It’s not easy to cover Indian Country. Here’s why you must.
September 21, 2021
By Jackleen de La Harpe, Underscore.news
and Dr. Cynthia-Lou Coleman, Portland State University
The ferry crossing from Washington state to British Columbia, more than three hours of uninterrupted travel, provided the time and luxury to read the Sunday edition of The Globe and Mail. On that December day in 2019, a story about an Indigenous Metis family dominated the front page, a description of young parents who had lost custody of their three children—all under the age of 5—and were trapped in a bureaucracy that had traumatized everyone.
“No Way Out” was written and researched by Nancy Macdonald, who spent a year interviewing family members and examining the Canadian child welfare system, where Indigenous children are taken from their families at a rate 10 times higher than non-Indigenous families. The story detailed not only how a system repeatedly fails Indigenous families but reflected on the deeper context and greater crisis in Canada, connecting the dots from a contemporary problem to its roots.
Central to the modern context is the 100-year legacy of residential schools, beginning with the Indian Act of 1876 and extending through most of the 20th century, when more than 150,000 children were sequestered, many stolen from their homes without their family’s or community’s permission. Residential schools were part of the government’s goal to assimilate Indigenous people by severing them from their culture, language and stories, coupled with the notion that was the basis of residential schools in the late 1800s: to save the child, you must kill the Indian. These actions are another way to describe genocide.
"Invisibility in mainstream media has a disturbing consequence: it becomes a form of erasure."
The Globe and Mail article patiently described a social structure imposed by governments that failed Native citizens, embodied by this family’s hardships—when things go wrong, then right, then wrong again—when people navigate the ups and downs of love, domestic violence, drugs and jail to become ensnared in a formal bureaucracy. The story described a social system that doesn’t work.
Why this reporting matters
In today’s mainstream U.S. news, coverage of Indigenous communities—challenges and strengths—is sporadic, uneven and barely visible. Consider, for example, mental health, which is not well understood in popular media. Thanks to recent coverage of celebrities such as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (Harry and Meghan) and champion tennis player, Naomi Osaka, narratives are emerging that help destigmatize mental conditions.
Not so for Indigenous communities. Suicide looms large in Native America with rates more than 30% higher than the population as a whole. Where are the stories that dig into questions of why American Indians and Alaska Natives die by suicide? Suicide in Indigenous communities is so underreported that Project Censored listed it among the most hidden stories of 2020. Invisibility in mainstream media has a disturbing consequence: it becomes a form of erasure.
There is, we believe, a greater and welcomed emphasis recently to report about Indigenous communities. But the most committed and ambitious coverage comes from Indigenous-led news teams and networks, guided by a small but growing cadre of Indigenous journalists, editors, broadcasters, bloggers and photographers who are increasingly delivering a Native American perspective to the national conversation.
One simple example is an Indian Country Today story about the droves of North American cicadas set to emerge from the soil after years of living as nymphs underground. Mary Annette Pember, national correspondent for Indian Country Today, tells the science story but adds an element likely to be overlooked in mainstream coverage: how did Native ancestors treat the cicadas? The title of her article, “Cicadas: the Other White Meat,” answers the question.
Ways to cover Indigenous communities
Bringing an Indigenous lens to storytelling is critical to making stories richer and expanding the breadth of reporting beyond the familiar and predominant white male perspective in journalism. The first step is to cultivate an awareness of Native-ness while asking: Is there an Indigenous link to the issues? Where is the Indigenous voice in a story? What can Indigenous people share with news audiences?
"A solutions journalism approach frames how problems are being managed, rather than simply describing the problem."
Another step is to build bridges between Indigenous communities and mainstream news outlets. Today, such partnerships are making inroads. The Associated Press has created AP StoryShare to facilitate sharing Indigenous stories with member news organizations. The Texas Observer and High Country News, among other newsrooms, both have Indigenous affairs desks. And our team, Underscore.news, covers Indigenous communities in partnership with Indian Country Today to increase coverage in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest.
There are other practical ways to address erasure in media and encourage reporting that makes Indigenous perspectives more visible. Here’s what we’ve learned so far:
- Recruit and hire Indigenous reporters and staff.
Indigenous writers, editors and news managers are better positioned to deliver a nuanced picture of Native America to news audiences and speak with an authentic voice. Invest the time and work to recruit and hire Indigenous journalists. Draft job descriptions that value culture and experience. Enlist newsrooms with Indigenous staff to help find people to join your team.
- Build trust.
This takes time. Meet Indigenous people where they are. Listen. Add context to your reporting and storytelling—history, sovereignty, treaty rights—and humanize stories.
- Balance the good and bad.
While suicide rates among Indigenous peoples could be THE story, many communities are creating concrete ways to halt this tragic outcome. A solutions journalism approach frames how problems are being managed, rather than simply describing the problem.
Start from the ground up by asking—and listening closely—to learn about important issues from an Indigenous perspective. Underscore.news is preparing to hold listening sessions around Oregon to hear what rural and urban communities want to share. At the same time, we’ll check back with those same communities to hear, honestly, how our reporting has been received. Was it accurate, respectful, balanced?
- Build trusted relationships.
Ditch the “us versus them” mentality. Communities resent reporters who parachute in for a story and then leave. Relationships are for the long haul, which doesn’t preclude covering a difficult or controversial story.
- Not all stories need to be told.
Approach Indigenous people who tell their stories with respect. Journalists must ask permission to share certain stories and ideas. Some Indigenous stories are appropriate to share; others are not.
- Two worlds. Two-eyed seeing.
Many tribal people live in two worlds. Listen for nuance. Solutions often come in a dual form: from traditional Native ways and from Western empirical ways.
We’re in this together
To build trust, media must be intentional about working in a new way — reporting on issues that Indigenous communities tell us need attention. Approaching the relationship with the idea that “we’re in this together” is good practice.
At Underscore.news, that idea, simple yet vital, guides our journalism. We recruit intentionally to hire Indigenous staff, and we are honored to partner with the foremost national Native news outlet, Indian Country Today, to share an Indigenous beat reporter who is covering Indigenous stories in Oregon. Together, we are building coverage of Indigenous people and communities in the Pacific Northwest.
Underscore’s reporting is based on the values of justice, respect and ethical journalism. Our goal is to make Indigenous stories commonplace and the people who tell those stories more visible. This new blueprint for Indigenous coverage, we believe, will give voice to those who are not heard and better describe, ultimately, who we are as a country.
Underscore.news is supported by grants and individual donations. Please consider making a donation for this important work, which will support our next Indigenous staff hire and build a stronger and more diverse newsroom as we expand our coverage in the Pacific Northwest.
Cynthia-Lou Coleman, PhD, is the author of Environmental Clashes on Native American Land (2020) and an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation. She is a member of the Underscore Indian Country Advisory Team.
Jackleen de La Harpe serves as Executive Director of Underscore.news in Portland, Oregon, and was the founding executive director of the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island.