Too often the American media overlook the obvious. America is not the melting pot that poets fantasize about. There are nations within this nation that existed long before the coming of the foreigners, called Indian nations, reservations, rancherias, pueblos and reserves. Many have their own governments and are separated from state governments by clearly defined borders and boundaries. They have their own educational institutions including colleges, law enforcement, and judiciary. They practice religions outside of Christianity. But more than this, these nations govern themselves, independent of federal and state governments. And even though the U.S. government- and church-run schools tried to stamp it out for 100 years, many still retain their own language.
It is in this atmosphere that I started a newspaper I called the Lakota Times to serve the people of a sovereign nation, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Many of the people I brought on board in the early years of publication, starting in 1981, spoke English as a second language. Most grew up speaking Lakota and learned English after attending Bureau of Indian Affairs’ and Indian mission boarding schools. We faced an additional problem not faced by most newspapers: Our stories had to stand in contrast to the local and national media’s constant misrepresentation of Indian people. And many of our stories did challenge the authenticity of local and national articles. At the time we started The Lakota Times, the trust of the Indian people in the media was at an all-time low. For example, The Associated Press (A.P.) had carried an article about a Sioux Indian boy named Little Sun Bordeaux, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Bordeaux’s mother was Jewish and his father Sioux. The A.P. article said that Bordeaux would be taken to Israel and educated, trained and raised there until he reached bar mitzvah age, at which time he would return to South Dakota and assume the role of chief of all the Sioux tribes.
All any non-Indian reporter or editor had to do was to call the Bordeaux family at Rosebud and ask if this was true. Of course it was not true, and yet this story appeared in newspapers across America. In essence, this was a fictional story that made a painful joke of the Lakota people.
We found this kind of irresponsible reporting about Indian lives to be common in the non-Indian media. Since Indians are the smallest of the minority populations, newspaper reporters evidently felt free to write anything about them without fear of exposure. Through the years, many articles about Indians contained errors and misconceptions that became fact after so many years of repetition.
The Lakota Times Experience
Since the Lakota Times was located on the reservation and most of its readers were members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, as the paper’s editor I allowed reporters to integrate into their news stories Lakota words and colloquialisms common in their schools and in their tiospayes (extended families). For example, when a story contained the common slang “ennit,” it was allowed to stand. (When spoken on the Pine Ridge Reservation, “ennit” means the equivalent of “isn’t that so?”) Since we’d assumed the role of being the press watchdog in our coverage, much of the news media in and around South Dakota began to pay a lot more attention to the stories they did on the Indian people. Still there remained differences in our coverage: For example, our newspaper’s readers knew exactly why certain words were included and probably never gave them a second thought.
The flags on the top of my pages often reflected the common usage of Lakota words. For instance, the flag on the obituary page read, “Canku Wakan,” which in Lakota means “Holy Road.” On the school pages the flags read, “Takoja” which literally means “The Grandchildren.”
We often produced stories in two languages. Some reporters would return to the office after interviewing a Lakota speaker, and their text would be almost entirely in Lakota. We would go over the story and translate it into English, but we often left in several of the Lakota words because some of the words in our language are nearly impossible to translate into English.
I also trained my reporters not to be overly aggressive, because this went against those things we held sacred in our culture. Among the Lakota, staring into the eyes of another can be considered aggressive and even rude. Lakota people often avert their eyes or glance off into another direction when conversing with each other and definitely when speaking with reporters. Strangers often interpret this expression as one of shyness or even of deception. They would never consider that it is a cultural convention.
As an example, when the body of Lost Bird, a Lakota woman who was taken by an Army officer as an adopted child after the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, was exhumed in California and brought back to Wounded Knee to be buried with her family at the mass grave, my reporter, Avis Little Eagle, was terribly offended by the aggressive behavior of the non-Indian reporters sent to cover the story. “They acted like a bunch of animals,” Little Eagle said. “I tried to tell them to put their cameras away while the spiritual ceremony to exhume the body was taking place, but they just kept on shooting.” Little Eagle—who is now editor and publisher of the Teton Times, a weekly newspaper on the Standing Rock Reservation in McLaughlin, South Dakota—noted that it would be comparable to reporters flooding into a Catholic Church service during a funeral mass service and then creating confusion by flashing away with their cameras.
Respect and Journalism
Sadly, newspaper and television reporters came to the Indian reservations without being adequately prepared. Often they started by asking questions that a third grader in any of the Indian schools could have answered. They were asking about information that was readily available in any textbook had the reporter been willing to take the time to do a little research.
One day a reporter from one of the larger U.S. newspapers came into my office and told me that he was going to do an article on the Indian people.
“Which facet of the people?” I asked him.
“Oh, I’m not sure, I will just feel my way along as it goes,” he responded.
“You are on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Have you done any research on us?” I asked. I then let him know that I would never come to his city to do a story without doing extensive research first. When he shrugged, I ordered him out of my office by gripping his collar and the seat of his pants. This kind of shabby reporting is embarrassing, and it is an insult to the Indian people, and it speaks to the absence of training that U.S. journalists have in reporting on people who share geographic proximity but not a cultural closeness.
Sometimes when I sent Lakota Times reporters to interview an elder who was the head of a traditional family, they gave gifts of tobacco or coffee prior to the interview. I recall, however, that when I worked for a local non-Indian daily newspaper as a reporter I was sent out to interview the respected Lakota elder Fools Crow. When I returned to the office and turned in my expense sheet and it contained coffee and tobacco, I was called into the business office and really chewed out for this apparent flagrant misuse of my expense account.
After I explained why I did this they grudgingly allowed the expenses to be paid to me, but I can still hear the head accountant mumbling under her breath as she paid me. This is why I made this cultural tradition a common policy at my newspaper.
There is an old saying in journalism that an article must be written so “that plumber in Philadelphia can understand it.” Well maybe we had that plumber reading our newspaper, but we never tried to accommodate him. We wrote for the Lakota people and, if anyone anywhere in the world wanted to subscribe to the newspaper, they would have to learn to accommodate us.
The publisher of the Navajo Times, Tom Arviso, Jr., operates the largest weekly Indian newspaper. His newspaper’s region stretches over 25,000 square miles. To put it into perspective, his reservation is larger than New Jersey and is located within four states. Many of the Navajo nation’s inhabitants speak in the Navajo language. Arviso’s huge task is to cover what is essentially a third world nation within the boundaries of the United States. To accomplish this, he has to work with his employees in much the same way I did with mine. And not surprisingly, many of the strategies he employs are ones I used at the Lakota Times, tactics I learned, in turn, from subscribing to the Navajo Times, which mesh cultural considerations with workplace policies.
For instance, when a relative died— even if that relative is a “hunka” relative (one made during a ceremony) and might not be covered in the death policies at most newspapers—I allowed my employees to attend the funerals without restrictions. When a sacred ceremony, such as the Sun Dance, happened at certain times each year, even though it requires that the employee be absent for as many as five days, I gave them permission to attend.
I remember that as I was leaving my Nieman interview at Lippmann House, then-Curator Bill Kovach walked me to the stairwell. As we walked, he asked what I’d thought of some of the reporters who’d gone out to cover the occupation at Wounded Knee.
“Most of them didn’t know an Indian from a gopher,” I responded.
“I was one of those reporters,” Kovach replied.
At that point I figured my chances of becoming a Nieman Fellow had become very much diminished.
When I returned that fall to join my Nieman classmates, I soon discovered that most of them had little or no knowledge about the Indian people who lived in the United States. The lack of knowledge I encountered among these fellow journalists made me recall a comment President John F. Kennedy made when he said, “The American Indian is the least understood and the most misunderstood of all Americans.”
I started a weekly paper to dispel that perception and to convey an authentic sense of the Indian nations’ reality.
Tim Giago, a 1991 Nieman Fellow, is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Knight Ridder Tribune News Service and president of the Native American Journalists Foundation, Inc.