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National media museum neglects Native press

WASHINGTON - The grand opening of the new national media-focused Newseum April 11 was a big letdown for anyone who expected to see many exhibits, or even items, featuring the vast culture and story of American Indian and tribal media.

The 250,000-square-foot museum, located in the heart of Pennsylvania Avenue, cost $450 million and took more than seven years to plan and build. Its impressive exterior is emblazoned with a large stone tablet rendering the First Amendment of the Constitution in bold letters. It is a project of the Freedom Forum, a foundation that advocates for free press and speech rights.

During a media preview, Indian Country Today found exceptionally few representations of the Native press, especially in comparison to the museum;s presentations focused on other minority media in the country.

Among the findings:

*The only examples of Native newspapers in the entire museum are located in pull-out drawers on a museum wall focused on the history of the U.S. and world press. Fewer than five Indian papers out of hundreds of historical U.S. publications are featured on the wall.

*Large displays highlight hundreds of contemporary world and foreign language newspapers, TV and radio shows, and Web sites, but no current tribal or national Native newspapers, Internet news sites, or broadcast endeavors are mentioned.

*No more than nine Native journalists, both historic and contemporary, are featured in displays and electronic exhibits at the museum. Scores of black, Latino and Asian journalists are featured, as are thousands of white journalists.

*Seven of the approximately nine Native journalists featured can only be found in an electronic names database.

*An entire wall illuminates history and current developments in the black press, which notes that ''black newspapers have been powerful voices against long-endured social justice.''

*In the rare instances when Native journalism or journalists are highlighted, it is often in terms of historical achievements, such as Elias Boudinot's inclusion on the museum's breathtaking 36-foot-tall memorial to journalists who died while reporting the news. Boudinot, a Cherokee Native leader, was the editor of what is believed to be the first Native newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix.

*Contemporary achievements of the non-Indian press take up thousands upon thousands of square feet of the large building. Even the slippers of a sassy mainstream political blogger are on prominent display, as is a keyboard signed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates - who has never been a journalist.

During the media preview, museum CEO Charles Overby said that presentation of diversity in the media is an important goal for the Newseum. He said the museum received input from the Native American Journalists Association and noted that Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation, sits on the board of the museum.

''We offer more than you would expect to see on ethnic journalism,'' Overby said.

In response to ICT's inquiries on the matter, the museum released a fact sheet detailing Native press exhibits in the museum, which confirmed our findings on the scant Native press offerings at the facility.

Mark Trahant, a well-known contemporary American Indian journalist, provided insight to museum planners on inclusions of Indian press in the museum. A member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, Trahant is the editorial page editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

A couple of Trahant's press passes are displayed in the museum, and his name is included in its electronic journalist database.

Some Native journalists find it ironic that the Newseum has done such a poor job at representing the overall Native and tribal media. The Freedom Forum, after all, sponsors the American Indian Journalism Institute, which helps Indian college students learn journalism and have their voices heard in the mainstream media.

''It sounds like we once again got shortchanged,'' said Denny McAuliffe, founder of Reznet student journalist Web project and a member of the Osage Tribe of Oklahoma. ''Maybe the left hand hasn't caught up with what the right hand is doing.''

McAuliffe also said the Freedom Forum, with its strong emphasis on First Amendment right, missed an opportunity with the Newseum to highlight the dozens of tribally owned newspapers that do not afford First Amendment protections to their journalists.

''That should be a source of keen interest for the Freedom Forum,'' McAuliffe said, noting that Indian press advocate Richard LaCourse worked for decades on that issue. LaCourse, the longtime editor of the Yakama Nation Review, died in 2001. None of his many achievements, including his strong role with the American Indian Press Association, are highlighted in the museum.

''The Newseum has missed the story,'' said Kara Briggs, a longtime Yakama journalist who co-directs the American Indian Policy and Media Initiative. ''The work we're doing today is far more revolutionary than the work our white counterparts are doing.''

Some Native journalists have questioned why national contemporary Indian newspapers, like ICT; tribal newspapers, like the Navajo Times; and Native-run Web sites and radio outlets, like Indianz.com and Native America Calling, were not included in the Newseum's exhibits.

Others are calling on the Newseum to employ a permanent Native journalist on its staff who can help them develop better exhibits and presentations in the future.

''The Newseum planners need someone there everyday pitching displays,'' McAuliffe said.

In terms of solutions, Briggs said she wouldn't go so far as to expect the Newseum to feature an entire floor devoted to Native journalists, but she does think that it should feature fair representations, comparable to its other minority journalism offerings.

''The Newseum needs to follow the journalistic tradition of telling accurate, credible and whole stories,'' she said. ''I think the door is open for the Newseum to do right.''

While Trahant believes the Newseum has done ''quite a bit'' on Native journalists so far, he agrees there is room for additions.

''This is a developing museum, so its stories will be changing,'' he said. ''I think there will be more in the future on the Native press.''