Coverage of race in South and North Dakota media, in particular, of Native Americans, was the subject of this year’s panel discussion at the joint South Dakota Newspaper Association and North Dakota Newspaper Association convention in Medora, ND May 30-June 1.
Panel members included Executive Director of North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission Scott David (Standing Rock Sioux/Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa), Founder and Director of Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance Jodi Rave Spotted Bear (Mandan-Hidatsa/Lakota), and Secretary of South Dakota Department of Tribal Relations David Flute (Sisseton-Wahpeton).
Retired publisher and editor of Grand Fork Herald Mike Jacobs served as the panel moderator.
According to Spotted Bear, the topic of race coverage was the brainchild of long-time Native journalist and founder of Native Sun News Today Tim Giago (Oglala), who wanted an in-depth discussion to help journalists broaden their understanding of issues impacting Native Americans, with the hope that journalists would realize how their media coverage of Native people can be insensitive, ignorant, wrong, and most importantly, non-existent.
Giago was originally scheduled to be part of the panel but was unable to attend the event due to personal reasons; however, Spotted Bear conveyed his message to the packed room, full of editors, writers, and publishers from both states.
After Jacobs’ introduction of the panelists, David opened the discussion by commending both associations for sponsoring the panel, before he pointed out that there are 576 federally-recognized tribes within the United States, each with their own unique cultures, beliefs, and languages.
“We are different and that’s a good thing. Diversity is a good thing…there’s a lot of big differences between Lakota, Dakota, and Three Affiliated. There are similarities as well. These are the conversations that should happen and can happen,” said David.
David also said he welcomed all questions, and encouraged attendees to ask questions without fear of offending him or the other panelists. Doing so, he said, would only lead to an educated view of Native people.
“Shoot it, go right ahead… I’m very comfortable with who I am as a Native American man. I know who I am and I know who I’m not. Any question will never offend me and never disturb or offend me because to me it is an opportunity to educate you about who we are and who we are not. You’re going to see some beauty, some similarities, some differences… What a fascinating journey you could have, continuing this journey about educating who we are… We’re neighbors. You’re not moving, we’re not moving,” said David.
After this, James asked the panel if Native culture is undervalued in the Dakotas, to which Flute answered, no. Flute said with his experience as former chairman of the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe, and in his current position, he knows that thousands of tourists, many of them foreigners, flock to the Dakotas annually to visit reservations, attend powwows, and learn more about Native Americans; which he said is evidence, to him, that Native culture is not undervalued.
Spotted Bear then chimed in. “He [Flute] mentioned that it was foreigners that probably appreciate the Native culture in North Dakota and South Dakota more than the white people that live in this state. If it [Native culture] were valued more, we would see more of it reported in the newspapers,” said Spotted Bear.
“Scott had mentioned diversity and the importance of diversity. There is no diversity in this room. I don’t think there is a single American Indian reporter working for any of the daily newspapers. I think that there could be more diversity in our mainstream press. Is the culture undervalued? I’d say for the media perspective, speaking to you as a journalist, it is extremely undervalued,” said Spotted Bear.
She then shared information from a phone conversation she had with Giago a few minutes prior to the panel discussion, and his frustration of the lack of Native voices in media stories regarding Native people.
“There was just a story in the Rapid City Journal recently about Purple Heart recipients and honoring them in a museum… They never contacted a single American Indian source on that issue. Unfortunately, North Dakota and South Dakota newspapers have a long history of undervaluing the history, the culture, the massacres… the genocide of the American Indian indigenous people,” said Spotted Bear.
Spotted Bear then talked about the media frenzy and often times, hostile media coverage of Standing Rock. She said the media portrayal of Native people, their treaty and inherent rights, and portrayal of the NoDAPL protestors as violent agitators, “heightened and created a greater tension in race relations between American Indians and the state and non-Natives.”
Panel moderator Jacobs then shared his personal perspective.
“I worked in North Dakota media for a long time. I trust the hearts of all the people in the world. I don’t think there is a sense that we get up in the morning and say, ‘We’re going to ignore Native issues’ or ‘We’re not going to respect Native traditions’ and that sort of thing. But there is a problem, I think, in there’s a little bit of reluctance about making the step because it’s the conversation that has to happen but everyone sort of shies away from,” said Jacobs.
He said that reporters may not know and may have a lack of understanding of how the Native societies are organized, how Native governments operate, and may not know who to interview and talk to when issues like Standing Rock arise.
“I think it was news to a lot of North Dakotans when Standing Rock occurred, that there was a treaty claim involved, there were legitimate cultural sites involved… who do we turn to when these sorts of issues arise and we confront the ignorance that we have grown up with about the people that we live with?” asked Jacobs.
David answered first and said that it is imperative for trust to be built between Indian people and journalists, especially with Indian leaders and politicians. He shared his own reluctance of speaking with media for fear of being misquoted and misrepresented. David also said that newspapers should send reporters directly to the location of the event they are writing about, which he said, few newspapers actually did during the NoDAPL protest.
Jacobs then shifted the conversation to the lack of education about Native rights, history, and tribal governance being taught in the educational system within the two states and nationwide.
“Is there a systemic problem in the educational system, which may be why reporters coming out of journalism school do not know about tribal government and history?” asked Jacobs.
Spotted Bear said yes, this is a huge problem in schools on and off the reservation and pointed out the lack of cultural and language courses being taught in her daughter’s public school. Spotted Bear said curriculum on Native people are not required, so it is not surprising that journalists are uneducated and unprepared to write about Native issues.
A reporter in the room raised his hand and asked, “The impetus for the discussion was the unintended but obvious insensitivity on our part…. We have every editor and publisher from the Dakotas here. What can we do to better represent people we’re telling the stories about in our com-munities?”
Spotted Bear answered, “Reach out to Native communities in your area, diversify your newsroom, understand our own perspective of discrimination.” She then held up a book titled, “White Fragility: Why It Is So Hard To Talk About Race”, by Robin DiAngelo, and asked if anyone in the room had read it. One reporter raised his hand.
Spotted Bear said that in order to accurately write about Native people and their perspectives, journalists must first understand historical trauma and genocide. She also encouraged those present to build relationships with Native-operated newspapers and to pick up the phone and start a conversation with Native writers and reporters.
Flute shared his interactions with Native-owned newspapers regarding the recent events surrounding Governor Noem’s announcement of her intensions to fly tribal flags in the state capital rotunda.
“I take issue with some of our tribal news media outlets. They just don’t check their resources and I’m not saying all of them… Indian media twisted the story, that’s why I take offense to that. As a chairman, having my comments be slanted in a different tone than what I was giving to a reporter, really changed the dynamic of how people receive that information, and my intentions of how it was coming it out, and the intentions I had people receiving it the way I wanted them to receive it, was completely twisted by my own Indian people,” said Flute.
Another reporter in the room shared her concern about being a non-Native person trying to write about controversial issues impacting Indian people.
“How would I approach a new story of Native issues… If you were to go into the tribal government and try to explain a Native issue and it be very controversial, there is always a line of, ‘Okay, are we being oppressive in coming in and trying to tell your community about what’s going on in your tribal government?’. That is a very fine, difficult line to tread, especially given the lack of back-ground that most of us have, as we’ve discussed. So I think there’s almost a fear on the part of Caucasian reporters that, ‘How dare I come into your community and try and report what you’re experiencing’.”
Spotted Bear said that although she is Native, she faces similar challenges when writing about controversial issues impacting her reservation and communities. She said that although there can be backlash, especially from tribal politicians, reporters, regardless of whether or not they are Native and whether or not an issue is controversial, need to write about Native issues, just as they would report controversial non-Native issues.
Timber Lake Topic Publisher and Editor Kathy Nelson then had a suggestion for David Flute—she asked if the South Dakota Tribal Relations office would write and send weekly columns addressing a specific issue impacting Native nations. These columns would not only educate newspaper folk, but could be published by newspapers, at the discretion of each editor.
Journalist Derek Waltner then added, “It seems like on the national level, we’ve gone backwards in terms of race relations. My opinion, a lot of that has to do with our current administration. My question to you is, in the Dakotas, have we gone backwards in terms of race relations between the Caucasians and the American Indians? Or has there been positive steps taken, and if so, what are those positive steps? And perhaps we need to look at those to build on, as opposed to try to reinvent the wheel.”
David answered and said that the NoDAPL media coverage did a lot of harm to race relations, and pointed out that “comments on social media highlighted the racism, bigotry and prejudice on both sides.”
Jacobs announced the conclusion of the discussion, as the hour allotted for it had passed. Gifts were presented to each panel member and they were met with handshakes and more questions from the editors and reporters.