The vital signs of the Native mass media in 2015 reflect an ongoing progression overall. Like any enduring profession, the lifeblood of the future often crosses paths with those who went before them. So it is with the present state of Native American journalism.
I feel blessed, or at least energized, by the knowledge that the next generation of Native media producers is steadily coming along. That there are outlets for them to exhibit their wares, as it was once described to match customers and brands, makes me happy. As a greater population of Native peoples, we deserve to commentate on the world around us, large and small. Yet, at the root of such an expressive exercise, is the local origination of understanding that any story conveys.
The Indian Country Today Media Network provides such stability as a platform to journalistic voices such as me and many others. When I started to write on the Oka Incident in 1990 and the Columbus Discovery events in 1992, there were very few media outlets that I could hope to see that information published in.
During my undergraduate years as a Communication major student at Clarion University of Pennsylvania, I had the pleasure of visiting two notable Native North American Haudenosaunee publications during the summer of 1992. My unofficial advisor and canoe partner Dr. Arthur Barlow encouraged me at each step of the journey to make those connections far from our rural Pennsylvania campus roost.
First on my list was Akwesasne Notes. I had to ask for directions from three NY State troopers sitting at the famous Four Corners of the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, where I was to drive to, on my last leg of the journey. ”Just down that way, a few miles down, take a left and look for the antenna,” I was told. Starting with the female trooper who answered, all of the uniformed police wrote down an entry into their small black notebooks, I guess with the update that some outside dude was spending some time at the venerable international newspaper located there.
Who knows? When I got to the destination, I was passed by a slow driving First Nation police car, watching me as I pulled in with my mother’s 1987 Chevrolet Caprice Classic, looking like “Thunderheart” in my black flat top military hair style just weeks after that movie was theatrically released. A long passenger van was parked, with one of its windows damaged, next to the media center building. I was soon informed that the damage was believed to have occurred overnight by way of gunfire. There was no sense of distress in the newspaper workers that I met either. They all smiled at me when I entered their work area.
Akwesasne Notes is a granddaddy publication which continues to be an inspiration to Native writers. It was founded as a concept around the kitchen table of Mohawk journalism pioneer Ernie Kaientaronkwen Benedict. Rarihokwats (aka Jerry Gambill) served as its editor and publisher from its beginning at the time of the 1968 International Bridge Blockade in Kawehnoke (Cornwall Island), for fifty editions until 1978. Notes grew to a circulation of 100,000 supported entirely from the donations of its readers and the volunteer service of the People of the Longhouse who pasted on the addresses, tied the bundles and filled the truck with mailbags for each edition. It had won the Marie Potts Award of the American Indian Press Association and the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Journalism in the Service of Minorities, and the World Council of Churches Anti-Racism Award in the 1970s.
Akwesasne Notes no longer is published and is available in microfilm in select college libraries. A new electronic version of the original 50 issues of Notes from 1969-1978 has recently been made available. Rarihokwats continues to publish an occasional electronic newsmagazine.
My next destination was onto the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, where I spent time with Kenneth Deer as the first issues of the Eastern Door newspaper were being printed from a kind wife Glenda’s kitchen. Kenneth had long silver hair, and in fact still seems to keep that same color for a great period of time, although I am not counting how long it actually has been. I guess my most highlighted moment was when he decided to run a sanitary sewer line out to his garage later that summer and I helped to trench the hole. The garage was where the newspaper was moving to and was the next step in a wonderful career as a public educator for Kenneth, who now serves as a longhouse representative in Kahnawake. His hard work exemplifies these advances that I have had the pleasure to witness.
Steve Bonspiel, another friend of mine, now serves as the Eastern Door Publisher and Editor.
From these beginning steps in my own path, I have more recently had the pleasure to work with passionate journalists such as Jorge Barrera of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN).
I cannot leave unrecognized the memory of late Mohawk journalist Cynthia “Cindy Bear” Terrance Smoke, the founder and publisher of the former People’s Voice newspaper in Akwesasne. It was well known for stirring the community fires, including when she published a photo of a snoozing NY State Trooper with his face planted up against his cruiser window, while parked at the edge of the main highway through the reservation. She sold out that issue to great acclaim. Later, after the newspaper changed hands, I had the pleasure of working at the elbow of the final People’s Voice editor and current elected Chief Eric Thompson of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council. We both got a nice glimpse of the power of the independent press when people are genuinely interested in seeking out alternative views.
All of these memories bring me back to the state of Native media today, and more specifically, the place of the Indian Country Today Media Network in that landscape.
Among the most stalwart of voices that I have worked with at ICTMN include Gale Courey Toensing and my editor, Raymond Cook, a fellow Mohawk. Other ICTMN representatives that I have enjoyed working with include Creative Director Christopher Napolitano and West Coast Editor Valerie Taliman. Taliman’s role with the first Native American television network, FNX, shows the ripple effect that modern Native mass media belies. The strong editorial position of FNX to consistently shed light on the mixed message of the sainthood of Junipero Serra certainly caught my attention long before the Pope stepped foot on Turtle Island.
What I am most proud of as an Indian Country Today contributor is knowing that the future holds even brighter horizons for our place on the mass media spectrum. Where there are now some outlets for our perspective, competitive processes may lead to further employment opportunities for the next generation coming up the red road.
Ray Cook’s cousin Debbie Cook Jacobs has been a fixture at the Indian Time Newspaper in Akwesasne, and even more so since the passing of the late editor Mark Narsisian. Assisting her more recently has been Editor Samantha McMillon-Wilkinson. “Sam” in turn has done a great job in attracting younger writers to contribute to the weekly periodical, such as Blake Lazore, who is a student-athlete still in high school. Young Mr. Lazore already has cut his teeth with in-depth interviews of actors and professional athletes. I will continue to look for insightful storytelling from these young journalists in the years to come.
As Native journalists, all we can hope to ask for is a market for what we are selling. While the pay may be low or even non-existent in many cases, the need for the tribal Fourth Estate cannot be overstated. Government meetings should be made open to journalists, and professional responses to their questions should be provided as often as possible. The fear of transparency by temporary elected leadership should not overshadow the desire of residents of Indian Country today to know what is going on in their corner of the world. Our marketplace is really that readership. Our stories are all local in that sense. With those foundational understandings, our greatest days lay ahead.
Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.