He and his wife lived in a cluttered trailer up a dirt and gravel road near Weitchpec, a village deep in the Hoopa Reservation in Northern California. His name was Calvin Rube, and he and his wife Georgina Matilton were Yurok Indian healers. I had come to them for help with an intestinal ailment. They put me in the wood frame house Rube was building, where I slept on the floor next to a wood-burning stove. The house had no walls, just a roof. It was November, and I could hear and feel the rain.

Then they put me to work, clearing and flattening the road to their trailer, hauling wood, and helping Calvin build his new house. At night, they performed ceremonies and came up with a diagnosis—some evil being, perhaps a black spider, had a grip on my guts. The spider represented an old girlfriend I hadn’t gotten out of my system and, once I did, I’d heal. Call it superstition or power of suggestion, but I let go of that girlfriend emotionally, indeed got better, and wrote the story for the San Francisco Chronicle.

That was 23 years ago. That experience taught me something about California Indian ways and opened the door to many other stories. Here—learned through trial and error—are some tips for covering Indian Country.

  1. If it’s important for the story, always ask how someone prefers to be identified. For a while, the term “Native American” was considered politically correct. Then I met an anthropologist from a Southern California Indian nation who said she was neither Native nor American. Now I politely ask people what nation—or nations—they’re from. It’s more respectful than asking someone their tribe, since the term nation honors Indian sovereignty. I like “First Nations” people, the term used for indigenous people in Canada, because it seems most accurate. “American Indian” now seems preferable to “Native American,” but again, I suggest asking what each person is most comfortable with.

  2. It’s often much easier to talk to Indian people face-to-face than on the phone. Given America’s shameful, tragic history in its dealings with Indians, it’s not surprising that some Indian people still distrust non-Indians—what I call the “guilty until proven innocent” syndrome. Many people—not just Indians—prefer face-to-face interviews because it’s easier to gauge a person’s honesty and motives. Once you’ve shown respect for a person’s culture and a genuine interest in learning something new, the guilty until proven innocent syndrome disappears.

  3. Don’t come to an Indian story with preconceived or overly romantic notions. There are more than 550 federally recognized Indian nations within the United States—most with their own languages. Dozens more aren’t federally recognized but nevertheless preserve their nationhood through distinct customs, language and oral histories. Californian Indians didn’t have powwows, they had Big Times, but the relocation of thousands of Indians from other states in the 1950’s and ’60’s brought powwows here.

  4. There are often factions or divides about which reporters need to be aware. It’s often a mistake to let one person speak for the “Indian community” (or the African-American community or any other ethnic group whose members naturally reflect many viewpoints). As one California Indian elder recently told me, “If somebody tells you there’s someone you shouldn’t talk to, maybe that’s the person you should talk to.”

  5. Be patient and respectful, and try not to take any setbacks personally. Some Indian people tell stories in a circular way—rich in context and metaphor—before they arrive at a response to a specific question. Don’t interrupt, just hang in there. Generally there will be plenty of time for the question to be answered. Two years ago, when I was researching tribal justice in Navajo and Hopi Country—and how traditional ways of conflict resolution might help resolve bitter disputes in California Indian Country—most people were extremely generous with their time and insights. But a few folks blew me off, failing to show up for scheduled interviews after I had driven hours to get there. When I mentioned this to a Navajo friend at Stanford University, she replied, “It’s not about you.” Which I guess means it’s about long memories of exploitation and abuse by outsiders. No one likes the idea that somehow their culture and knowledge will be exploited for profit, even in a newspaper story intended to enlighten readers and resolve problems.

  6. Most of the time, if an Indian person tells you about an event, you’re invited. And if you write balanced, nuanced stories, Indian readers will notice. After I had done a series on Hmong and Iu Mien shamans—traditional spirit healers from the mountains of Laos—a California Indian leader, Cindy La Marr, called me in for a meeting. She said she liked the approach to the Hmong and Iu Mien stories and said it was time I wrote the California Indian story. La Marr—now president of the National Indian Education Association—opened many doors for me by calling Indian leaders and elders throughout California and telling them I was okay. The result was a four-part series called “Lost Tribes,” published in 1997 in The Sacramento Bee, and focused on the tragic modern history of California Indians.

Reporting ‘Lost Tribes’

As an outsider, sometimes a reporter has to pass a test. While working on “Lost Tribes,” I flew to San Diego to meet with California Indian leaders there. The gatekeeper I relied on to open doors for me there was Ron Morton, who ran an urban Indian health clinic. “In the Indian world you earn the right to speak after listening and observing,” Morton said. “The Indian way of learning is by experiencing.” He took me to a sweat on the Viejas Reservation in East San Diego County.

I remember that cool February night like it was yesterday. As a full moon arched over the San Diego hills, each of us gave some tobacco to sweat leader Ron Christman, a Kummeyaay Indian. The sweat leader’s assistant, an Oneida Indian named Larry, was shoveling rocks into a fire outside the sweat lodge, a circular, canvas-covered structure about four feet high. Larry asked me if I’d ever been to a sweat before. I hadn’t—and I had no clue. “Know why you’re going in,” he counseled. “The sweat is Mother Earth’s womb. Thank her for her womb. If you pray hard, it gives strength to the others in the sweat. If you feel you can’t take it anymore, pray harder. You’re going to experience a little suffering. There are people suffering a whole lot more than you every day—people with cancer, alcoholics, people who have nothing. So remember your suffering is only temporary. [But] if you just can’t take it, get out.”

Finally, when the rocks in the fire glowed red-hot, Larry shoveled them into a pit in the center of the lodge. Twenty of us—including older men and women and children as young as eight—smudged ourselves with sacred smoke, then crawled inside the mouth of the sweat lodge, forming a human coil, and rubbed ourselves with sage. Larry shoveled some more hot rocks into the fire pit, doused them with water—creating a blast of steam—and then shut the flap to the sweat lodge.

I couldn’t move, see or breathe, and all I could feel was the relentless heat. The only way to survive is to focus on anything but yourself. And in the next hour, I sang and prayed harder than I ever have in my life—for women and children, for sick people, for those incarcerated, for my friends, family and even people who had done me wrong. After each round of song and prayer, the flap would open, Larry would shovel more hot rocks into the fire, douse them with water, and the flap would close again. I didn’t want to be the white wimp who runs out of the sweat, but after the flap opened a fourth time, I was finished. “Ron,” I said, “I don’t think I can go another round.”

Morton smiled and said, “That’s OK—it’s over. The Creator doesn’t give us more than we can endure.” The sweat was over. I’d survived this rite of passage, and the sweat leader and others spent hours talking to me about Indian traditions, their personal stories, and pros and cons of Indian gambling.

Once I have been able to sit with them face-to-face, Indian people have proven to be exceedingly candid, patient, honest and generous with their time and insights. And as long as they think I’m telling the truth, any subject is fair game, including the challenges generated by sovereign immunity on Indian lands and the epidemic of California Indian nations that have been kicking members out (and denying them a cut of casino profits).

The key seems to be to present Indian perspectives—and to write about solutions as well as problems, renaissance as well as dissonance.

In California, more than 200,000 people each day drive into Indian Country to gamble, dine, see shows, play golf, and visit discount outlets. Millions of outsiders nationwide cross the border daily into some part of Indian Country. We need to understand the nations in our midst and where the people who live there are coming from. The best way to do that is to treat people as individuals, with respect and an appreciation for a worldview shaped by history and circumstances that are often very different from those of most mainstream Americans.

Steve Magagnini has covered ethnic affairs and race relations for The Sacramento Bee since 1994. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism for his outstanding coverage of race and ethnicity in the United States. His series “Lost Tribes” is available online.

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