Black Ink and the New Red Power: Native American Newspapers and Tribal Sovereignty

By Loew, Patty; Mella, Kelly | Journalism and Communication Monographs, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

Black Ink and the New Red Power: Native American Newspapers and Tribal Sovereignty


Loew, Patty, Mella, Kelly, Journalism and Communication Monographs


Abstract

This research explores the relationship between Native American newspapers and tribal sovereignty. By means of a content analysis of more than a thousand environmental stories in four tribal newspapers in Wisconsin, interviews with Native American journalists, and discussions with Indian focus groups, the study examines the themes and values tribal journalists and their readers attach to sovereignty. The research suggests that Native newspapers are an important source of information about sovereignty for Native Americans. It also finds that cultural values and themes that reinforce sovereignty emerge from Native news reports about the environment.

The United States Government has a unique legal relationship with Native American tribal governments as set forth in the Constitution of the United States, treaties, statutes, and court decisions. As executive departments and agencies undertake activities affecting Native American tribal rights or trust resources, such activities should be implemented in a knowledgeable, sensitive manner respectful of tribal sovereignty.... to ensure that the Federal Government operates within a government-to-government relationship with federally recognized Native American tribes.

President William J. Clinton

Memorandum of April 29, 1994(1)

In the last two decades, Native American journalism in the United States has experienced a period of unprecedented growth. This development can be attributed to three interconnected factors: economic growth in tribal communities, increased professionalism among Native journalists, and a heightened sense of tribal sovereignty.

Successful legal assertions of sovereignty by the tribes during this period-especially in the area of Indian gaming-have made economic growth possible on Indian reservations across the country and provided dollars for tribal newspapers. These newspapers have enabled tribal officials not only to keep their members informed about their economic activities but also to combat white backlash that has surfaced in opposition to tribal sovereignty claims. In 1986, two years before passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), for example, just four of the eleven federally recognized tribes in Wisconsin had newspapers. Ten years later, that number had more than doubled.2

The need to fill these new media positions with trained professionals has fostered efforts to improve the quality of Indian journalism. The Native American Journalists Association (NAJA), which began as an association of Native publishers in 1984, expanded in 1990 to include all Native journalists. From a handful of members, it has grown to an association of more than 600.3 The expansion of both tribal newspapers and opportunities for Native journalists has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of not only reporters and editors who work for tribal operations, but also Indian journalists who work in the mainstream media or who have launched independent newspapers and web-based news services.4

The third development that has contributed to the growth of Native journalism-a heightened sense of tribal sovereignty-is the focus of this study. Media scholars, inspired by Benedict Anderson's thought-provoking Imagined Communities, have examined the relationship between newspapers and national consciousness. Anderson described the press in colonized states as catalysts in the process of forging national identities.5 One can argue that Native American communities have experienced their own resurgence of nationalism amid a climate of reasserted sovereignty, "the internationally recognized power of a nation to govern itself."6

The issue of Indian sovereignty has increasingly surfaced in environmental disputes between tribes and states over air and water quality standards; grazing; treaty-based hunting, fishing, and gathering rights; and mining, to name a few. This study, which combines quantitative and qualitative methodology and uses a triangulated approach, seeks to understand which themes and values Native Americans attach to their sovereignty within the context of these environmental struggles. …

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