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Better journalism about Indian Country begins with local schools and education

By Graham Lee Brewer

As a student at Norman High School in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, it was easy to feel overlooked. There weren’t many other Native kids in my classes, and I certainly don’t recall ever having a Native teacher. But it was a more insidious absence that troubles me most today.

Something I say a lot when talking about the work we do at the Native American Journalists Association, where I am a board member, is that we are trying in part to make up for the gross inadequacies of our public education system. I recall my high school Oklahoma history class began with the Land Run, effectively erasing the multitudes of Indigenous cultures that predate the state. And, unsurprisingly, this omission also meant no discussions about colonization or genocide.

For the past two years, I have been training newsrooms across the country how to report ethically and responsibly about Indian Country. From the L.A. Times to the New York Times and several NPR stations in between, I have worked with everyone from cub reporters getting their start at a small-town station to investigative journalists at some of the most prestigious newspapers in the country. One thing I’ve come to realize is that until we start teaching Indigenous histories in the classroom, American newsrooms will continue to misunderstand us.

From polls at national papers that attempt to justify the use of racial slurs as team names to political coverage that downplays or omits the voice of Indigenous peoples on the issues and topics that affect us the most, there is no shortage of poor and unethical coverage of Indian Country. In fact, it often seems like the rule not the exception when non-Native reporters parachute into our communities. And while that is changing, there is still much more work to be done.

Until our public schools begin properly retelling history or confronting the ugly parts of how this country came to be, we at NAJA seek to help as many Indigenous journalists as we can get into those newsrooms, from local papers to national broadcasters. Studies have shown that less than 0.5 percent of employees in newsrooms across the country are Indigenous. One of our goals is to raise that to 2 percent over the next 10 years, something we think is achievable with tribal support.

Journalism has long been an integral part of many of our tribal nations. My tribe, the Cherokee Nation, has been printing newspapers longer than both the Washington Post and the New York Times. Ledger artist Silver Horn documented the history of the Kiowa Tribe on buffalo hide, and Cheyenne prisoners did the same on ledger paper. We as tribes should inspire our Native youth to take up this mantle, to become journalists and be the next generation of our storytellers. Encouraging our youth to be part of NAJA’s 2 percent goal does more than help make coverage of Indian Country more accurate, it also carries forward a powerful legacy of truth, knowledge and time.

For many years now, NAJA has offered scholarships and mentor programs for student journalists through a program called the Native American Journalism Fellowship, which is funded by our members and donations. As part of the program, a group of promising Native student journalists are brought to our annual conference, paired with a professional journalist mentor and put through a weeklong training program. Students work on stories, build interview and source-gathering skills, and network with reporters, editors and newsroom managers. Native students are the least likely demographic to receive college preparation, and they represent only 1 percent of college student bodies across the country. Getting young Native storytellers into mainstream newsrooms requires all of us holding each other up, like we have learned to do over millennia.

When I think back on my high school self, sitting in that Oklahoma History class questioning whose history I was really learning, I wish I had known then that there was a whole family of Indigenous journalists, writers, scholars and leaders waiting to teach me who I am and what I could someday be. Let us all find ways to be that family.

Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor for Indigenous affairs at High Country News and a member of the Cherokee Nation. He lives in Norman, OK. Find him on Twitter @grahambrewer.