The Washington State to British Columbia ferry crossing, over three hours of uninterrupted travel, provided the time and luxury to read the Sunday edition of The Globe and Mail. On that day in December 2019, a story about a MÃ©tis Indigenous family dominated the front page, a depiction 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 Canada’s child welfare system, where Indigenous children are taken from their families at a rate 10 times higher than non-native families. The story not only detailed how one system repeatedly fails Indigenous families, but reflected the deeper context and larger crisis in Canada, connecting the dots of a contemporary problem to its roots.
At the heart of the modern context is the century-old legacy of residential schools, from the Indian Act of 1876 and spanning most of the 20th century, when more than 150,000 children were kidnapped, many stolen from their homes. homes without permission from their family or community. . Residential schools were part of the government’s goal of assimilating Indigenous peoples by separating them from their culture, language and histories, as well as the notion that underpinned residential schools in the late 1800s: to save the child, you must kill the Indian. These actions are another way of describing the genocide.
The Globe and Mail article patiently described a social structure imposed by governments that let down Indigenous citizens, embodied in this family’s struggles – when things go bad, then good, then bad again – when people go through the ups and downs of love, domestic violence, drugs and prison to get trapped in a formal bureaucracy. The story describes a social system that does not work.
In today’s American news, coverage of Indigenous communities – challenges and strengths – is sporadic, patchy, 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 tennis champion Naomi Osaka, stories are emerging that help de-stigmatize mental disorders.
This is not the case for aboriginal communities. Suicide occupies a prominent place among Native Americans with rates over 30% higher than those of the population as a whole. Where are the stories that question why Native Americans and Alaska Natives die by suicide? Suicide in indigenous communities is so underestimated that Project Censored has ranked it among the most hidden stories of 2020. Invisibility in mainstream media has a disturbing consequence: It becomes a form of erasure.
We believe that there has recently been a greater and welcome importance for reporting on Indigenous communities. But the most engaged and ambitious coverage comes from Indigenous-led news teams and networks, guided by a small but growing group of Indigenous journalists, editors, broadcasters, bloggers, and photographers who increasingly provide insight. Native American perspective to the national conversation.
A simple example is an Indian Country Today story of the herds of North American cicadas ready to emerge from the ground after years of living like nymphs underground. Mary Annette Pember, National Correspondent for Indian Country Today, tells the scientific story but adds one element that may be overlooked in media coverage: How did Indigenous ancestors treat cicadas? The title of his article, âCicadas: the other white meatâ, answers the question.
Bringing an Indigenous perspective to the storytelling is key to making the stories richer and expanding the scope of reporting beyond the familiar and predominant white male perspective in journalism. The first step is to cultivate an awareness of autochthony while asking yourself: is there an indigenous connection to the issues? Where is the Indigenous voice in a story? What can Indigenous peoples share with news audiences?
Another step is to build bridges between indigenous communities and the mainstream media. Today, such partnerships are gaining ground. The Associated Press created AP StoryShare to facilitate the sharing of Indigenous stories with member news organizations. The Texas Observer and High Country News, among other newsrooms, both have native affairs offices. 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 approach media erasure and encourage reporting that makes Indigenous perspectives more visible. Here’s what we’ve learned so far:
- Recruit and hire Indigenous journalists and staff. Indigenous writers, editors, and news directors are best positioned to provide a nuanced picture of Indigenous America to news audiences and speak with an authentic voice. Invest time and labor to recruit and hire Indigenous journalists. Write job descriptions that value culture and experience. Enlist newsrooms with Indigenous staff to help find people to join your team.
- Build trust. That takes time. Meet the Indigenous people where they are. Listen. Add context to your reporting and stories – history, sovereignty, treaty rights – and humanize the stories.
- Balance the good and the bad. While suicide rates among indigenous peoples could be the history, many communities are creating concrete ways to end this tragic outcome. A solutions journalism approach defines how problems are handled, rather than just describing the problem.
- Listen. Start from scratch by asking – and listening carefully – to learn more about issues of importance from an Indigenous perspective. Underscore.news is preparing to host listening sessions across Oregon to hear what rural and urban communities want to share. At the same time, we will be checking with those same communities to hear, frankly, how our reports were received. Was it precise, respectful, balanced?
- Build trusting relationships. Let go of the âus versus themâ mentality. Communities don’t like journalists who parachute for a story and then leave. Relationships are long term, 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 should ask permission to share certain stories and ideas. Some Aboriginal stories are appropriate to share; others don’t.
- Two worlds. To see with two eyes. Many indigenous peoples live in two worlds. Listen to the nuances. The solutions often come in two forms: traditional indigenous paths and western empirical paths.
To build trust, the media must intend to work in a new way – reporting on issues that indigenous communities believe require special attention. Approaching the relationship with the idea that âwe’re in the same boatâ is good practice.
At Underscore.news, this simple but vital idea guides our journalism. We’re intentionally recruiting to hire Indigenous staff, and we’re honored to partner with leading national Indigenous news outlet, Indian Country Today, to share an Indigenous beat reporter who covers Indigenous stories in Oregon. Together we are building coverage of the indigenous peoples and communities of the Pacific Northwest.
Underscore’s reporting is based on the values ââof justice, respect and ethics of journalism. Our goal is to make the mundane Indigenous stories and the people who tell those stories more visible. This new model of Indigenous coverage, we believe, will give voice to those who are not heard and ultimately better describe who we are as a country.
Cynthia-Lou Coleman, PhD, is the author of Environmental Clashes on Native American Land (2020) and a registered citizen of the Osage Nation, and Jackleen de La Harpe is executive director of Underscore.news in Portland, Oregon.
This article was originally published by Underscore.news and is republished here with permission. Underscore.news is supported by grants and individual donations. Please consider donating for this important work, which will support their next hire of Indigenous staff and create a stronger and more diverse newsroom as they expand our coverage in the Pacific Northwest.