Native tongue


Native American tribal colleges have a history of censorship, small support for journalism programs





Native American tribal colleges are unique. Most of them are located on tribal lands, sovereign from the United States, yet are funded with federal dollars. Some are more vocational than academic, and few offer four-year degrees. 

Only a handful have a student-produced publication, and none have a journalism program. In tribal college media, student journalists and their advocates say they treasure independence, and they know that in the past, freedom of the press has been considered optional by school officials.

Almost two decades ago, school administrators in Lawrence, Kan., censored the oldest tribal college student-produced publication, Haskell Indian Nations University's Indian Leader, because of an article it published about the university president's involvement in a money mismanagement investigation. 

The article was actually a compilation of facts from several stories published in other area newspapers, but after publication the administrators froze the Leader's account in 1989 and students could not print any issues for several months.Marcel Stevens, then managing editor of the Leader, and seven other students filed a lawsuit after the Leader's adviser and his son tried to print a 'counterfeit' issue with what were described as 'biased, one-sided' articles.

Out of print for six months, a federal judge granted a temporary injunction in favor of Stevens' group that stopped publication of the so-called 'counterfeit' issues.In court, the students' lawyer argued that 'even one publication of 'counterfeit' issues would irreparably violate Stevens' First Amendment rights, as well as damage the newspaper's reputation and ability to publish "timely" news.

In September of 1989, the students and school reached a settlement that gave The Indian Leader staff autonomous control.After the Leader had resumed publication, Stevens wrote an editorial giving his reasons for filing the lawsuit. 

"We decided to bring this action to protect your First Amendment right to read uncensored news written and edited by Haskell students without any interference or pressure from the administration," Stevens wrote in 1989.

Today, The Indian Leader staff has complete control over the content of the paper. 

"If the university wants to respond to an article, we'll have to do it through a letter to the editor and even then it's up to the staff to print it or not," said Haskell Vice President of Academic Affairs Venida Chenault. 

Gerald Gipp, Haskell's president at the time of the incident, said he was cleared of all allegations and was "surprised" when the censorship lawsuit occurred. Gipp said he was "not aware of the censorship incident" and he was "not on campus" during the time of the incident because he had been relocated to Washington, D.C., by the school's board during the investigation.

Censorship Policy

In Santa Fe, N.M., the Institute of American Indian Arts' student newspaper, the IAIA Chronicle, faced strong administrative pressure of its own in the mid-1990s when the school faced budget cuts from the U.S. Congress and many employees were laid off. 

Several employees filed lawsuits, which started a long bout of negative publicity for the school.The Chronicle, under tight administrative control, did not publish any articles regarding the lawsuit, for fear of censorship, said Chronicle adviser Evelina Lucero, a member of the Isleta and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblos of New Mexico.

"Because of the negative publicity they were receiving in the local newspapers the school permitted statements to the press through the president's office only," said Lucero, which made it difficult for Chronicle reporters to gather information. 

The school's president also demanded to review a Chronicle reporter's story on the school's budget, but both the reporter and Lucero refused.

"I explained to the president that we did not allow [prior review] but would be happy to verify all quotes by her for accuracy," Lucero said. "If we didn't state a policy and stand by it, administrators would attempt to censor the paper."

The Chronicle's editorial policy refers to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to guarantee the right of freedom of the press. It also cites the 1957 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roth v. U.S. that ensures the "unfettered interchange of ideas for bringing about the political and social changes desired by the people."

In adherence to the idea that it is a public forum, the IAIA Chronicle will not shy away from coverage of controversial topics, Lucero said, but instead will seek to cover all stories fairly and accurately.

"Censorship is repressive and the opposite of what educational institutions seek to teach," Lucero said.

The Chronicle covers a variety of issues, ranging from drug abuse on the reservation to art shows, legislation in the state and education on a national level, Lucero said. 

"After the first attempt at censorship by the administration the distrust of the student media disappeared," Lucero said.

But Denny McAuliffe, University of Montana journalism professor and founder of Reznetnews.org, a Web site designed to promote journalism among Native American youth, said tribal college newspapers simply do not tackle hard-hitting issues, which is why tribal colleges are rarely subject to censorship.

In Lawrence, current Indian Leader Editor Robert Smith said the problem is of personnel.

"It would be nice if the Leader had a bit more of an edge, but the truth is we are severely understaffed," Smith said. "I can put anything that I feel appropriate [in] the paper." 

More Free

Tribal college newspapers are often not directed by the tribal council, and therefore are not subject to the same tribal restrictions as community tribal publications are, said McAuliffe, a member of the Osage tribe of Oklahoma. 

McAuliffe said that shows tribal college newspapers are in one way more free than the professional newspapers owned by the tribe. Autonomy protects tribal college newspapers from censorship by tribal council members that are unhappy with stories in the paper. 

"Theoretically, freedom of press can exist on tribal lands if you use tribal college newspapers," McAuliffe said. 

Technically, the First Amendment does not apply to all tribal lands, McAuliffe said. In the 1896 case Talton v. Mayes, a court decided that the U.S. Constitution does not apply to tribal land and its members, said Thomas Birdbear, lawyer and adjunct lecturer at the University of New Mexico Native American Studies Department.

Yet, all tribes are subject to the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, which includes a free and independent press, but it is "up to the tribes to exercise this right," Birdbear said. 

The 1978 Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez decision stated again that the U.S. Constitution does not apply to tribal land, because tribes are sovereign nations with their own government and law, and also that tribes pre-date the Constitution.

"It's a misnomer that freedom of press is a right in Indian country, unless a tribe writes it into its constitution," Birdbear said. 

Tribal courts could also assert a freedom of the press guarantee, but a case would have to be filed and not many tribes have taken such a proactive approach, Birdbear said.

"You're dealing with an area that doesn't have a lot of legal precedent in tribal judicial law, which makes objective writing difficult," said Paul DeMain, editor of the independently owned tribal publication News From Indian Country.

The two largest Native tribes, the Cherokee and the Navajo nations, have a freedom of the press law written into their constitutions. Both tribes have a free press independent from the tribal government, said Tom Arviso, Jr., publisher of the Navajo Times.

Education and Censorship

Gipp, who is now the executive director of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, which oversees all tribal colleges, said press freedom at tribal colleges is important, but journalism programs are not a tribal college priority.

But advocates say the two are linked.Of the 34 tribal colleges across the country, only 10 have a student-produced newspaper — online or print — a television station, radio station or even a journalism program. 

Pam Wynea of the Sisseton Wahpeton College in northeastern South Dakota said it is difficult to find a faculty member interested in taking on the task of advising a student paper or journalism program. 

"It's really personality driven," Wynea said.

Blackfeet Community College in Montana offers a few journalism classes through its liberal arts program, but does not have a student publication. Communications Coordinator Marion Salaway said a journalism program is "something we're discussing. We just haven't had the resources and mainly the personnel and money for a publication." 

Funding for printing and distribution is a problem for many tribal colleges as well. But the Salish Kootenai College in Montana has eliminated the printing and distribution process and gone digital with an online publication called The Camp Crier.

With the help of McAuliffe, Salish Kootenai was able to set up a Web site that includes articles about the school and two galleries showcasing students' artwork and photographs.A recent graduate of Salish Kootenai, Wayne Smith, Jr., said he recalls a short article he wrote for The Camp Crier about being a child unaware of conflicts and war. 

Wayne Smith, also a veteran, referred to his own letters and said the content was "innocent."

The photo that accompanied the story was of a woman breastfeeding an infant. David Spear, The Camp Crier's adviser, said the community surrounding the reservation is conservative and the group was concerned about backlash from community members. 

"We thought the administration wasn't going to let us run it, but they did," Wayne Smith said. 

Wayne Smith said the college president stood 'completely behind' the publication.

Wayne Smith, a member of the Blackfeet tribe of Montana, is also a graduate of the American Indian Journalism Institute, which is a three-week intensive course sponsored by the Freedom Forum at the University of South Dakota at Vermillion. Wayne is now attending the University of Montana's journalism school.

Cynthia Hernandez, of the Prairie Band Potawatomi tribe and Travis Coleman, of the Ponca tribe of Nebraska, both former editors of Haskell's Indian Leader and graduates of American Indian Journalism Institute, said the Native American journalism movement is progressing.

"In the next five to 10 years young Native American journalists will flood mainstream newsrooms," Coleman said.

Coleman, Hernandez and Wayne Smith are the only three tribal college students that he knows of who have moved on to larger universities to pursue a writing degree, McAuliffe said.

McAuliffe referred to them as trailblazers. All three of the students contribute to McAuliffe's Reznetnews.org news Web site.

"A lot of Native kids have an opinion but they don't have a forum," Wayne Smith said. "Without an outlet we sit silenced."

The Difference

The disconnection between professionals and students is obvious, McAuliffe said, and tribal college newspapers are not getting the job done. 

"Tribal college newspapers are not designed to teach journalism or even promote journalism," McAuliffe said. 

Coleman went on to write for the University of South Dakota publication, the Volante. In comparison of the two school papers, Coleman said the Volante was much more structured, the coverage was more legitimate and deadlines were quicker.

"I fostered my journalism career at Haskell, it was a low-pressure environment," Coleman said. 

But McAuliffe said that news coverage and deadlines are not the only difference between public and tribal college publications. McAuliffe said public college newspapers are usually separate businesses or fall under a student government's control. 

He said the president's office or an academic department controls tribal colleges publications. Journalism couple Valencia Tso-Yazzie and Dulbert Yazzie said they value the right to freedom of the press at the IAIA Chronicle, whose publication is under the creative writing department. 

Valencia, the Chronicle's student editor and Dulbert, a reporter, are both members of the Navajo nation, and said that it is not in the paper's "interest to silence anyone."

Dulbert said that informing the community is important to the entire staff and each reporter strives to be accurate and fair with every story.Dulbert said the tribal student newspaper does not feel the need to hold back its opinions, either.

"Students can often feel disempowered in institutions of education, and student newspapers can be an effective tool for them to address and challenge controversial issues," Dulbert said.

Tribal free press

The Cherokee and Navajo nations, the largest Native American tribes, both have adopted press freedom protections in recent years.Principal Chief Chad Smith signed the Cherokee Nation Independent Press Act into law in 2000. The Cherokee Phoenix is the oldest community tribal newspaper that covers the news of the Cherokee nation in Oklahoma. The act reads, 'The Cherokee Nation's Press shall be independent from any undue influence and free of any particular political interest. It is the duty of the press to report without bias the activities of the government and the news of interest to have informed citizens.'The Navajo Nation, the largest reservation, covers parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Title one section four of the Navajo Nation Bill of Rights allowed the Navajo Times to become an independent press in 2003, although the tribal council did have to vote on its autonomy. The section reads, 'Freedom of religion, speech, press, and the right of assembly and petition. The Navajo Nation Council shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Navajo Nation government for a redress of grievances.'

Tribal free press

The Cherokee and Navajo nations, the largest Native American tribes, both have adopted press freedom protections in recent years.Principal Chief Chad Smith signed the Cherokee Nation Independent Press Act into law in 2000. The Cherokee Phoenix is the oldest community tribal newspaper that covers the news of the Cherokee nation in Oklahoma. The act reads, 'The Cherokee Nation's Press shall be independent from any undue influence and free of any particular political interest. It is the duty of the press to report without bias the activities of the government and the news of interest to have informed citizens.'The Navajo Nation, the largest reservation, covers parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Title one section four of the Navajo Nation Bill of Rights allowed the Navajo Times to become an independent press in 2003, although the tribal council did have to vote on its autonomy. The section reads, 'Freedom of religion, speech, press, and the right of assembly and petition. The Navajo Nation Council shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Navajo Nation government for a redress of grievances.'

Tribal free press

The Cherokee and Navajo nations, the largest Native American tribes, both have adopted press freedom protections in recent years.Principal Chief Chad Smith signed the Cherokee Nation Independent Press Act into law in 2000. The Cherokee Phoenix is the oldest community tribal newspaper that covers the news of the Cherokee nation in Oklahoma. The act reads, 'The Cherokee Nation's Press shall be independent from any undue influence and free of any particular political interest. It is the duty of the press to report without bias the activities of the government and the news of interest to have informed citizens.'The Navajo Nation, the largest reservation, covers parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Title one section four of the Navajo Nation Bill of Rights allowed the Navajo Times to become an independent press in 2003, although the tribal council did have to vote on its autonomy. The section reads, 'Freedom of religion, speech, press, and the right of assembly and petition. The Navajo Nation Council shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Navajo Nation government for a redress of grievances.'


reports, Winter 2006-07