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Setting the record straight at Harvard journalism symposium

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Congratulations this week to the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. On Oct. 14, the Harvard Project hosted a symposium on Indian peoples and the media, held at the John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The focus was on coverage of American Indian issues in the New England press. The event was co-sponsored by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the Mohegan Tribe. Indian Country Today participated in a panel on the role of native media in national policy dialogue.

The symposium included tribal leaders from around the New England and Northeastern region, and gave them the opportunity to critique the media coverage of their tribal issues. The two tribal co-sponsors were joined by the newly recognized Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation as well as by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), Narragansett Indian Tribe, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, Schaghticoke Tribal nation and the Nipmuc Nation. Native participants from the Oneida, Oglala and other nations also attended, as well as a good range of media and academic professionals.

The media critiques were sophisticated and well intended. All the tribal leaders had substantial experience with the ups and downs of getting one's story out properly in media. The usual complaints were there: the lack of depth and context in news stories; the history of misperception and stereotype that layers over all things native; how the outright negativity from ideological, political and economic opponents of Indian tribal rights constantly tempers the public message.

The problems and issues of tribal peoples in New England have their peculiarity. Lately, particularly from Connecticut, these transcended to national policy discourse when that state's congressional delegation sought to impact the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the whole process of tribal recognition. Fueled by a lot of noise by towns and municipalities surrounding the Connecticut tribal casinos, Senators Dodd and Lieberman championed an amendment that would have monkey-wrenched the process for the whole country. The amendment was killed by more transcending Indian policy statesmen such as Senators Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, D-Colo., but it raised serious concerns primarily for its blatant use of directed misinformation. Two northeastern and New England newspapers, The Wall Street Journal and the Boston Globe, were mentioned among those that have advanced some of these distortions considerably.

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It was refreshing to have the tribal leaders assembled speak to one manipulated lie in particular: the notion that their tribal communities sought or seek federal recognition because of the promise of owning casino enterprises. The factual record from each of the tribes represented is that they initiated their claims and their recognition petitions before opportunities for tribal gaming had been envisioned by anyone. Yet the charge that the recognition process is corrupted by casino potential has been misleadingly repeated by the Connecticut press and by its senior congressional members.

Other myths well refuted: that Indian casinos are corrupted by organized crime, that they are "out of control." Again, no evidence has been brought forth to prove this allegation, but it gains from repetition, particularly in major papers like the Boston Globe and The Wall Street Journal. Out of some two hundred gaming tribes, there is no major surge of corruption, even as limited incidental fraud and other white-collar crime is vigorously prosecuted.

Another myth: that only Indian people, and a small number at that, actually benefit from gaming. This is important to analyze. The facts speak differently in study after study, but the new stereotype persists. Indian gaming revenue, emerging just as federal subsidies have plummeted, is creating the financial basis for an economic surge throughout Indian country. It has stimulated many economic regions throughout the nation, provided thousands of jobs and is starting to grow its own philanthropic sector and fusing joint ventures. The stereotype of personal enrichment, based on an exaggerated reality, belies the underlying principle that Indian gaming intended and directs. As different speakers and the very Harvard Project that hosted the event have identified, the goal of it all is renew and strengthen our nations.

Nation building is the driving force, the justification and the goal. We will always gain by defending and enhancing our cultural histories and narratives, by asserting and constructing self-determined political goals and institutions and by understanding sovereignty not only as a legal framework but also as a native value that defines self-determination, dignity and integrity of tribal existence.

It was a good session at Harvard, where native strategic intelligence resonated. The tribal nations need increased understanding of media and how it can best be engaged to create positive education and an accurate public understanding of their histories and contemporary realities. It might also be the right time for American Indian corporations to start acquiring mainstream media properties.