by Dan Kraker
How many American journalists can claim that their reporting helped oust two presidents? Navajo Times reporter Marley Shebala can: Her tireless muckraking helped lead to the downfall — and eventual imprisonment — of Navajo Nation Chairman Peter MacDonald in 1989. Less than a decade later, tribal President Albert Hale was forced to resign after Shebala broke the story, first of his affair with his secretary, and then of his financial improprieties, including gross misuse of his tribal credit card.
Shebala has only recently begun to be recognized beyond the borders of the Navajo Nation. In 2003, she received a fellowship to teach environmental journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. This year, she was named Arizona Community Journalist of the Year by the Arizona Press Club. Her journey, however — much like the journey of the Navajo Times and other tribal newspapers — has been far from easy.
Before joining the Navajo Times, Shebala was the first news director of KTNN, the Navajo Nation’s 50,000-watt AM radio station. In 1987, she told her listeners that Chairman MacDonald had shut down the Navajo Times — which at the time was within the executive branch of the Navajo government — ostensibly for financial mismanagement. She accused MacDonald of censorship, saying he’d shut the paper down because it had published stories critical of his leadership.
But like the Times, the radio station was owned by the tribal government. The MacDonald administration gave her three options: Accept censorship, resign, or be fired. At the time, Shebala was a single mom, and caring for her very ill mother. Still, she refused to back down. "All my life, I’ve worked for my people," Shebala remembers thinking. "If I (accept censorship), I’m not going to be who I am."
So she was fired. Undaunted, for two months, she drove down to the chairman’s office every day and sat outside, hoping for a meeting. When MacDonald finally agreed to see her, she threatened to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission. She was reinstated, but a year later, the tribal council cut funding for the news director position.
Next, Shebala convinced the Farmington Daily Times to open a bureau on the Navajo Reservation. In 1989, she was one of two reporters on the scene when a riot erupted between supporters of Chairman MacDonald and tribal police. Two people were killed, and several officers badly beaten.
"It was a civil war among my people," she says.
The Navajo Times, which had been restarted after a four-month shutdown in 1987, found itself at the heart of that civil war. "A lot of people didn’t like us," says Times Publisher Tom Arviso Jr. That’s an understatement: During the MacDonald imbroglio, Arviso received death threats, and had his tires slashed and his windshield broken. In 1989, after the paper had reported on the shady land deal that would eventually lead to MacDonald’s federal imprisonment, a mob of MacDonald supporters gathered in front of the Times offices. Arviso sent his staff out the back door, then went to the front window. "They had hung me in effigy right in front of the office," he says.
Ironically, Shebala, who went to work for the Times in 1993, says the crisis finally caused the Navajo Nation Council to grasp the importance of freedom of the press. In 1989, shortly after the council had removed MacDonald from office, councilmen stood up in the chambers, pointed at the journalists assembled in the rear, and said "without the eyes of the people on us," they wouldn’t have been able to strip MacDonald of his office. Later, at that same hearing, the council passed a resolution forbidding the tribal government from interfering with the Navajo Times or KTNN.
It wasn’t long before the new law was put to the test. In 1997, Arviso was suspended and threatened by then President Albert Hale for printing Marley Shebala’s stories exposing yet another round of financial abuses. The tribal council stepped in and reinstated Arviso. Then, three years ago, the tribal council unanimously passed a resolution making the Navajo Times a private enterprise.
For tribes that lack the subscriber and advertising bases to sustain an independent paper like the Times, The Cherokee Phoenix offers another model. The paper is owned by the Cherokee Tribe, but in 2000, the tribal council passed the Cherokee Independent Press Act, which prevents the tribal government from firing the paper’s reporters for writing accurate stories. Mark Trahant, former editor of the Navajo Times and now editorial page editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, says other tribes need to follow the lead of the Navajo and Cherokee by developing a "legal process for freedom of the press."
Still, even with legal protections, practicing journalism in Indian Country is not for the faint of heart.
Shebala says people often confront her, demanding to know why she’s hanging out her "own people’s dirty laundry." She says there "always seems to be this higher standard" that Native American journalists and other journalists of color are held to — not by the industry, but by their own communities.
Shebala has reported from Window Rock, the Navajo capital, for more than two decades now. She says she owes her recent Arizona Press Club award to the Navajo people. "They’re the ones that come to me with their stories," she says. "And they only come to me because they trust me."
Daniel Kraker reports on Native American issues for KNAU, Arizona Public Radio in Flagstaff.© High Country News