A Reflection on the Representation of Native American Peoples in News Media

Mark Anthony Rolo is a Native journalist and author working with the Minnesota Humanities Center (MHC) and their project partners on Truth and Transformation: Changing Racial Narratives in the Media. Learn more about the project, here.

When it comes to Native American tribal communities the news media has historically promoted inaccurate representations and perpetuated cultural stereotypes – swaying between visually appealing pow wows to drunken crime sprees. Failed news media representation is true of all racial and diverse groups in this country, but the Native American community lives more frequently with the burden of false portrayals that define who they are as a people to the larger mainstream community. And there seems to be little recourse, few avenues to pursue in order to rewrite the narrative.

Sadly, there are a number of reasons for the failed coverage. Traditionally, Native people live within closed, insular communities. They keep news within their own circles and are highly suspicious of what outsiders might do with the knowledge of who they are. It is an old form of survival. There is safety in silence. A “nosy” newspaper reporter is viewed as a threat, a disruption to the communal solitude. And because tribes are mostly rural, they tend to move below the radar when it comes to readership and advertising.

Yet to be seen as a vibrant community struggling to overcome unemployment, chronic diseases such as diabetes and alcoholism, and to be seen as a people working together to preserve their language and customs is vital to this narrative. A big part of this changing reality is that Native people must be proactive in ensuring their voice is heard. By and large, the news media wants this level of engagement. They want to know what the deeper story is in Indian Country and in order to get that story they need to have Native people at the table.

Since the advent of gaming in the late 1980s, tribes have become more self-sufficient in job creation, building state-of–the-art health clinics, offering Head Start programs that are culturally rooted, and in building family homes. Frustrated with years of what many consider media neglect a lot of these tribes created their own newspapers to provide deeper coverage. But as the economy stalled and gaming leveled off, many of these tribal news sources closed their doors. However, with the growth of social media suddenly the “Moccasin Telegraph” (mostly benign gossip) has found new life.

Times have become tough for the news media as well. Failing readership has forced many small-town papers to close, and even big-city papers as well. Brought on by easy internet access and aggregated news, websites have cut deeply into profits and the news media has had to scale back on coverage of all aspects, leaving one to wonder if this has placed the news media irreversibly into a state of irrelevancy. For instance, The Bemidji Pioneer is a small town paper in northern Minnesota that struggles to stay afloat. Even though they are surrounded by three Ojibwe reservation communities, the editor of the Pioneer laments that he cannot hire two Native reporters to cover these communities in-depth. The paper relies on tips and will occasionally receive a press release about a tribal event. Though the paper has set up a Facebook page, it remains mostly dormant. Social media was meant for sustained engagement. For the news media this should mean a highway of discussion about stories from readers. Still, despite the technical changes that social media could provide in broadening news coverage, not much has changed in the reporting at large and especially of news in Indian Country.

Yet the importance of a credible news source is vital to community growth. This is very true when it comes to tribal communities. It is short-sighted for Native people to simply live with inaccurate or no coverage. What the larger community learns about Native communities through the media affects interactions and relationships. Public schools struggle with understanding cultural nuances among Natives, and this, unfortunately, affects learning. Racism and negative attitudes towards Natives can be traced—in part—to poor news coverage. Participation by tribal communities may feel like a vulnerable spot to be in, but if there is to be hope for a changing narrative in Indian Country it is Native people who must begin to assist in shaping this narrative into lasting story.

Mark Anthony Rolo

Author: Mark Anthony Rolo

Mark Anthony Rolo is an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and a senior lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the former editor of The Circle newspaper and Washington D.C. Bureau Chief for Indian Country Today. He served as host and co-writer of the PBS film on Native Americans living in Los Angeles “A Seat at the Drum” (2006). A collection of his plays (“What’s an Indian Woman to Do? and Other Plays”) was published by UCLA American Indian Studies in 2010.

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