How to tell better stories from Indian Country

Native communities are an integral part of the nation’s history—and future. It’s time we started treating them as such.

 

Indian Country News is a weekly note from High Country News, as we continue to broaden our coverage of tribal affairs across the West.

There is no doubt that Standing Rock changed the way national media outlets think about Indian Country. More than a year after thousands of people gathered to stop the construction of an oil pipeline over Sioux protests, the desire to tell the stories of Indigenous communities is stronger than ever. Unfortunately there aren’t enough publications that know how to tell those stories accurately. Yes, many of these accounts are technically factual, but media have a hard time, even today, properly representing Native communities across the country.

Earlier this year, the Native American Journalists Association, where I am a board member, worked in conjunction with High Country News to produce a bingo board for reporters, to help them avoid clichéd storytelling from Indian Country. Too often reporters parachute into Native communities to report on the tragic effects of U.S. policies, especially the removal of tribes from their lands. Many times that reporting fails to provide the proper historical or cultural context. These well-intentioned reporters rely instead on the overwrought myths that have permeated people’s understanding of Native Americans for centuries. The bingo board helps reporters avoid overuse of ideas like “warrior,” “drumming,” and “diabetes,” thereby avoiding the kind of one-dimensional coverage that Indigenous communities have long resented.

I don’t say this to pick on anyone. I know and respect many non-Native reporters who have written in-depth, thoughtful stories on Indigenous peoples. What is lacking from the broader narrative, however, is nuanced representation. As a reporter at The Oklahoman newspaper, I covered a forum at the University of Oklahoma, where Native students expressed frustration that they are seen as monolithic. “I think that’s kind of a misconception that a lot of non-Native students have of us here on campus that is really problematic to overcome,” Apollonia Pina, who is Mvskoke and Xiacana, told me. “They think we’re all in this one gigantic tribe, and we all live in tepees.”

If you think such misconceptions are uncommon, consider the debate over sports mascots, or most film depictions of Indigenous people, or the would-be president, Donald Trump, who told a House committee in 1993 that certain casino operators “don’t look like Indians to me.” There are 567 federally recognized tribes, and many more who lack the distinction, in the United States. There are 5.4 million American Indians and Alaska Natives, and none of us look like Pocahontas. What message does it send to the country’s Native youth when the leader of the free world uses their race as an insult? To consider all tribes the same is woefully inaccurate. To report so is dangerous. It undermines their unique histories and the multi-faceted legacy of sovereign nations.

We can do better, and we have role models to guide us. Tim Giago, the founder of the Lakota Times on the Pine Ridge Reservation, used the pages of his paper to speak out against the rampant violence on the reservation. He wrote editorials under constant threat. His newsroom was once firebombed, its front window repeatedly shot out. Despite this, the Lakota Times doggedly exposed discrimination and wrote about communities in a way that enacted real change. Needless to say, I greatly admire Tim.

Reflecting on the future of journalism in Indian country, Tim reminded a gathering of Native journalists this year: “We can’t know where we are going until we know where we came from.” It’s a good message—for Natives and non-Natives alike. As Native peoples, we must continue trying to understand our histories, and as journalists we should strive to know those histories to better inform our reporting and better serve the public. We must confront the ongoing damages of historical trauma, political disenfranchisement and persistent marginalization and push ourselves to understand and report them. And we must do that without resorting to stereotypes.

And so I have accepted the role of contributing editor for High Country News’ burgeoning tribal affairs desk. As both a professional journalist and a member of the Cherokee Nation, I hope to help the magazine in its commitment to better storytelling from Native communities — and for them. Our hope is that our coverage will stand apart, in seeking stories by and about Indigenous peoples, and to ask challenging questions about who we are as a country, how we got here, and what that means for hundreds of Native communities across the West.

We want to hear from Indigenous reporters, writers, commentators, and scholars, as well the non-Native writers who have something meaningful to add. We are committed to three-dimensional storytelling, and seeking Native expertise and perspective in all that we cover. Currently, we are working on stories about Native youth in the foster system, human trafficking in tribal lands, and the greater federal structures that govern the relationships between tribes and the United States. It is important to us these stories be told through on-the-ground reporting and through intimate profiles of the people involved. In the years and coverage to come, we look forward to illuminating invisible worlds. Wado.

Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor on the High Country News tribal affairs desk. He is a native of Oklahoma, where he resides with his son, and a member of the Cherokee Nation. Brewer is an alum of The Oklahoman newspaper, and his work can also be heard on NPR. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.