PHOENIX ( Associated Press) — Kiowa tribal member Tristan Ahtone remembers getting started in journalism a decade ago and pitching ideas on Indigenous topics. Her boss would say things like: “We ran an origin story earlier this year. Do we need one more?”
Thankfully, he said, times have changed.
“There just isn’t enough content to fill demand these days, which is fantastic,” said Ahtone, a former longtime Native American Journalists Association board member and current editor at large at the nonprofit media outlet Grist.
Native American communities have seen more robust news coverage in recent years, in part due to increased Indigenous affairs reporting status in American newsrooms and financial support from the foundation.
Journalism-focused philanthropy quadrupled from 2009 to 2019 as traditional newspaper revenue shrank, reports Media Impact Funders, At the same time, increasingly diverse populations and a renewed focus on social injustice have garnered greater media attention.
Leading non-profit news outlets, which have multiplied across America.
Colorado-based High Country News created an Indigenous Affairs desk in 2017 that has published dozens of stories from journalists, writers and experts from across the Indian country.
Other non-native outlets came along with new beats and employees.
The National Services Program for America reports funding to several outlets, including the Associated Press, and is helping finance temporary Indigenous affairs reporting status in 10 US newsrooms. They are part of a group of journalists the organization has set up in recent years to strengthen coverage of underserved communities.
The program works to address some of the unique challenges of covering the Indian country, where many reservations are isolated or have historically poor relations with the press after being misrepresented or ignored for long periods of time. .
“We’re trying to rebuild the trust we’ve lost over the past 20 to 30 years,” said Report for America’s deputy director of Corps Excellence and its Mountain West region manager. “It’s about making it back and putting talented, emerging journalists into the newsroom.”
Few of the news organizations it partners with have never beaten a dedicated Native American affairs. Many core members identify as indigenous. These include Frank Vasvillas, a descendant of Mexico’s Yaqui tribe, who serves as a Native American affairs reporter for the USA Today Network, based at the Green Bay Press-Gazette in Wisconsin. They started covering 12 tribal countries of the state in 2020.
“There’s a lot of learning going on with this cadence,” he said, “including helping people understand the nuances of sovereign nations.”
The Vasavilas have reported on a land dispute involving the Oneida Nation and Hobart’s Green Bay Area village, the Ojibwe spearfisher’s persecution over treaty rights, and the suspension of tribal officials by the Menominee legislature. His stories include discussion of tribal laws, jurisdiction, gambling, languages and many other issues, and he produces a First Nations Wisconsin newspaper.
Historically, he said, major news outlets have relied on tropes like poverty and addiction when covering the Indian country. Vasvilas said he “works to seek the truth, not just feed off stereotypes.”
The increased coverage comes as America’s demographics change. According to the latest census, the number of people who identified as multiracial increased from 3% to more than 10% from 2010 to 2020. Of those, about 6.7 million people identified as non-Hispanic, American. Indians and Alaska Natives alone or in combination with any other ethnic group, represent 2% of the population.
Despite the growing interest, advocates say much more needs to be done.
Many mainstream news organizations still lack Indigenous affairs reporting posts, including some of the country’s biggest news outlets.
And a mistake has been made. In 2020, CNN received backlash for an election graphic that displayed returns by race as white, Latino, black, Asian, and “something else” — a label that angered many Native Americans.
The Washington Post also came under criticism for reporting concerning the now-abandoned original-themed mascot of the Washington NFL team. In 2019, the Native American Journalists Association slammed the newspaper for its “recurring problem” of relying on flawed data from self-identified Native Americans, who said they were not offended by the name.
Last year, Indigenous groups – and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland – flagged media coverage surrounding the disappearance and death of 22-year-old Gabby Petito, saying more attention should be paid For the long-running epidemic of missing and murdered Native American women.
Ahton also pointed out that while there has recently been a greater focus on investing in local news, this discussion rarely extends to the tribal media.
Jodi Rev Spotted Bear, executive director of the Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance, said the grant opportunities have been a “tunnel of light” for their organization and its publishing arm, digital news site Buffalo Fire.
Most tribal media organizations are funded by the governments of their tribes – very few of which have regulations providing for press protection.
“Freedom of information does not exist in the community I live in. There is no open meeting of the tribal government,” said the spotted bear of MHA Nation. “A lot of reservation communities are like that.”
The result, she said, are decisions made under the “cloak of secrecy,” which sometimes involve the allocation of huge amounts of money.
A major achievement of Phoenix-based news operations has been the independent ownership of Indian Country Today, coming out of the umbrella of the National Congress of American Indians last year.
The Swadeshi-led operation has a wider audience than ever before after its 2018 re-launch and the introduction of daily news broadcasts. It airs on more than two dozen stations in the US, Canada and Australia, and reaches another 800,000 unique users on its digital site each month.
Editor at Large Mark Trahunt, who is Shoshone-Bannock, cites a combination of charity, advertising, underwriting and foundations. Indian Country Today has also collaborated with the Associated Press to reach more readers around the world, and recently began partnering with Underscore.com, another non-profit news outlet, on coverage of the Pacific Northwest.
Several ongoing efforts aimed at raising the ranks of indigenous-origin journalists and increasing attention to the Indian nation.
A 2019 American Society of News Editors survey showed that less than 1% of employees in American newsrooms were Native American. However, the Native American Journalists Association said that its membership has expanded significantly since then.
The organization trains students through a variety of programs, including a fellowship that has helped hire interns at NBC News, CBS News, USA Today and elsewhere. Last year, it began working closely with NPR on an indigenous-focused digital workshop for early career professionals.
It also emphasizes the importance of representing Native Americans in key journalistic roles such as board members, publishers, senior editors, and TV anchors.
Meanwhile, the International Women’s Media Foundation recently announced a four-year, $10 million news initiative focused on violence against Native American women and girls, funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. And the Institute for Nonprofit News Organizations, which provides support for nonprofit news organizations, announced a new association covering rural America. Starting with collaborations that include the investigation of economic issues in Indigenous communities.
Vasvilas said the country has much to gain from greater coverage of First Nations peoples, their cultures and languages, which often places an emphasis on community over the individual. He is happy to be a part of it and tries to honor his elders and ancestors through his work.
“Sometimes it feels like a lot of weight to me trying to get it right, trying to get the reporting right, and trying to tell the story right,” he said. “Many indigenous people say, ‘We’re still here, that we’ve never been anywhere. We’ve been neglected for so long.’ So I hope news reporting can help prevent that.”
Oyan, an Associated Press editor based in Phoenix, served as managing editor of Indian Country Today in 2020 as part of a collaboration between the organization and the Associated Press.