I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I chose journalism as a career path three decades ago. One of the main reasons was because I rarely saw Native Americans reflected in local and national news media coverage.
After more than 25 years as a journalist, I see small gains but not enough to keep a light shining on issues that are most important to Native people. I would know very little about the latest news in Indian Country if it were not for indigenous media outlets (independent and tribal-owned), Native American bloggers and online news sites that aggregate stories about Native people.
So when I saw the results of a poll question I posed recently to readers of the blog, I thought it helped explain why Native people continue to be invisible in mainstream America.
The question was: To what degree do you think society cares about Native Americans and their issues? The multiple choice answers were: very much, much, cares about some issues, not much, not at all. Of 99 respondents, 57 percent said “not much” and 21 percent said “not at all.” Nearly 20 percent of respondents said they think society “cares about some” Native Americans and their issues, while 2 percent responded that society cares “much.” No one chose “very much.”
An overwhelming majority, 78 percent, thinks society doesn’t care much or cares not at all for Native Americans and their issues. Granted, this is an unscientific survey. It was taken by people who obviously are interested in Native American issues, so that skews the results. But it seems that apathy toward this nation’s First Americans is a factor in why there is not much hard data collected on them, few news stories about them in mainstream media and very few accurate portrayals of them in entertainment media.
This has got to change. Tribal media should not have to shoulder nearly all of the responsibility. I know there are many people out there who feel strongly about this. We need to collaborate on how to document critical issues happening in tribal communities — through studies and in-depth reporting. With that kind of exposure can come understanding and, perhaps, significant change.
I remain hopeful, just as I was more than 25 years ago when I started in the business. I draw encouragement from a story of how my tribe earned its name. I was told that long before European explorers came, neighboring tribes in times of peace could hear my people singing in the distance as they moved their villages to the next location. They sang with such spirit and joy that their choruses echoed across the wilderness like rolling thunder. For that, my tribe was known as the “People of the Big Voice.”
There is power in the collective voice.