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Karuk Journalist Determined to Get Native Stories in Mainstream Media

Story about Chiara Sottile, a young Native American journalist whose goal is to get Native American news into the mainstream.
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Like so many epic battles, Chiara Sottile’s campaign to get more visibility for American Indians started on a playground. But unlike a typical schoolyard skirmish, this struggle led Sottile to New York’s iconic Yankee Stadium, some of the country’s best golf courses and the 2010 Winter Olympics. With an activist’s insistence on justice and a journalist’s obsession with truth, this recent graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism has made a short film, “Winning for Native America,” (watch the video above) in which New York Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain, former PGA Tour golfer Notah Begay III and Olympic ice dancer Naomi Lang talk about their experiences as American Indians competing at the highest levels of athletic achievement. Each athlete talks about life in the mainstream—and about life in Indian country, including the health and education disparities in those two communities, from a personal perspective.

Sottile produced the documentary to complete her master’s thesis and, she says, because “Native peoples are not just lines in history texts, cigar-store dummies or sports mascots. Those kinds of representations indicate how often in mainstream culture Native people are relegated to the past.”

This film suggests that Sottile’s future career, set to launch in the fall when she joins the next class of News Associates at NBC, will be stellar. “My goal,” she explains, “is to use the reporting skills I gained at Columbia to be in touch with the Native community, to report on issues of interest to Native peoples. I consider it my responsibility as a journalist to report on stories not often seen in the mainstream media.”

A native Californian whose mother is Karuk and whose father is Sicilian, Sottile vows she won’t forget the people living in Indian country when she goes to work at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Indeed, as a student she compiled a portfolio of stories of particular interest to Natives. The schoolyard skirmish that led her to produce “Winning for Native America” was a dispute between the New York City Parks Department and American Indian activists. The Parks Department had begun renovations of a playground in the Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood. Situated on Indian Road, the playground had a design plan that was meant to reference Manhattan’s original inhabitants, but as is too often the case when these types of projects begin, Sottile says, “No Native people were consulted for the playground’s design.”

Sottile wrote a story for the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism news website that examined the playground’s plans, in particular a sandbox with a mock artifact dig that, she says, would have replicated the offensive practice of “unearthing the belongings of Native people” in the minds of impressionable children at play. As she updated the article and interviewed Native people living in New York, “a common theme emerged: deep concern that Native peoples are relegated to the past in mainstream culture.” One of those interviews was with award-winning author Yvonne Wakim Dennis. According to Sottile, Dennis said, “Why not include Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain in the Indian Road Playground design?” The concept for “Winning for Native America” sprang from that conversation. “America’s favorite pastime,” Sottile says, “seemed like a great place to start bridging what is sometimes a disconnect between ‘modern’ America and Native America.”

“Sometimes Native people are invisible in mainstream society unless they fit into a certain construct,” Sottile says, “but Joba Chamberlain, Naomi Lang and Notah Begay III are all examples of Native people rising above that oppressive construct.” (Lang, who is also Karuk, was the first self-identified American Indian woman to compete in the Winter Olympics.)

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Though she didn’t grow up on tribal land, Sottile visited California’s Happy Camp, ancestral home of the Karuk, as a child and learned to speak some Karuk words with her mother, who raised her with Native people and traditions. She says she is grateful to her mother “for showing me the beauty in being Indian, from the baskets she makes”—[she ’s currently making baskets for Chamberlain, Lang and Begay as thank-you gifts]—“to pow wows, to the eagle feather she gave me when I graduated with my bachelor’s degree.”

She earned that degree in political science and public policy at UCLA, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude. Sottile earned a partial scholarship to attend Columbia, where she graduated with honors in May. Now she’s off to NBC, which is owned by General Electric, the largest of the “Big Six” media companies in the United States. Sottile is fully aware that she is one of the few American Indians working in this vertically integrated, massive corporation and also knows that, while her voice is important, she could never speak for a community as diverse as the American Indian population.

She wants to help others like her gain a foothold in mainstream journalism, and is in the process of helping to form a Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) student chapter at Columbia. Sottile says she is helping develop the journalism careers of others in the Native community because that community nurtured and supported her, from elders like Dennis, “who welcomed me into her home for a hot meal when I had just moved to New York City and started journalism school,” to the subjects of her film, “all three of whom were supportive and enthusiastic about the project.

“?‘It takes a village’ is not just an adage to be plastered on a kitchen magnet. Rather, success really is dependent on community: from the values I learned from my parents, to the professor who helped me airplane-proof my camera equipment, to the Karuk Tribe for supporting ‘Winning for Native America.’

“In ‘Winning for Native America,’ Naomi talks about how the most memorable moment of the Olympics for her was when she gave a gift to a Native elder on the ice in the opening ceremonies. It wasn’t skating on the Olympic ice, or giving on-camera interviews or competing for a medal but honoring her community that carried the most meaning for her. For Naomi, and for me, and probably for a lot of Native people, the achievements do not belong to us as individuals, but to the community.”

Sottile’s advice for aspiring Native journalists with stories to tell about their communities is simple: “Go out and do it. The great thing about journalism is that good stories are everywhere. Find people with interesting stories that need to be told and tell them. Even if all you have to work with is a crayon and a napkin or a cell-phone camera, go out and scribble, shoot, speak.”

Check out Sottile's website here.