Society apathetic toward Native Americans, poll shows

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.



7 thoughts on “Society apathetic toward Native Americans, poll shows

  1. This may sound ignorant, but I follow a couple of Native news outlets on facebook and have lately wondered about some sort of “cultural exchange.”
    For many years I dreamed I could someday afford to send my kids on a 14 day trip with Cross Cultural Solutions, who send kids out of the US to help with village drinking wells or language immersion. Now I’m thinking, why not here, why not send my kids to a reservation to explore a native language, a native culture? I think it could have an incredible impact on society’s awareness of America’s natives.
    My niece is Navajo and over the years I have learned so much about her culture and I now see so many signs of our native people that I would never have noticed before if not for her.

    • That’s an interesting idea, Julie. I wonder if there are any programs like that in existence. I haven’t heard of any, but I will look into it. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Here is a comment that I neglected to incorporate into the blog post. It’s from Traci Huntemann-Piatt, a friend of mine and one of my former graduate-school classmates at Marquette University. Here is what she said via Facebook:
    “Hi Karen. Answered your blog but did want to say it’s not that I think people don’t care it’s that I think they are vastly unaware. Even living in az where so much if the land is reservation there’s little news or info shared off those reservations. But driving through especially in southern az is eye opening. And staying on lac du flambeau for a week each year you gain no awareness of the local issues. Just my experience. Actually most I know is from you! From learning about spear fishing in our class when you were doing your paper! Growing up in Chicago area was even less informative. Anyway just my thoughts as someone who cares but understands little of the issues.”
    Valid point, Traci. If people were aware of what’s happening Native communities, they might care about Native issues. Thanks, Traci, for letting me share your comment on the blog.

  3. Hi Karen,
    Yes, there is indeed power in the collective voice. When I hear Native Americans speaking up for their values, rights and property, I cheer!

    I hear some blame in this post. “Society” can’t be completely blamed as apathetic when Native Americans themselves are silent. I understand too, that many tribal traditions value silence and listening, and do not value speech like mainstream America does. This is a cultural catch 22. How can society come to care about what they don’t hear about? How can Native American issues be communicated while they practice another Native American value, silence?

    i wonder if you see your role as that of a cultural interpreter. A translator interprets both sides with respect. That’s a powerful and helpful role.

    I believe that mainstream America is capable of great care for justice. The changes over my lifetime that have taken place toward African Americans, LGBT and Military members (Vietnam vets in particular) are proof to me that with advocacy, justice and compassion can win.

    Thank you for being a voice for Native Americans.

    • Hello, Maryjean. I understand what you mean about valuing silence. As children, my siblings and I were taught our Ho-Chunk values and teachings, which included that children are to be quiet in a public setting. We lived in a non-Indian community and I went to school every day with mostly white children. I always felt that there were two worlds: my Native culture and mainstream America. I come from a patriarchal culture and it is customary for me to have my husband or a male relative speak for me in certain cultural situations. I try to follow those teachings, but I also know my rights as an individual in the larger society. My parents encouraged us to get a good education so we could succeed. In order to learn and compete, I had to speak up and participate. I think there is a way to be respectful of one’s cultural values and step outside that comfort zone in the non-Indian world.
      You asked if I see myself as a cultural interpreter. I have not thought about that before. I see myself as newswoman and a journalist. If my writing helps people gain some understanding of Native issues, then that is a positive result.
      Thanks so much for expressing your insights.

  4. I have always loved to learn about Native Americans, in the US and Latin America. I was raised with diversity and appreciate it. My family and I respect and practically revere Native Americans, feeling pain when we see them get negative press. I can only speak for myself, but when I try to express interest in other cultures, I often feel somewhat isolated, and feel as if I am eyed suspiciously, and ridiculed (though never verbally) for not understanding the nuances of the culture. I feel I am among a society that is not going to allow me in, or not let me know too much. Native Americans are not the only group that exude this feeling (to me), and it is highly likely that White people appear the same way to non-Whites. I am only relating MY experiences, over decades. Non-Native Americans may seem apathetic, when in reality, I feel much of the ignorance is due to simply not SEEING or being exposed to other cultures. I simply can’t believe that most people just don’t care about Native Americans. Here in Phoenix, and in Oklahoma, Native American culture is celebrated, and I see their presence everywhere, raising our awareness. I agree the Natives have been historically poorly treated, and I hope today we are more enlightened about caring for all cultures. I for one would love to become more educated about Native American ways. Native American culture, like many ethnic and religious groups, have many rituals and customs, while most of us White folks have a bland life, bereft of tribal icons, coming of age ceremonies, respect for our elders, and other traditions. Sometimes I think these differences contribute to the division of cultures, making it harder for WHite people to appreciate and understand other cultures.

    • Barb: Thanks for your thoughtful comment. You just took a step toward building understanding. Having a dialogue among different cultures helps break down barriers. I’m glad to hear your view and your optimism. We need more of it.
      Thanks so much for reading my blog.

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