Writing on native ground in New Mexico

  • Zuni in New Mexico

    Diane Sylvain
  • BETWEEN DEADLINES: The Shiwi Messenger staff

    Dustin Solberg photo
  • Front page of The Shiwi Messenger


ZUNI PUEBLO, N.M. - From far out in the high desert of western New Mexico, green-leaved Chinese elms create a sharp burst of color, an island in the sagebrush and juniper and high red mesas that make up the Zuni landscape. This is home to 6,400 Zunis, one of 19 Indian pueblos that spread across the Southwest.

Zuni Pueblo is a scattering of squat houses built of neat sandstone blocks, newer ones of cinder block and a half-dozen jewelry shops, each promising to sell you silverwork for at least "50 percent off." The Zuni River is often a dry arroyo here in summer, and in the evening, walls of red Chinle sandstone are still warm to the touch. The only shade in this dusty red place is beneath thin, wispy branches.

The 418,000-acre Zuni Reservation may feel like the most isolated place in America, but first impressions deceive. Though a supermarket is a good hour away in Gallup, you can find MTV on any reservation television, and Nikes seem to be part of a teen dress code.

Like MTV and the Nikes, the news used to arrive only from off the reservation - a Gallup paper that promises "The Truth Well Told." But now there's a local paper, and it's homegrown. The Shiwi Messenger is a new voice for the Zuni people. "They're going to want to know what's really going on in Zuni," says Fawn Wilson, a past editor who left to study journalism in Oklahoma. She says if the Messenger doesn't spread the word, no one else will.

To offer some lessons on the nuts and bolts of journalism - and to watch how an upstart newspaper can sprout in a desert - I spent four days this summer with the staff in a sandstone bungalow that's become their office. It lies just a stone's throw from New Mexico Route 53, the narrow two-lane blacktop that bisects the 6,000-foot-high pueblo. That's where the few gas stations and jewelry stores and the single cafe (known for cool iced tea with a slender slice of lemon) make up what you might call a business district.

The nerve center of this newspaper is a living room. On the day I arrived, Amanda Delena was helping the staff decide what topic the Messenger should poll its readers on in the next issue. A couple of ideas surfaced, but then she popped this question: "How about Indian sovereignty?" Heads nodded, and the poll question for the July 24 issue was decided. In the paper, it read: "Do you understand the word "sovereignty'? If so, what does it mean? Do you think our tribe is sovereign?" One Zuni told a teen pollster, "Sovereignty should protect the people, our culture, our own resources."

These aren't, of course, hard-nosed journalists. They are teenagers who giggle through their work shifts and blast hiphop from tribal radio station KSHI (pronounced "keshi," which means "hello" in Zuni). They're still mastering the reporter's "inverted pyramid," and laying out the eight-page tabloid on a Macintosh is sometimes a frustrating affair. They are still likely to ask, "What's your favorite color?" during an interview. But amid the fun, they're beginning to ask worthwhile questions. Then they print the answers.

They can do that because the Messenger is almost unique on reservations: The staff answers only to themselves and their readers.

Between 200 and 300 native newspapers are published in Indian Country, says Gordon Regguinti, the executive director of the Native American Journalists' Association in Minneapolis. "Most have some ties to the tribal government," he says. Only a handful, like the Messenger, are truly independent.

Money to publish newspapers is scarce on the reservation, Regguinti says, and so are experienced journalists. The Messenger exists because a much-liked Anglo schoolteacher, Nat Stone, founded it three years ago. It's not the most stable operation imaginable. Its masthead has listed three different editors since March. The new editor, Mikki Lewis, is a young Zuni woman with a growing family; she moonlights as a foster mother and studies elementary education at a branch of the University of New Mexico in Gallup.

An all-Zuni board of directors now oversees the paper. Grants from three foundations - the New Mexico Community, Chamisa and McCune Charitable - pay for newsprint, printing, rent and $50 per week stipends for nine mostly high-school-aged interns. Money comes, too, from advertising for double-wide trailers and pickup trucks and laundromats - when staffers can collect what's owed them for the ads.

Coordinating a revolt

During a lesson in elementary Zuni beneath the New Mexico sun, Tammie Delena, 16, told me the name isn't new. A "Shiwi" is "one Zuni' - the singular form of "Zuni." Traditionally, the Shiwi messenger followed the dusty footpaths that once spilled out from the Pueblo like so many spokes in a wheel, delivering the news. For example, it was Shiwi messengers who spread communiqués between the pueblos, coordinating the revolt that ended hundreds of years of Spanish rule.

There has always been news in Indian Country. Only the technology is new, says Mark Trahant, a Shoshone-Bannock journalist and historian.

Trahant knows about starting Indian newspapers; he founded the independent Navajo Nation Today. He is now a Seattle Times columnist who writes about Western issues.

His advice to any young newspaper is to experiment, and to keep on experimenting until the paper gets it right.

"You can do that whether it's The New York Times or the Zuni tribal paper," he says. "We sometimes get a little arrogant in deciding who is and who is not a journalist. The First Amendment doesn't make any distinctions."

The Messenger is still experimenting. Tribal elections are in December, and the Messenger staff is covering the tribal governor and council member races for the first time. Pairs of young reporters show up at interviews with tape recorders in hand, ready with questions about the preservation of Zuni culture and education in reservation schools. The phone rings when candidates call back to arrange interviews and Lewis crosses off names on a list as interviews are confirmed. It's beginning to feel like a real newsroom.

The paper began covering the tribal election races last month with a four-page spread profiling the four governor candidates and their running mates. It's a newsy addition to what some had called a "feel-good newspaper." Then the Messenger organized the first-ever candidate forums and filled an auditorium with voters.

"I'm really proud of what we did," Tammie Delena says. "People in Zuni want to know who's going to represent them."

Readers snatched up all 1,000 copies of the special election issue and then asked for more. Interviews were lengthy, and getting the paper out was an all-night affair.

"They were really burned out, but they were just really impressed to see people drive up and ask for papers at the door," says editor Lewis. "Seeing them drive up and ask for papers made them think, 'boy, we do make a difference.' "

A one-year subscription to the Shiwi Messenger is $40 and a six-month subscription is $20. The paper can be reached at P.O. Box 1502, Zuni, NM 87327 (505/782-2336).

Dustin Solberg is an assistant editor for High Country News.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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