Once a year, during American Indian Heritage Month in November, American citizens pause to recognize the Indigenous peoples of lands now known as the United States. But what happens to Native people during the other 11 months of the year? Answer: They’re often rendered invisible. That invisibility is complicated by a shrinking Native American news that faces a range of unique challenges today.
My new report, American Indian Media Today: Tribes Maintain Majority Media Ownership as Independent Journalists Seek Growth, gives an overview of the state of Native American media and the challenges we face in telling our own stories. The report is one in a series commissioned by the Democracy Fund to shine a spotlight on the important role of media by and for diverse communities in the United States.
In so much of mainstream media American Indians are invisible as contemporary people or romanticized as relics of a bygone era. The invisibility affects how policymakers make decisions about Native people whose lives are often struck by high rates of poverty, suicide, poor health care, and missing and murdered Indigenous women.
This has made Native media a critical source not only to inform and engage our communities but also to lift up our stories in the broader culture. Yet, for several reasons, we face a lack of news in our own backyards. Media in Indian Country are grappling with many of the same challenges around sustainability that face the rest of the journalism industry, but it is exacerbated by low levels of philanthropic support.
Tribal governments can also be obstacles to independent reporting in Indian Country. An estimated 72% of all print and radio outlets in Indian Country are owned and controlled by tribal governments or tribe-owned entities, and according to a preliminary survey from the Native American Journalists Association’s RED Press Initiative, 83% of tribal journalists face intimidation and harassment when covering tribal affairs. This means modern-day tribal citizens receive news that is mostly censored and controlled by tribal governments. Freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and a free flow of information remain hampered without specific legal provisions rooted in tribal constitutions.
However, a small, but devoted cadre of independent media practitioners are working to create new alternatives and share their stories, free of Native government influence. I profile many of them in this new report and describe the important contributions they are making their communities. These local journalists deserve more attention and need more support. There is much to be learned from how they build and serve communities across often rural and expansive tribal lands.
Jodi’s organization, the Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance, is one of 155 newsrooms participating in the 2018 NewsMatch campaign. Right now every donation will be doubled by NewsMatch through the end of the year.