When I received my first scholarship from the Osage Tribe for graduate work at Cornell, I asked my auntie how I could return the favor. She thought for a bit and then said, you’ll know when the time comes.
The time came while I was working on my doctorate. I had fostered a passion for science communication, and was keenly interested in how information is framed, particularly how science information is framed persuasively. While I was completing my coursework one of the faculty members invited me to take part in a writing program for American Indian high school students, funded by journalists. I was introduced to editors of the two largest Indian newspapers in the country—Tim Giago and Paul DeMain—and learned the back story of Indian press on and off the reservation.
Mark Trahant, a former editor with the Seattle Post Intelligencer, now a Kaiser Media Fellow, had been booted out of Navajo country because he criticized the tribal leadership at the time. Trahant learned that some tribal members didn’t want the newspaper to serve as a watchdog, monitoring local politics, but rather to play the role of the lap dog, quietly endorsing the status quo.
Indians struggled to maintain tribally based publications in the face of metaphorical and actual firings: Trahant was fired, and the Lakota newspaper offices were nearly burned to the ground.
Against this backdrop I decided to incorporate Indian publications in my studies of science communication. And while I was living in Wisconsin, I learned that the world’s largest mining company decided to build a copper mine on Indian territory near Ladysmith. The event brought together tribal members, ecologists, reporters, elected officials, business people and scientists, and I examined how news coverage framed the issue, and talked with editors about their role in communicating information locally.
I spent a year collecting news articles, thanks to my graduate student partners Jan Lathrop and Benami Bacaltchuk. We pored through microfilm, collecting news articles about the mine from all quarters—mainstream, Indian and political press—and then coded the data looking for patterns.
My presumption was that coverage would vary depending on the type of community in which the newspaper is embedded. This stream of research looks at social structures rather than individual reporters. The local small-town Ladysmith paper unabashedly endorsed the copper mine, while the large Wisconsin daily newspaper engaged in traditional, mainstream, balanced reporting.
And, except for the Indian press, the Native American perspectives, when they were reported, were often relegated to the end of the article or to the back pages. In fact, when newspapers looked for balance—that is, when they reported the mining company’s views and then looked for an alternative view—the spokespeople tended to be local residents who opposed the mine or Green Party politicos. Frequently the Indian perspectives were silent or buried.
Since the 1990s Indians have become more visible and vocal due, in part, to the availability of the Internet. For example, you can find tribal positions on mining or repatriation by scouting the Internet for online tribal news.
Rather than relying on mainstream press to voice their claims, Indian tribes have seized their own channels, clearly pronouncing their views virtually.