If The New York Times' articles about Indian country harboring drug runners
were wildly inaccurate, it would be easier to explain how they create a
false impression. As it is, the two-part series, "Tribal Underworld," is a
good example of how a thing may be largely accurate and, at the same time,
The articles in question -- "Drug Traffickers Find Haven in Shadows of
Indian Country" and "Dizzying Rise and Abrupt Fall for a Reservation Drug
Dealer" -- ran on the Times' front page on Feb. 19 and 20.
The headers and stories would have the reader believe that tribal
governments and citizens shield drug pushers and perhaps conspire to do so,
and that reservations are sanctuaries for criminals.
The subtext for the series is that communities act against their own
self-interest when they are made up of criminals or idiots. In subtle and
not-so-subtle ways, the series leads the reader to conclude that everyone's
involved or looking the other way.
Without foundation, evidence or any reporting at all, one article states,
"Casino money has also fueled the surge, providing a fast-growing source of
customers and well-financed partners for outside drug traffickers."
The first article portrays reservations as mysterious and otherworldly, in
the same way that white folks once depicted Africa as the "dark continent."
Here, the reporter claims that drug traffickers refer to St. Regis Mohawk
territory in Canada and the United States as the "black hole."
Mostly, the Times stereotypes reservations in U.S. military parlance used
from the Great Plains in the 1800s to the jungles of Vietnam in the 1900s
to the deserts of Iraq today: "Indian country" means enemy territory.
A reader of this heart of darkness tale would never know that the sun ever
shines in Indian country or that anyone drives a school bus or takes care
of grandma. Instead, this is a sweeping indictment of all Indian nations
and millions of Native people.
While noting that there are 562 federally recognized tribes, the article
makes broad generalizations about all of them from fewer than 10 in six
states and a brief reference to five unnamed ones in Wyoming and the
The New York Times would be the first to cry foul if all its reporters and
editors were called liars and cheats just because it once featured
disgraced reporter Jayson Blair on its pages.
The Times describes an Indian country with "deep loyalt[ies] ... where
neighbors are often related, and the intense mistrust of the American
justice system make securing witnesses and using undercover informants
extremely difficult." And this is different from Capitol Hill how? Or from
Fresno or Omaha or Dallas or Atlanta or Queens?
The Blackfeet Nation is characterized as a lawless land where "Mexican
gangs based in Washington State are working with Blackfeet Indians and
others to traffic methamphetamine into and across Montana." The lack of
state jurisdiction is highlighted, without any mention of tribal or federal
law enforcement actions to deal with the problem.
There is no mention of the Chippewa Cree Tribe's efforts to stop meth
traffic and treat drug addiction on the Rocky Boy's Reservation in Montana.
One feature of the tribe's comprehensive plan, which was announced in
mid-January, is a centralized registry that tracks meth offenders from one
reservation to another.
Another feature of the Chippewa Cree get-tough plan involves specific
cooperation with state and local jurisdictions and non-Indian communities
between reservations. The tribe's plan recognizes something that the Times'
series does not: drugs do not magically appear on one reservation and
reappear on another without passing through non-Indian territories, hands
and pockets, too.
In the second article, the Times is on its own best turf, telling one story
of people trapped and behaving badly in an urbanized, impoverished setting.
It's a tale about a Lummi family that bought OxyContin in Vancouver,
smuggled it across the Canadian border in and sold it on Lummi Nation land
in Washington, and did time for their crimes after selling painkillers to
The words of the Lummi woman and her father have a familiar ring, but it's
not so much that of Lummi people or a distinct Lummi Nation experience. The
sound is more the odd moral code of drug dealers and ex-cons in movies and
Rush Limbaugh on the radio.
The article makes the point that the Lummi woman is now working on a "grim
but sacred task for the tribe" in a burial ground that was unearthed by a
construction project, but it does not do what good articles do: explain,
In failing to tell the history of the trauma visited on the entire Lummi
Nation when hundreds of Lummi graves were bulldozed and ancestral remains
were strewn over acres of land, the Times missed an opportunity to learn
and inform readers about one of the facts of Indian life that is
contributing to the despair and dysfunction among some Native people today.
The Times missed the story of a legal system that went to great lengths to
put a family of small-time drug dealers in jail, but neither stopped nor
punished people who desecrated sanctified ground and Lummi ancestors.
The Times also missed the story of inadequate law enforcement and skewed
The BIA has only one law enforcement officer for all of Indian country to
deal with Indian grave-robbing and the interstate trafficking in Indian
Most of the known looters are involved with drug trafficking, especially
with meth operations, as well as with crimes involving endangered species.
The National Park Service and other agencies also are understaffed and
there are millions of acres of burial grounds on non-reservation public
lands that are unprotected and unpatrolled. These are virtually shopping
malls for criminals in the underground and Internet markets for skulls and
other body parts and funerary items.
The current budget proposed by the Bush administration to Congress makes
deeper cuts in law enforcement and even zeroes out the training monies to
implement the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and
the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.
These vulnerable areas are hide-outs and income streams for drug dealers,
illegal aliens and felons of all stripes. This poses a greater threat to
public safety and national security than all the meth labs and drug-running
on the reservations, but the situation is barely being addressed by law
enforcement entities and is not being reported at all by The New York
It is hoped that the Times will do more reporting in Indian country and
will get closer to the true stories that need to be told.
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the
Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian