Upon President Barack Obama’s visit to the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, scheduled for June 13, several Native American journalists are asking that he takes the opportunity to do a sit-down interview with them.
The Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) is leading the charge, with President Mary Hudetz, formerly an editor and reporter with the Associated Press, sending out a press release this week urging Obama to meet with Native media while he is in Indian country.
“NAJA urges the administration to allow journalists working at Native media outlets to have access to Obama during this rare visit by a sitting president to Indian country,” the press release said. “Tribal reporters know their communities and can provide insight and perspective to his visit and efforts to promote tribal sovereignty.”
Obama has previously done sit-down interviews with members of the Hispanic and African-American press, and he answered a questionnaire submitted to him electronically by Indian Country Today Media Network during his 2012 campaign. He has also written two op-eds for ICTMN in the past, with one announcing his current trip to the reservation, along with First Lady Michelle Obama.
But he has never done a sit-down interview with the Native press, and many Native Americans say it is time for that to change.
“President Obama has already set a strong precedent for reaching out and meeting with Native Americans, and addressing their concerns,” says Brian Bull, a Nez Perce citizen and president and chair of Vision Maker Media. “Mr. Obama can help send another positive message by meeting with Indian journalists during his visit to Standing Rock.”
One message that the president could communicate through such an interview is that a free and open press is an important part of the government process, Bull says. “While it is true that the president doesn’t always have press availabilities with media at many other events, the distinction here is that most tribal communities lack free press clauses in their constitutions,” he notes. “And those few that do aren’t always consistent with enforcing it.”
Bull says that this lack of tribal constitutional protection and enforcement often affects Native journalists’ ability to hold their leaders accountable, provide transparency for their communities, and work with the independence necessary to tell their stories without fear of censorship, retribution or harassment.
“It is a freedom taken for granted by non-Indian journalists, who have not worried about government leaders dictating to them what details to leave out or embellish, or threaten to shut down their press room if negative facts are reported,” Bull says.
“If President Obama grants Indian journalists an opportunity to meet with him and ask questions relevant to their audience, it will reinforce the trust and accessibility effective leaders encourage,” Bull adds. “Whether it’s the Commander in Chief or a tribal chairman, a willingness to be questioned – and yes, at times challenged – is the mark of an open and accommodating administration. It is what Americans everywhere expect and want with their officials, regardless of political affiliation or stature. And journalists are the conduit that lets that happen.”
Journalist Mark Trahant, a citizen of the Shoshone Bannock Tribes, says he has tried to secure a sit-down interview with Obama in the past, but one problem he has come up against involves the many gatekeepers trying to protect the president’s time and interests.
Trahant says the most likely reasons these gatekeepers don’t pass interview requests forward from Native journalists is that there are relatively few such requests, and many Indian-focused reporters work for outlets without major name recognition.
“[It’s] reflective of the invisible nature of Native media,” Trahant says. “For example: when TV news wants an Indian voice it's far more likely to be an advocate than a journalist. That's too bad because the journalist can say things an advocate, even a good one, cannot.”
Trahant says Native journalists should continue to press for a sit-down presidential interview, as he will be doing. “It would be unprecedented for a president to sit down with Native press,” he says. “But it's the right thing to do ... so why not be first?”
Several Native American journalists are expected to be covering the president’s visit to Standing Rock in Cannon Ball, North Dakota. The travel pool covering the event includes an ICTMN correspondent.
So far, the open press portions of the event include the arrival and departure of Air Force One, and following the departure of the president and the first lady from the reservation, media have been invited to attend a ceremony on the reservation.
Reid Walker, a spokesman for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, has helped oversee Native media requests involving the event, as has Erin Mulhall with the White House and Christopher Rausch with the tribe.
The White House has not said publicly if the president will make time for interviews during his trip, where he is expected to announce the next steps his administration will take to support jobs, education, and self-determination in Indian country.