Leap the Native American Journalistic Divide

Article excerpt

When most U.S. journalists try to cover Native America, they run into a cultural divide and don't even realize it.

The result is a frustrating attempt to cover what should be a simple story under ordinary circumstances. The primary complaints are:

* Native Americans won't talk with me.

* Don't they realize we have freedom of the press in this country? They won't give the information.

The First Amendment may provide press freedom for mainstream America, but most journalists do not realize that tribes are sovereign nations, and individual tribal laws do not necessarily fall under the Constitution or the First Amendment.

As sovereign nations, each of the 554 federally recognized tribes create their own rules when it comes to both internal and external news media. Although the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1967 applies the Bill of Rights to tribes, a 1978 Supreme Court ruling allows tribes to determine the application and enforcement at their own discretion.

The result of the legal issue is that only two tribes - the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee of North Carolina - have passed and adopted a Press Freedom Act. The Oklahoma Cherokee is the only tribe that has adopted a Freedom of Information Act. The remaining 552 tribes can restrict information and access, even to interview some tribal members.

So how can a journalist cover tribes?

First, start with the realization that each tribe is its own separate nation, complete with different laws that govern its people. Each tribe also has its own culture, which is typically very different from the majority culture of America. Journalists should realize that all native nations are different from one another, and that no two tribes are identical.

Bryan Pollard, editor of The Cherokee Phoenix, said reporters and editors must fully understand each tribe before trying to cover each separate nation.

"Research, research, research," said Pollard, who is also vice president for the Native American Journalists Association.

It almost goes without saying, but reporters shouldn't presume they know a culture from television, the movies or an American history class. Each tribe deserves its own research because it is a separate nation with its own history, beliefs and culture, he said.

Mark Trabant, editorial page editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, said mainstream journalists should also not wait to visit native lands or reservations until breaking news takes them there. He said reporters should get acquainted with tribes and tribal members in their areas well before a breaking news story. …