I got the call around the time I was scrolling my Twitter feed, wiping my eyes dry over the immense promise I felt watching U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) share that heartfelt hug on the House floor yesterday. It was a cable news producer from a network that will remain anonymous, and he was calling to book a panel. He’d heard I knew a few things about Native Americans and its geopolitical frame of reference — except, that’s not what he wanted to talk to me about. He wanted to know if I could sit on a televised segment to discuss Elizabeth Warren.
He yammered on while I continued to gaze at Twitter, feasting on photo after photo of history literally happening right before my eyes: two Native American women like me doing what has never been done before — breaking into one of the highest political arenas in the land. I waited until the producer stopped talking.
I politely told him that the problem with Elizabeth Warren isn’t expired controversy over her silly DNA test and, now, her bid for the presidency. Rather, I said, it’s Warren and the media itself capitalizing on this issue and ignoring the very Native Americans central to the debate—arguably the most marginalized voices in the country.
I suggested the segment be realigned to focus on the day’s unprecedented inauguration of Davids and Haaland into the U.S. House, but he said the panel was mostly booked to discuss the Democratic dilemma over whether to support Warren. He wanted a voice critical of the Massachusetts senator, assuming that this person would be me — both Democrat and anti-Warren. He said mention of Davids and Haaland could be as an aside; an afterthought.
There is nothing new about Indian Country getting short shrift in the media, in politics, or in life in general. And there is certainly nothing unusual about outsiders looking in, assuming that all Native Americans represent a monolith—that we all vote Democrat, that we think alike, and that we’ll go along with whatever the corporate agenda is put in front of us—in this case, a conversation about Elizabeth Warren.
But with Haaland and Davids representative of a resounding call for change, the time has come for the Indigenous inhabitants of these lands to become a priority in the American narrative.
Last year marked my 20th anniversary of being a career journalist, a profession I entered into because the very people and places of which I come from across Indian Country simply were not being seen in my newsfeeds or were being featured in really cringeworthy ways. Even today, it’s common to see non-Indigenous journalists journey to an Indian reservation and treat it like it’s some kind of developing country—and in many ways, they would be socioeconomically accurate based on the latest report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which highlights the need to honor the treaties broken by the U.S. government. But that’s the problem. Rarely does the journalism match the Indigenous point of view.
Today Indian Country is composed of roughly 2.6 million tribal citizens who live either on ancestral lands now restricted by trust relationships with the federal government (i.e., reservations) or ancestral lands stolen and now shared with the offspring of immigrants in cities across the U.S.
But this narrative—this decolonized way of viewing the origin story of America—is rarely if ever discussed in such a way accepted as Western journalism. Rather, these Indigenous points of view are relegated to the opinion column, if relegated at all.
The fact that I write on Indigenously, a free blog site, is a testament to the fact that there remains no designated journalism real estate in the established, elite press for the original voices of America.
For this reason, I made a deliberate pivot a few years ago to work independently so that I could go to the places that few newsrooms will send me. And yet, despite my professional gains, it also works to my disadvantage. The amount of time and energy to be seen and heard from editors on stories of national importance from Indian Country is daunting if not the most difficult part of my job.
To be sure, the story about former U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia blocking the most promising bill addressing violence on Native Americans was a lead I couldn’t convince any of my clients to invest in even though I had been writing about the issue for them, previously. In this regard, the editorial fickleness I contend with is on par with Goodlatte’s message: that Indigenous issues just don’t matter to them.
Over the holiday break, I stewed over these inequalities in the media and even found some peace. But then I got that call from the network producer.
To be fair, Indigenous media is problematic, as well.
Yesterday, while driving across the Indigenous homelands of the Spirit Lake Nation, I grew annoyed, agitated even, upon hearing the live call-in radio show, Native America Calling. The conversation wasn’t focused on the energizing moment happening in Washington, D.C., around Haaland and Davids, as one might expect. Rather, the host and its guest were talking about Indigenous herbal teas. I couldn’t bear to listen anymore. Realizing the squandered media resources of that moment, I was compelled to turn the program off, and I did.
Like our ancestors, those of us who crave the Indigenous narrative must forage for this sustenance of our media diets—hunt for it in digital territories like Facebook and Twitter to nourish our minds.
This has to change, and Haaland and Davids are emblematic of this call to action.
Time has run out to convince colonized newsrooms that Indigenous issues and perspectives matter in a way that is legitimate rather than opinionated.
Patience has worn paper thin for Indian Country to be seen worthy of first-class journalism daily as opposed to the kind of reactionary framework we came to see at Standing Rock.
The hunger for validation from the legacy press of the authentic Indigenous narrative is no longer a hunger but a famine imposed on our very democracy; that to understand the story of this great nation can not be done without including the Indigenous narrative.
Rep. Haaland and I come from the same pueblo. Seeing her yesterday at the U.S. House, dressed in our traditional mhanta and moccasins was one of the most powerful images I’ve seen. But it can not be one of the only stories you’ll see about her in our newsfeeds.
As she tweeted yesterday, Haaland was integral in re-opening the government and as part of those efforts, passing bills that fund tribal services, although as she quipped, “inadequately,” so. These are the headlines that should become the follow-up story—not the history, itself. And because so few others are doing this, it will unravel here. I simply can’t stand the ignoring anymore.
Teaser photo credit: By Ziggyfan23 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72380722