Skip to main content

Media impact on American Indian public policy

  • Author:
  • Updated:

Proper and realistic representation in media is crucial for the protection
of American Indian peoples' inherent and treaty rights. The way situations
and issues are covered -- how the media comes to interpret Indian realities
-- increasingly drives the making of public policy. Issues that can help or
wreak havoc on American Indian tribal life are decided not only by reason
and precedence, but too often by the clamor of negative public attention.

There is the strongest case to be made that a more empowered and more
concentrated effort is necessary by a circle of American Indian
opinion-makers, national organizations and tribal nations to organize
serious and far-reaching campaigns that generate in the American public, in
particular professionals in American media, a more comprehensive
understanding of how to report on Indian country.

We are of the mind that for such a campaign to work it must encompass a
coalition of Native and non-Native individuals and organizations. It should
lead to a lot of discussion and dialogue within Native circles about the
fundamentals of the media onslaught and how to assimilate the lessons of
successful delivery of Indian ideas and factual patterns to media. Tribe by
tribe, regionally and nationally, it should upgrade this understanding and
training of media strategic thinking as well as the skills of the craft.

Seeking to expand the emergence of Indian voices and Indian
self-representation, a number of important Indian and non-Indian
organizations have enthusiastically joined a symposium called for by the
Friends Committee on National Legislation, a group with a long history of
involvement with Indian causes. The event, to be held March 2 and 3, in
Washington, D.C., is titled, "Who Wants to Hear Our Story? Communications
and Contemporary Native Americans." It is intended as an educational
symposium aimed at engaging a wide circle of Indian opinion-makers to
dialogue with journalists, legislators, scholars, religious organizations
and others with issues affecting American Indian peoples.

We congratulate the FCNL gesture to facilitate such a gathering. We also
salute the emergence of the American Indian Policy and Media Initiative at
Buffalo State College, a co-sponsor. We encourage all tribal peoples and
their allies and friends to focus on media relations as part and parcel of
existence and activity in the contemporary world.

Among the smallest and most distinct groups in the United States, American
Indian peoples and organizations must reach out to all possible avenues of
education among ethnic and professional bases. There is already some good
news. Nationally, a solid core of researchers, writers and columnists are
coming to the fore with the capability to empower such a work. An ongoing
discussion about American Indian policy and media issues, to help analyze,
strategize and coordinate a much fuller and cohesive capability of response
and self-expression is completely required in these times.

Tribal leaders and opinion leaders in Indian country often complain about
the depiction of their peoples and issues in the media. Often this refers
to the lack of depiction: one of the major problems is the invisibility of
Indian faces in media. Even to this day there is hardly an identifiable
American Indian expert on Indian contemporary issues, culture and history
to whom the media turns, much less a good range of Indian experts on
various topics and themes. Thus, in a predictable pattern, even at those
times when a Native case breaks through the surface, skimpy understanding
is available and misperception ensues.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Beyond invisibility, tribal leaders also point to the outright hostility of
some of the media, often skillfully driven by groups specifically negative
to Indian interests. This has happened for a long time but it is happening
today at greater risk to tribal nations. The organized, anti-Indian groups
have become a voice and a force to counteract. Largely, these interest
groups wrap themselves in the American flag and intone the mantra of "one
nation under God" to presume that the tribal American Indian nations of
this land should not, or can not, any longer exist. These groups, which
often outnumber Indian people in their localities, are serious about
pressuring politicians through the media. Cases in New York, Connecticut,
Wisconsin, Montana, etc., give evidence of their organizing.

The pro-termination arguments of the anti-Indian groups are in line with at
least one wing of punditry on the right, have the support of pandering
politicians on the left, and get excellent argumentative backup in
nationally established columns. Any involvement by any Indian entity in
scandalous or questionable cases and incidents can gain control of the
national image of Indians generally.

Nationally, to cite just one important case, the dishonesties of Jack
Abramoff continue to surface. Just with that particular media-frenzied
case, the image of Indians can transform from that of long-standing tribes
progressively seeking justice in America, to one of newly-rich victims of
Washington corruption or greedy manipulators attempting to buy favors from
those with political power. The point here is not that these perceptions
are not at least incidentally grounded -- for some among the half-dozen
seriously duped tribes -- but that the way the media are, the perception of
these isolated incidents can easily become the common silhouette of all 562
federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native peoples, whose own
distinct versions of tribal reality will go ignored.

Always distinct and not so small anymore (if we go by the 4.4 million U.S.
Census figure), the complex amalgam of Indian country can be dangerously
reduced in American public life. If the Abramoff case (among other such
situations) goes on long enough, the incidental involvement of some Indians
in it can seriously diminish the positive, and more realistic, perception
of American Indian life. This is aggravated by the media's "herd mentality"
and their need to present quick, superficial profiles of complicated

Sometimes Indian people feel alone in noticing the absences, the omissions,
the lack of balanced representation, the omission of facts and the hurtful
stereotypes. It is good to reaffirm and realign with organizations such as
HONOR [Honor Our Neighbors, Origins and Rights], the American Friends
Service Committee, FCNL and many others that have advocated for and with
tribes for decades over the centuries. Allied groups have become
increasingly concerned, as have we, about the unusual combination of
invisibility and negative stereotypes that is making things difficult for
those who care about improving conditions in Indian country and about
describing the strengths and successes of indigenous peoples.

There is much to be said in the proposed discussion. In light of
substantial economic growth, triggering huge prosperity for some tribes,
moderate support for many others and sizable headaches for yet others,
distinctions among American Indian situations must be understood. The
explosive financial nature of the gaming path is hardly an option for over
two-thirds of Indian tribes, while destitution and poverty are still quite
prevalent. Nevertheless, the controversy, hostilities and stereotypes
generated against this sector of Indian country affects all of Indian

We urge all people interested in the above and other Indian policy and
media issues to make contact and/or attend.

To learn more about "Who Wants to Hear Our Story? Communications and
Contemporary Native Americans," contact Patricia Powers at or
visit the FCNL Web site at and click on "Native American" and
then on the "Communications and Contemporary Native Americans" symposium