charged with a “public relations” role as part of their job description.

But my view of journalism was shaped on February 24, 1977.

Another federal agency, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, hosted a conference on tribal journalism in Spokane, Washington. At one of the sessions, a reporter from a local newspaper offered this advice: “Be a house organ.”

“Keep that in mind, always. You must slant everything that you write. ... You’re presenting [news] only from the point of view of your boss,” the reporter said. “A paper like this is not to air your dirty linen … even your letters to the editor should be reflective of the message you’re trying to convey.”

But a Yakama tribal member, and journalist, stood up and confronted the speaker. “I have to admit you’re making me extremely angry with your presumption about Indian newspapers as ‘house organs.’ Are you aware of the 1968 law that guarantees freedom of the press in Indian Country?” asked Richard LaCourse. “Indian newspapers should be professional, straight reporting operations, and your presumption about becoming cheerleaders for a point of view has nothing to do with the field of journalism. Why are you making this presumption?”

The reporter tried to dismiss the criticism, joking that “the point of his whole speech was down the drain.”

Perhaps for the speaker, but not for me. That moment opened my mind to the potential of tribal journalism.

LaCourse taught me the importance of a voice that serves a community best by telling the truth, even when truth is uncomfortable. It is this commitment that requires courage on the part of a tribal editor. Sometimes you have to publish stories that your bosses would prefer remain hidden away from view. You have to regularly ask yourself what becomes the first question of native journalism: do you work for your readers or for those who are elected to govern a tribal nation?

This is not a new dilemma. the first native newspaper was the Cherokee Phoenix published on February 27, 1828, in the tribal capital of New Echota, in what is now Georgia. The editor, Elias Boudinot, created what he called a “vehicle of Indian intelligence” and saw freedom as the essential element for the newspaper’s discussion on matters of politics, religion and so forth.

Of course governments were not keen to support Boudinot’s vehicle.

Georgians had been seeking to oust their Cherokee neighbors for decades. The state enacted a number of laws in the 1820s designed to destroy Cherokee sovereignty—and the will of tribal members to resist “removal” from their homeland. Col. C.H. Nelson, of the Georgia Guard, had Boudinot brought before the state militia in a “libel” action. While in custody, Nelson told Boudinot that he could not be prosecuted under Georgia law, but the editor could be tied to a tree and given a sound whipping if he didn’t stop attacking state sovereignty.

Boudinot responded with a series of editorials on the Guard and press freedom. “In this free country, where the liberty of the press is solemnly guaranteed, is this the way to obtain satisfaction for an alleged injury committed in a newspaper? I claim nothing … of which a privileged white editor would not complain.”

Despite a number of legal victories, Boudinot was convinced that the Cherokees would never be allowed to live in peace. He was persuaded that removal was the only option—and this conviction put him in conflict with tribal authorities because even the discussion of removal was considered treasonous under tribal law. The Cherokee Constitution did not guarantee a free press, and tribal leaders argued that the editor, and the newspaper, were merely instruments of public policy.

Boudinot resigned as editor, and not long after his newspaper was destroyed by the Georgia Guard. Cherokee politics was no more forgiving. A few years later Boudinot was murdered, labeled by some as a traitor, for supporting enemies of Cherokee sovereignty.

This tragedy is a legacy, one shared by tribal journalists today. Reporters, editors, broadcasters and storytellers routinely decide how much they’re willing to risk before they publish a story or engage in the normal discourse of journalism.

Five years after LaCourse awakened me at the Sho-Ban News I was asked to edit, and later serve as publisher of, the Navajo Times. The Navajo tribe is the largest in the country and in recognition of its sovereignty is often called the Navajo Nation. Altogether, the Navajo Nation is a community of some 200,000 people and a huge land mass that stretches over an area larger than many states. The newspaper in March of 1984 had just become a daily, and reporters and editors were experimenting with our new deadlines—and how we covered our community.

Start with the coverage of a routine election, a normal process for reporters writing about any city, state or nation. But the Navajo Times had to figure out how to write about two candidates, one a former tribal chairman and the other the incumbent chairman. The winner of the election would become the paper’s next boss. It was like reporters and editors at The Washington Post working for the president of the United States.

We tried to ignore tribal government officials and concentrate on a kind of journalism that would serve our readers.

“We wanted to cover the election differently than it ever had been before,” recalled Managing Editor Monty Roessel. “We wanted it covered from a Navajo point of view.”

The first election story was an announcement of a “Draft Peter MacDonald” campaign. MacDonald had been chairman of the tribe and had been defeated four years earlier by Peterson Zah, then the director of a public interest law firm. The 1986 election was an extraordinary rematch. We assigned reporters who spoke Navajo and tried to cover the election issues in depth. For example, when MacDonald declared his candidacy he said in the Navajo language that the police were harassing bootleggers. He did not repeat that in his English version. But reporter Betty Reid did.

On another occasion, the MacDonald campaign released a picture of the former chairman with President Ronald Reagan. After the meeting, the campaign said Reagan had “reached a new level of understanding” on issues affecting Navajo people. We reported that the “meeting” was a reception line that lasted four or five seconds. The Times was told by a White House official: “There was no meeting,” and it “put the president in an awkward position because he did not have a discussion of any kind with MacDonald.”

On Friday, August 22, 1986, I wrote an editorial calling for a debate between Chairman Peterson Zah and former Chairman Peter MacDonald. The Times offered to negotiate between the two sides and act as the sponsor.

“If such a debate is to take place it will certainly be the first, that I recall,” wrote council delegate Percy Deal. “I for one look forward to it.”

A few months later, the Times rented out Window Rock’s movie theater, printed tickets and, on October 21, 1986, hosted the first public debate for chairman of the Navajo Nation. The Times was covering the news—and making news. The Associated Press was there, The Arizona Republic, the Albuquerque (N.M.) Journal, as well as TV stations from Albuquerque.

The times also faced the question of endorsements. I met with the reporters and asked them what they thought. Nearly everyone on staff thought we should not endorse any candidate because the Times was owned by the tribe, and an endorsement would make it more difficult for the reporters to cover the campaigns.

I listened. Then I went in my office and shut the door. Without telling anyone (except Monty Roessel because I asked him to edit the piece), I wrote the editorial endorsing Peterson Zah for re-election. I felt strongly that the newspaper ought to take a stand for one reason—Zah believed, and lived up to, the notion of a free press.

Zah never acted like a newspaper’s boss. Our editorials championed the enactment of a tribal ethics law (at first opposed by many tribal council members), and we pointed out when the Zah administration failed to live up to its promises. We also covered the Navajo-Hopi land dispute, an intense, complicated issue, without becoming cheerleaders for the Navajo government (our readership included the Hopi Reservation as well).

I know our criticism was seen as an act of betrayal by some Zah supporters. They wanted the newspaper to be on the team. But because the newspaper had the freedom to report unpleasant things, I thought we should take the next step and endorse the chairman for re-election.

The next morning several reporters were furious—they were uncomfortable with the Times’ editorial. I told them they could honestly say they did not know anything about it. Roessel left a sealed note on my desk that said, “Mark: The more I thought about today’s edit, the clearer it became that this was the only thing we could do and still be true to our beliefs. In my view, printing the edit is one of the most courageous things you have done for this paper. Sometimes it takes guts to be right—as you proved today. Monty.”

Of course all of this is routine at most newspapers, but Indian Country is different. Indeed, two reporters wrote about how difficult this whole election business was at The Navajo Times. When Betty Reid reported that the speech MacDonald gave in the Navajo language he never would have said in English because he defended bootleggers selling alcohol in a remote community, the campaign complained. It said the reporter picked out sensational quotes that somehow did not translate well into English. “I’m fully bilingual and am not ashamed of my beautiful Navajo accent,” Reid wrote. “But what those lawyers never understood is Mr. MacDonald’s skillful use of the Navajo language. He’s able to bring humor to an issue while at the same time effectively pushing the issue. He makes people listen and laugh.”

LeNora Begay also wrote about the difficulty of covering a tribal election. “My own relatives questioned where my loyalties lay. And to be perfectly honest, I sometimes didn’t know,” she wrote. “It hurts to be in the middle of what has become a dirty campaign. Yet I know it is a feeling shared by most of the reporters on the newspaper. It was as if because I was Navajo, Navajo readers did not trust me. I became labeled a Zah supporter or a MacDonald supporter and not as a journalist.”

Our headline the day after the election read: cliffhanger: it’s macdonald. When the final numbers were reported, Peter MacDonald had been returned to his old post by less than 1 percent of the vote.

Since I was publisher, and had endorsed the losing candidate, I figured I was certain to be fired. I even set out to make the first move, calling for an appointment with the chairman-elect. I briefed MacDonald on our financial situation (we were losing money) and offered my resignation. I will never forget what happened next: MacDonald put his arm around me, said he respected my work and did not want me to go. He said he would be in touch about future changes. Perhaps it was election euphoria. I don’t know.

The Navajo Times kept at it. Our coverage of the inauguration was first-rate. We published a special section, with seven stories on nearly every angle and a complete text of MacDonald’s inaugural remarks. But we also continued on our independent course.

The Times questioned the cost of MacDonald’s inauguration—a lavish ceremony and party—as well as the administration’s hiring of a new Washington public relations firm. Our editorial policy supported an active government-jobs creation program, and we were disappointed when that election promise didn’t seem to move anywhere after the inauguration. When the MacDonald administration failed to quickly fill an important post, we wrote:

“Good Morning. It’s now the 9th day of February. It’s the 28th day of the MacDonald administration,” said one editorial. “The days, the numbers, are important because the Navajo Nation still does not have a director for its economic development division. ...” Clearly, the Navajo Times was going to chronicle the MacDonald administration—good and bad.

As a tribal employee, a manager, I kept the tribe informed about our financial progress. We had spent nearly $1.4 million converting to a daily, and it would have taken us another four or five years to break even. Moreover, the paper did not have a legal charter, we had a tax problem left over from a previous administration, and we still needed capital for expansion.

But I was so confident about the future that I arranged to meet with The Mesa (Ariz.) Tribune to possibly buy a used computer from their circulation department. On Thursday morning, February 19, 1987, I called the tribal administration to see if they had any additional ideas about a memorandum I had sent. I asked if they wanted to meet. “No. Not today,” I was told. So I went to Mesa.

Then a rumor started: the Times was to be closed. A few hours after I left town, a few Times reporters’ spotted the chairman at a hotel and asked him what was going on. MacDonald said the administration had decided to close the Times.

Reporters and editors geared up for a final edition. “We made assignments. Reporters were making calls, interviewing people on the street about their reaction,” said Roessel. “I wanted everyone to write their own obit.”

But a few minutes after the chance encounter with MacDonald, tribal police were dispatched to the newspaper. There, they handed out copies of the closure order. Employees were given three weeks of severance pay and the “reasonable time” of 15 minutes to get their personal belongings out of the building.

Police sealed the building, taped its front door and labeled it “evidence.” (Roessel and I were specifically banned from the building. But Monty was quick-thinking and packed up my files into photo boxes and took them to the safety of his car.)

The daily newspaper that had broken so many Navajo stories could not write its own obituary—that had to be left to public statements from MacDonald and later from the scores of regional and national publications covering our demise.

“The Times is a runaway drain on our general funds, an uncontrolled hemorrhaging either ignored or tacitly condoned by the prior administration,” a MacDonald statement said. “As these facts were brought to my attention by my accounting and legal counsel, I had no choice ... but to order the newspaper’s operations suspended.”

MacDonald’s contention that we would lose $1 million that year was essentially correct—especially when you add in the costs of closing the newspaper down (perhaps it even went higher). But those who wanted the press stilled ignored other numbers. For example the Times’ circulation had grown from a little more than 2,000 copies a day to more than 7,000 a day (including a 32 percent increase from February 1986 to the same month a year later). We had some days of the week that were profitable (nearly every Friday edition made money—many had more than 50 pages with 60 percent advertising). And, we were getting stronger every week. Several of us had even offered to buy the Times—an offer that was never discussed.

But MacDonald did not sell the newspaper because a “real” newspaper was not in his interest. The newspaper was closed for a time and then reopened as a noncontroversial, official tribal publication.

But this too is an old story in tribal journalism.

Only a decade later another editor of the Navajo Times, now published as a weekly, had another confrontation with tribal leaders. In March 1997, reporter Marley Shebala sent out an e-mail warning that her editor, Tom Arviso Jr., might soon be fired for writing about the tribal administration. Tribal journalists rallied to support Arviso. He kept his job and went on to win an award from the Native American Journalists Association for his courage.

The same story could be told about Dan Agent, editor of The Cherokee Advocate. The nation’s second largest tribe operated with the editor acting as director of public relations—making it even more difficult for the editor to defy the party line. But in 1997 the newspaper attempted to write straight news accounts of a power struggle between Cherokee Principal Chief Joe Byrd and his political opponents. Byrd’s administration responded by “restructuring” the newspaper, firing all but a clerk-typist and hiring an editor who would write the party line. Four years later, after Byrd’s defeat at the polls, Agent is once again running the Advocate.

This same kind of story could be told for a Pueblo journalist who said something unkind—and a week later lost The Pueblo News’ entire budget. Lori Edmo-Suppah, editor of the Sho-Ban News, and president of NAJA in 2000, wrote that tribal newspapers ought to be the voice of the people. “I still believe this, despite attempts by tribal politicians … to manipulate the tribal press into printing only what they want tribal citizens to know.

“I’ve learned that it takes courage to seek the truth, and the journalistic integrity to print the truth when doing so might cost your job.”

Edmo-Suppah was ordered not to print a story about tribal budget cuts in 1994. She complied with the order—and then wrote an editorial about how misguided the council’s decision was. The tribal council threatened to cut the newspaper’s budget too—but tribal members came to the paper’s defense saying The Sho-Ban News was a community asset.

Edmo-Suppah’s story is not about any one journalist’s courage. It’s about every tribal journalist who has to balance the cause of truth with community politics and everyone who believes in discourse as the best way to inform a community.

Indian Country swings back and forth between community dialogue and tribal council control, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Native American communities have a rich history of discourse—even when the truth expressed makes us uncomfortable. It is this heritage that keeps the best Native American journalists going, knowing that they provide tribal members with solid information and discussion. It’s a way of working directly for their people, their readers.

Tribal leaders are mistaken when they close down discussion. They make a community weaker, not stronger. The cause of truth is the cause of Indian Country.

Mark N. Trahant is a columnist at The Seattle Times and a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe of Idaho.

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