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
  • WRITING SKILLS TUTOR FOR HIRE!
    Fort Collins, CO college students welcome. Meet on your college campus!
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • NATURE EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Our mission is to inspire a life-long connection to nature and community through creative exploration of the outdoors. We are seeking an educational leader who...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND MARKETING DIRECTOR
    The Development and Marketing Director is a senior position responsible for the execution of all development and marketing strategies to raise funds and increase public...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Coordinates all Wyoming Wildlife Federation philanthropic activities. Tasks include identification, recruitment, and retention of donors, organizing fundraising events, and assisting with grant writing.
  • REALTOR NEEDS A REMOTE ASSISTANT
    This is a business assistant position, The working hours are flexible and you can chose to work from anywhere of your choice, the pay is...
  • CORPORATE & GRANTS PARTNER MANAGER
    Forever Our Rivers Foundation Corporate Partnerships Manager February 2020 www.ForeverOurRivers.org Forever Our Rivers Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was formed in late 2016 with the mission...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • MEDIA DIRECTOR
    Love working with the media? Shine a spotlight on passionate, bold activists fighting for wild lands, endangered species, wild rivers and protecting the climate.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - NEVADA
    The Center for Biological Diversity is seeking an attorney to expand our litigation portfolio in Nevada. Come join our hard-hitting team as we fight for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Montana Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic leader to advance our mission, sustain our operations, and grow our grassroots power. For a full position description,...
  • HISTORIC COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITY IN DOWNTOWN NOGALES
    Nogales. 3 active lower spaces and upper floor with lots of potential. 520-245-9000 [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DIRECTOR, TEXAS WATER PROGRAMS
    The National Wildlife Federation seeks a Director to lead our water-related policy and program work in Texas, with a primary focus on NWF's signature Texas...
  • SPLIT CREEK RANCH
    Spectacular country home on 48 acres with Wallowa River running through it! 541-398-1148 www.RubyPeakRealty.com
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...
  • NEW MEXICO GILA NATIONAL FOREST HORSE RANCH
    43 acres in the Gila National Forest. Horse facility, custom home. Year-round outdoor living. REDUCED to $999,000, 575-536-3109.
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...