Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Setting the Record Straight

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Setting the Record Straight

Article excerpt

For many American Indians, the media coverage of the Red Lake tragedy is only the most recent example of how modern reservation life and tribal culture are mischaracterized.

Dr. Jon Quistgaard is unhappy with the way the national media has portrayed the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, the nearby city of Bemidji and American Indian life in general.

"This is actually a very vibrant area and we have many things going for us in terms of educational offerings and being a community that interacts positively with Native Americans and vice versa," says Quistgaard, president of Bemidji State University, "and for that reason I did not want people to go away with an impression that really wasn't accurate."

That such coverage is even a matter of discussion is the result of a tragedy: On March 21, Jeffrey Weise, a 16-year-old student at the reservation's Red Lake High School, went on a shooting rampage inside the school, killing nine people before turning his gun on himself.

The national media descended on both Red Lake and Bemidji in the days and weeks after the slayings. In many cases, reporters who were unfamiliar with the area and its people described the reservation and its outlying areas in terms that many residents considered either offensive or exaggerated.

National Public Radio's Greg Allen, for example, characterized the reservation as a place where "poverty and unemployment are chronic problems." A CBS broadcast called the Red Lake Chippewa Tribe, "one of the poorest in the state," while The Chicago Tribune's Don Wycliff, in a column describing the difficulties that reporters encountered trying to piece together a story that took place in a remote rural section of the state, said Red Lake "is on the other side of the moon."

"The media reports also characterized the surrounding region as devoid of resources, sensitivity and prosperity," Quistgaard wrote in a column for the St. Paul Pioneer Press on May 24, adding that "these narrow perceptions overshadow the numerous strengths of the tribe and the larger Bemidji area community, which are inexorably linked."

For many American Indians, the media coverage of the Red Lake reservation tragedy is only the most recent example of what is often viewed as an inadequate understanding of modern reservation life in particular and tribal culture in general by the outside world.

"I am afraid that many people are still laboring under stereotypes of the poor, drunken Indian, and that America sees us as some kind of relics from the past, as though we were locked into museum cases and were on exhibit," says Dr. Henrietta Mann, chairwoman of the Native American studies program at Montana State University in Bozeman. "There is just in general a failure to see us in terms of our contemporary significance."

Says Carrie Billy, deputy director of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium: "We've been trying to figure out for years how to tell our story in a more effective way so that we don't have to keep repeating what our history is, the evolution of the tribal colleges and what the Indian reservations are like.

"But it doesn't seem to sink in because we are always having to explain ourselves all over again, and not only to a new journalist who may not be familiar with such matters, but also to most members of Congress.

"In fact," Billy continues, "when it comes to testifying before Congress, half of our time is usually spent going over our history before we even get to the issue that we are supposed to be discussing. Other groups don't have to do that."

American Indian educators have also been particularly frustrated over the notion that reservation life is one that is largely devoid of higher education opportunities, when in fact there are more than 30 tribal colleges nationally, the vast majority of which offer two-year degrees.

"The interest in higher education within the reservation is something that we think is pretty much on the increase, and has attracted Native Americans of all ages," says Tom Urbanski, public information officer at Fond Du Lac Tribal and Community Colleges in Cloquet, Minn. …

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