Message to media: Hear the Indian voice

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A good core of Native journalists and other professionals working in media
and American Indian issues gathered for the "Hear Our Story: Communications
and Contemporary Native Americans" symposium, held in Washington in early
March. The Friends Committee on National Legislation coordinated the event,
while the American Indian Policy and Media Initiative and many others
networked organizations and individual presenters to request from American
media that it "hear our story."

Some 60 speakers among nearly 200 participants offered ample evidence of
the sharp intelligence, humor, poise and cultural distinctiveness among
professionals and observers of the Native world -- giving the lie to the
claim of too many television producers and newspaper editors that such
voices are hard to find and thus impossible to produce or publish.

Journalists, educators, tribal leaders -- including Joe Garcia, the new
president of the National Congress of American Indians -- and the directors
and staff of important outreach organizations, Native and non-Native,
offered a substantial range of cogent information, analysis and perspective
on the pressing issue of generating a better representation of American
Indian tribal realities.

While different approaches, various strategies and tactics on "telling our
story" were discussed, the general consensus called for a much greater
engagement of the public arena. Joe Garcia emphasized the positive and
far-reaching campaigns in Indian country, choosing to get past the latest
media rave around the case of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He focused
particular attention on the NCAI's initiative on the dangers of the
methamphetamine invasion of Indian communities in recent years. Garcia also
properly pointed out the serious health and governance issues of tribal
nations.

The theory here is to not let the media control the Indian message, but to
hammer away at the government's reluctance to own up to their trust
responsibility to tribes.

Other speakers -- just as cogently -- called on Indian country opinion
leaders and upon fair-minded journalists to always directly tackle all
cases of negative focus on Indian people. The theory expressed here is to
jump into the media current on all issues of impact and thus give pause to
and educate media producers and editors not to disregard diligent research
when profiling Native tribal peoples and their issues. Part and parcel of
that due diligence by media must be to always consider and present
significant American Indian perspectives on Indian issues.

However one perceives the tactical implications of either theory, the
objective is an improved presentation and more vigorous self-representation
of and by American Indian voices in media. This has strong support among
the still-growing list of organizations that are responding to the problem,
including Americans for Indian Opportunity, American Friends Service
Committee, Call to Renewal, First Nations Development Institute, Honor Our
Neighbors' Origins and Rights, Institute for Tribal Government, The
Interfaith Alliance, National American Indian Housing Council, National
Congress of American Indians, National Council of Churches, National
Council on Urban Indian Health, National Indian Child Welfare Association,
National Indian Council on Aging, National Indian Education Association,
National Indian Health Board, National Native American Families Together,
National Urban Indian Family Coalition, Native American Journalists
Association, Native American Rights Fund, Navajo Nation Washington Office
and the Union for Reform Judaism.

The enthusiastic response from these organizations and departments provides
good evidence of a current of thinking -- shared by a valuable core network
-- that can become an active information and educational movement focused
on media and policy impacts.

We find this movement and the conference that launches it a significant
occurrence. Indian country and its endeavors are taking a seriously bad
rap. In Congress, as veteran U.S. Senate hand Paul Moorehead (and others)
discussed, the language of termination, the expression of tribal existence
itself as anachronistic, is heard in open conversation.

People in the know assert to us that it is more difficult to conduct
business on behalf of Indian tribes these days. The new generation of
congressional officials and staffers has little access to Native realities
or sources. A bad rash of media coverage linking to specific Native
enterprises and tribal governments can stampede thinking that can generate
negative policy.

We believe it is lance-in-the-ground time for Native communicators from all
directions; it is time to engage and respond. We urge tribal leaders and
political and cultural organizations to commit the extra effort in
presenting our best professionals, who are available and quite capable, to
reach out to media. We urge support for the production and circulation of
perspectives and positions of the Indian thinkers and artists of the
current generations.

Young people in tribal colleges and in college programs across the country
would do well to hone in their most productive communications skills to
address Native issues in media.

Every region of the country -- every situation surrounding a tribal nation
-- requires attention. Local and border-town newspapers are often hostile
beyond the national media, which errs more in omission and distraction than
in bigoted intent. Organizing conferences and teach-outs on core American
Indian issues and perspectives that aim to educate media and college
students would be useful to empowering Native communities. Good research,
excellent communications skills and tools are needed to help create a
bridge of understanding that can mitigate the onslaught of bigoted
special-interest groups intent on eradicating tribal nations from American
political life.

The common initiative to address American Indian policy and media
discrepancies got a strong boost in Washington. An appreciation is due to
FCNL for identifying the need to convene our shared concerns into an active
current.