Journalism is rooted in Indigenous communities

From codices to calendars, storytelling has been part of Indigenous life since time immemorial.

 

The practice we call “journalism” has deep roots in Indigenous communities. From calendars to quipus, codices to songs, record keeping and storytelling have been part of Indigenous life since time immemorial. One of the most influential and enduring forms of documentation has been the ledger drawing: a genre created in the mid-1800s by Plains artists using grease pencils and ledger books — people like Silver Horn, Mad Bull and Zotom.

Zotom was one of more than two dozen Kiowa prisoners of war imprisoned at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, in the 1870s at the end of the Red River War. During that conflict, tribes fought to stop the United States’ violent, and illegal, expansion into the Great Plains. Zotom and other prisoners documented their journey to prison and their experiences in ledger drawings — a stunning piece of visual reporting that testifies to the innovative styles of storytelling and documentation of 19th century Indigenous communities. This distinctive style of reporting, which has been criminally undervalued by journalism historians, stems not from a tradition rooted in Western democracy, but rather from the desire to record events in ways that reflect a community’s values, interests and priorities.

With this tradition in mind, we embraced an unusual medium this issue: the graphic novel. The story of the Nizhóní Girls is a contemporary story, one common to Indian Country though overlooked by non-Indigenous reporters. This is the story’s strength: It is the record of a moment and reflects the values and priorities of one group of Native artists at one point in our collective history.

  • Liz McKenzie in her garage before the Nizhóní Girls' September show.

    Tristan Ahtone/High Country News
  • Rebecca Jones, Nizhóní Girls' lead guitar player.

    Tristan Ahtone/High Country News
  • Lisa Lorenzo, the band's drummer, during their opening set for artist Shonen Knife.

    Tristan Ahtone/High Country News
  • Liz McKenzie during the band's sound check.

    Tristan Ahtone/High Country News
  • Artist Shaun Beyale sketches concept drawings during the Nizhóní Girls' show.

    Tristan Ahtone/High Country News
  • Liz McKenzie performs onstage at Launchpad in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

    Tristan Ahtone/High Country News
  • The Nizhóní Girls, from left, bassist Liz Mackenzie, guitarist Becki Jones and drummer Lisa Lorenzo, in Glass Beach, near Albuquerque, New Mexico, last month.

    Nate Lemuel/Darklisted Photography

And we decided to tackle this story with the help of an all-Indigenous team. Jason Asenap (Comanche), a regular contributor to HCN (and a personal friend), is also an accomplished screenwriter. While we can’t afford to produce his screenplays (yet), we can find creative and dramatic ways to bring his visions to life — in this case, the graphic novel.

Tristan Ahtone, associate editor
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Shaun Beyale (Navajo), an accomplished artist — and a former classmate of mine at the Institute of American Indian Arts — helped bring this story to life. Beyale’s work typically explores the fantastical elements common to the comic book world. His project Ayla: The Monster Slayer is set in a post-apocalyptic Southwest where humankind is on the brink of extinction. Ayla, a Navajo superhero, must protect her people and restore balance to a land ruled by an evil force. Beyale’s ability to visualize the Nizhóní Girls’ story enabled him to serve, essentially, as “photographer” for this issue’s feature.

From codices to calendars, from ledger drawings to graphic novels, the visual journalism we present in this issue is deeply rooted in Indigenous experiences, traditions, themes and values that explore ideas of friendship, family — and, of course, a little rock n’ roll. We hope this story speaks to you as well.

Tristan Ahtone is associate editor at High Country News, overseeing the tribal affairs desk.

High Country News Classifieds
  • YELLOWSTONE TREASURES: THE TRAVELER'S COMPANION TO THE NATIONAL PARK
    Dreaming of a trip to Yellowstone Park? This book makes you the tour guide for your group! Janet Chapple shares plenty of history anecdotes and...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • 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...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • 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...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • 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...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • 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...
  • 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.