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Policy and media relationship explored

BUFFALO, N.Y. - The development of a promising new public policy research
center in Indian country is now underway.

On June 15, media professionals and policy leaders from around Indian
country, including former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, met with organizers
of the American Indian Policy and Media Initiative (AIPMI) at Buffalo State
College in a round-table format. In hosting this inaugural gathering, AIPMI
sought input toward its objective of strengthening education and awareness
among the general public regarding the cultural, economic, legal, political
and social realities currently facing Indian peoples.

Spearheaded by Communications Department Chair Ron Smith, the initiative
grew out of a yearlong series of conversations with journalists and tribal
leaders. With the support of Arts and Humanities Dean Dr. Mel Netzhammer
and Dr. Muriel Howard, president of Buffalo State College, the organizers
welcomed participants to the gathering. Invited to facilitate the
discussions were Tim Johnson and Dr. Jose Barreiro, senior editors of
Indian Country Today.

"In watching trends around the country, it has become clear that the
overall public perception of American Indians is being swayed by
disinformation," Johnson said in his opening remarks. "This puts tribes at
a disadvantage as these perceptions lead directly to the development of
public policy."

"Media coverage prepares and reflects public policy and coverage which,
today, is becoming unsympathetic, negative and politically damaging,"
agreed Barreiro. Citing California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's infamous
"the Indians are ripping us off" quote, Barreiro said: "We need to respond
in real time to immediately challenge the factual basis of such statements.
Once a metaphor like that is cemented, it's hard to change."

The first agenda item was the formal presentation of a public perception
research study on Indians and taxation issues in New York state, recently
completed by Buffalo State College professors Smith, with colleagues Dr.
Rik Whitaker and Dr. Marian Deutschman. Consisting of focus groups, a
survey and a content analysis of five upstate New York daily newspapers,
the researchers arrived at several interesting findings.

The focus groups and survey portions of the study found that while many of
those questioned consider themselves "uninformed" on basic Indian history
and contemporary issues, the more familiar they became with the Indian
position on sovereignty and taxation, the more likely they were to be
supportive. The researchers concluded that an informational campaign on
behalf of the local tribal governments would likely produce a more
favorable perception of contemporary Indians among the general populace.

Perhaps more significant was the content analysis segment of the study. The
researchers found that newspaper reporting in upstate New York was
generally more negative in tone on Indian issues, which wasn't reflected in
the focus groups and surveys of the general public in the Buffalo area.

"There was no evidence of hostility or maliciousness on the part of
reporters," Smith stressed. "Rather, it's more of an attitude that
reporters don't challenge Albany's assertions of control. It's more of an
'us versus them' mentality."

Campbell, Northern Cheyenne, who represented Colorado for many years in
both the House and Senate, observed that intense media competition in
recent years has resulted in a general erosion of objectivity. Many "news"
stories, he said, offer very little in the way of actual news, substituting
instead an array of opinions from various sources. The result is too much
editorializing and not enough objective reporting.

"The media must portray positions based upon both sides of the issue," the
senator said.

Next, conferees were treated to a conference call with Anthony R. Pico,
chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians.

"The task you have undertaken is of vital importance to all Indian
country," Pico told the group. "The future preservation and prosperity of
American Indians ... will be decided in the court of public opinion. How we
are viewed in the eyes of the nation - and our ability to deliver our
message to the public, the press, elected officials and federal and state
policy makers - is of crucial importance to ... generations of American
Indians to come."

Pico stressed that if tribal governments do not take the initiative to tell
their story and promote an accurate image of today's Indian peoples, "the
pillars of economic, social, governmental and political success tribes have
begun building over the past 30 years will come crashing down."

Pico insisted that tribes need to "get beyond" the taboo of speaking to the
press and build aggressive public and media relations teams. Among his many
suggestions were that tribes hire journalists with solid newsroom
experience to tell their stories, and reach out to newspapers' business
pages to stress the job creation and economic benefits of tribal gaming
operations rather than allowing such coverage to remain with political
reporters; and encouraging young American Indians to enter the field of
journalism.

ICT Associate Editor Jim Adams gave a presentation on political discourse
and public policy in Connecticut.

"Connecticut may be the source of the 'poison' in the media today," Adams
said, noting that the anti-Indian animosity in that state dates from 1992
when tribal recognition first became a contested public issue there. The
stunning success of the Poxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos have fueled the
fire, as has Jeff Benedict's repeatedly discredited, albeit widely
distributed, book "Without Reservation."

"State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has decided to build his career
on attacking a group of people," Adams asserted, noting Blumenthal's
vehement denunciation of Connecticut tribes seeking recognition, the BIA
and the recognition process itself.

"Connecticut is the leading edge of where we're going," agreed Robert Odawi
Porter, Seneca, a Law professor at Syracuse University. We shouldn't ignore
what's happening there - state officials are promoting blatant racist
lies."

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, then offered her take on
"who defines whom in the public eye." A long-time advocate against sports
mascots that disrespect Native peoples, she spoke passionately on that
issue.

"No one has ever meant 'redskin' as an honor, no matter how you say you
mean it," Harjo stated. "If we don't address image problems and talk about
them, we won't improve those images and we won't get anywhere."

Also contributing to image problems are Indian casinos that peddle "kitsch"
and tribal executives appearing before Congress looking like "fat cats" in
$3,000 suits, she said.

"Use elders and children to show the benefits of tribal gaming - not
leaders who are trying to look like politicians," Harjo urged.

Finally, Campbell took the floor. "Who gets to define who you are?" the
senator asked rhetorically. "As Indian people, we define ourselves."

He noted that the termination efforts of the 1950s, when the federal
government tried to say "you're no longer Indians," are still fresh in many
minds - and again posed a rhetorical query, "How can a government tell you
who you are?"

Campbell observed that Indians are more than capable of handling their own
affairs and the growth of casinos has enabled many to develop management
and contracting skills. He added that during his tenure in the Senate he
made sure to add "Indian sections" to appropriation bills for such things
as highways, education and police. This allowed tribal governments to have
the same access to these funds as the states.

"Public policy is hugely influenced by the media," Campbell stated. "Tribes
must tell their stories ... We're making progress, but we have a long way
to go."

Tom Wanamaker, a freelance journalist, is currently enrolled in the
graduate journalism program at S.I. Newhouse School of Public
Communications at Syracuse University. He has reported extensively on
American Indian economics, policy and gaming. Most recently, he
participated as an observer and commentator at the American Indian Policy
and Media Initiative at Buffalo State College.