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Trimble: Life and times of the Indian press

Time Magazine recently blared this headline: “How to Save Your Newspaper.” The magazine itself appears to need the same advice, for without the advertising in these troubled times, it is as thin as a country church bulletin. A recent edition of The Atlantic, a monthly magazine a bit thicker than Time, offered a lead article on how the New York Times might save itself from bankruptcy.

As I watch the printed press in America and around the world succumb to economics and loss of readership to the Internet, I wonder what will happen to the American Indian press. If even the New York Times is on the ropes how are we in the Indian press going to survive?

This takes me back to the early 1970s when we were just getting started in the American Indian Press Association. As we struggled along in our Washington news bureau with the most primitive equipment imaginable (remember mimeograph?), Richard LaCourse and I would talk about the great future of the Indian press. Our dreams were grandiose, inspired by Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Massage” and “The Gutenberg Galaxy.” The most renowned communication theorist of his time, McLuhan foresaw technology beyond the printed word, but probably never dreamed of the demise of the printed press that would be brought on by the Internet.

McLuhan’s forward thinking seemed to reflect Canadian progressiveness. LaCourse and I looked to Canada as a model for the Indian press in the U.S., the Native media up there were way ahead of us. We visited the Alberta Native Communications Society, which was a multimedia service for the Indian tribes and communities in the province. They were funded largely by the national and provincial governments, and were well-equipped and well-staffed by Native journalists and technicians. We envied them, but realized that we could not expect such support from the U.S. government.

The Native media in Canada was well into broadcast, and we admired the work of radio journalist and producer Johnny Yesno of the Cree Nation. And the National Film Board of Canada was doing excellent work on Native life, producing documentaries and award-winning dramas on contemporary issues.

Dick LaCourse was the first person we hired onto the AIPA staff. We brought him aboard from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to head up our new Washington news bureau, a small room at the National Congress of American Indians headquarters. With the help of volunteers and student interns, LaCourse cranked out a weekly package of stories for tribal newspapers that subscribed to our services. These packages were sent by regular mail since there was no fax, much less the Internet. In those days, Indian country news had a long shelf life, and we’d see AIPA news stories printed long after our release dates.

AIPA brought new life to Indian affairs in Washington. Would-be whistle blowers in federal offices, including the White House, were eager to give LaCourse information about policy and silly foibles of the bureaucracy, and these anecdotes spiced up the tribal papers that subscribed to our news service.

The Indian press has had a long history over the last half of the 20th century. Even back in the 1970s, there were long-established news publications serving tribes and urban-Indian communities. These ranged from monthly mimeographed newsletters to a few professional weekly or biweekly newspapers, such as the Navajo Times, the Tundra Times, and Akwesasne Notes. With AIPA’s news service, Indian media no longer had to wait for secondhand news from the mainstream. Now they had their own source.

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Those were revolutionary times, and new publications popped up all over Indian country. Many of these were ideological organs of political movements, and usually were produced by younger journalists and students. These youthful journalists brought new ideas and new approaches, such as Dine’ ba hane’, a newspaper from Navajo country. Co-edited by Vincent Craig, now a noted Navajo humorist and performer, Dine’ ba hane’ had a satiric bent and much humor.

We set out an ambitious agenda of helping to improve the editorial and technical quality of Indian newspapers, and to provide news service to them. None of this would translate to IRS requirements in order to get tax-exempt status for the association, and our inability to raise funds eventually doomed the organization.

But in our wildest dreams, we never imagined the time when so many quality publications would come out of Indian country as there are now, including slick magazines and weekly papers. Today’s tribal and private newspapers exhibit professionalism and sophistication that has come from more and better educated Indian journalists, more and cheaper technology, computer graphics, and more financial resources, much of it from casino revenues. They have also discovered commerce that depends on Indian country, and the advertising revenues those businesses would bring.

There is strong confidence on the part of publishers and editors, shown by their willingness to take on controversial issues, and their success in forcing inclusion of freedom of the press provisions in tribal constitutions.

The Indian press is at its peak, it seems. But what does the future hold for us? Much will depend on how our tribes and communities fare in these troubled times, and on Indian casinos as well, since the earnings from those businesses provide significant funds for the tribal press. Most certainly, the Internet will eat away at the readership of the Native printed media, less so the broadcast media.

In many ways, Indian country is much slower paced than the outer world. In much of the Native boomer generation, computers have not yet taken over the lives of so many people as they have elsewhere. So, perhaps, the threat of Internet is not as great to the Indian press as it is to the mainstream media.

Nevertheless, we need to discuss the fate of the Indian press. The Native American Journalists Association should take up the issue at its convention in Albuquerque in August.

Charles E. Trimble is Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-78. He may be reached at cchuktrim@aol.com.