A crucial time for Indian country to be heard

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I go to a lot of Indian meetings, where tribal leaders and advisers discuss
their most important issues, value each others' cultures and present their
viewpoints. There is a lot of good Indian thinking going on, even in the
midst of very difficult problems and many challenges and attacks upon
tribal rights by well-organized and hostile groups.

One of the most stimulating gatherings I have attended recently was held at
Buffalo State College, in that famous western New York city that is the
eastern gateway between Indian country, the United States and our Canadian
First Nations relatives.

The founding meeting of the American Indian Policy and Media Initiative
focused on how to build and communicate an effective defense of historical
truths, and the legal and self-governance rights of tribal peoples in the
United States. Hosted by veterans of Native journalism, it brought together
a refreshing corps of very sharp minds. These included tribal leaders such
as Viejas Tribal Chairman Anthony Pico, who gave a powerful presentation,
and critical thinkers among well-established Native journalists such as
Indian Country Today editors Tim Johnson, Mohawk, and Jose Barreiro, Taino;
columnist Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee; Oregonian
correspondent Kara Briggs, Yakama; and others. The ensuing discussion -
full of clear thinking and creative energy - gave me reason for hope that
our dignified and resilient Native peoples in North America will succeed in
their quest to survive and prosper.

Tribal nations in North America face serious dangers to their communities
and national interests. From where I sit, it clearly seems that the media
arena is a major area of contention where our cultures, peoples and
representative institutions must make a vigorous and principled stance.
There are good signs, not only at Buffalo but also at our media trade
group, the Native American Journalists Association, which is increasingly
challenging stereotypes of Indian people.

Various academic programs, including major ones at Harvard University and
the University of Arizona, among others, are also conducting research into
economics, politics, law and other areas. But the promise of AIPMI is its
focus on a nationally active, real-time engagement to better inform and
educate the American public. These are the same folks who elevated our
national American Indian newspaper, Indian Country Today, these past five
years. (A book of their opinion and perspective essays [2000 - '04],
entitled "America is Indian Country," due out this fall from Fulcrum
Publishers, gives a great indication of their depth and range.) They now
are in the process of coalescing some of the very best and brightest
researchers and writers to help the American public come to a more informed
and accurate understanding of American Indian peoples and our issues.

The decency, resiliency and wise cultural cornerstones of our American
Indian governments are not visible to most Americans. Stereotypes abound
and, even more dangerous, a palpable shift in attitudes from positive to
negative - what Barreiro called "a shift in public metaphors" - is clearly
media-driven, often with media being an unwitting conduit for professional
media manipulators representing anti-Indian groups. Johnson emphasized the
need for tribes to get involved in supporting productive think-tanks, such
as this one in Buffalo, and to get busy with national media strategies that
can turn the negative tide.

The main point of the session was that the public perception created by
media almost always sets the pattern of public policy. Professor Ron Smith,
chair of the college's Communications Department, presented results from a
recent AIPMI research study that tracked the media influence upon public
attitudes in New York state. His study showed a remarkable residue of
public sympathy for Indian people - which can decline as tribes ignore the
importance of participation in the media discourse, or improve as the
public gains increased exposure to accurate information about Indian
peoples and their histories.

There was a great scene about halfway through the epic film "Gandhi," on
the life and struggles of the hero-philosopher who guided the independence
of India. In one of his many campaigns, Gandhi (I paraphrase from memory)
found himself surrounded by powerful enemies and flanked by the British
army when several young college students break through the battle lines to
his camp. The great leader asks them, "And what are you young people
studying?" "We are becoming journalists," they reply. Gandhi clasps his
hands together: "Thanks God," he exclaims. "Now we have won our struggle."

After a quarter century of public service, I can vouch for the reality that
the squeaky wheel gets the attention and that the key to American Indian
survival lies in our ability to educate, to win hearts and minds on behalf
of our fundamental quest for freedom and justice. This certainly holds true
in Washington, D.C., and for legislators generally. The public arena is our
major battleground these days. All American Indian leaders and people of
good will should support our ethical journalists and brilliant
communicators.

Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Northern Cheyenne, is a former member of the U.S.
Senate. He currently serves as Senior Policy Advisor to Holland and Knight.