Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Gary Fife has been an award-winning reporter and storyteller for almost 50 years. The 71-year-old has written, edited, and produced thousands of news stories for radio, television, digital and print media as well as opinion pieces under the name “Emvpanayv” or “one who tells the story.”

The news story he covered about the return of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo stands out in his memory. For the Taos Pueblo, the Blue Lake is the source of all life. The pueblo had been fighting to get it returned since its taking by the U.S. Forest Service, without compensation, in 1906.

Fife, Muscogee (Creek) Nation and Cherokee descent, said the agency was making plans in the 1960s to open the area to tourists and build facilities where “people can sell souvenirs and go swimming in this lake.”

For the Taos Pueblo, “that was an actual blasphemy and an outrage,” Fife said. “They had gained enough support from several Congresspeople to bring legislation to Congress to return that land to their people. And they fought one heck of a fight on the hill because so many people, including the legislative delegation from that state (New Mexico), opposed it…”

Fife said the turning point came when the pueblo leaders gave powerful testimony.

He said they had with them the “cane of power” that President Abraham Lincoln had given them in 1863 in recognition of their self governance.

“Because of the word of this man the government is obligated to treat us with respect and our land,” Fife said the leaders told Congress. “They (the tribal leaders) just fought this magnificent fight. And we were lucky enough to report that the land was returned.” President Nixon signed the bill into law on December 15,1970.

Fife didn’t have a childhood dream to become a reporter. Having grown up in the oil-producing state of Oklahoma, he had intended to study petroleum geology. However, at Northeastern State College, he got interested in journalism and switched majors. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the Flaming Rainbow Center of the University Without Walls, an affiliate of Westminster College in Missouri.

During his college years, “that was about the time the Civil Rights movement, and especially the takeover of Alcatraz Island inspired Native American youth to become activists,” he said.

Fife said some Native-owned media “was a lot of ‘rah, rah, go, go Indians. Let's go beat up on the white man’ kind of thing. And through my journalistic schooling, I thought, ‘well, wait a minute, now there's another side to this story. And even though we don't want to hear it, we've got to know what the enemy is up to, so to speak.’”

“Every argument, there are two sides to the story. And I think our people need to know both sides to effectively deal with it, to perhaps combat the oppression and loss of land and culture and a way to show the rest of the world that our pride was still here and that our young people are going to be making changes within themselves and the community.”

He said there was no in-depth reporting by mainstream media, and the inadequate coverage of life-changing, historic events, was “very discouraging and heartbreaking” for the activists involved.

Chuck Trimble and Gary Fife (with microphone)

Instead, Fife said mainstream media focused on “dance and dysfunction,” that is, colorful powwows and dire social conditions. No matter what the tribe, he said too many stories featured Native flute music and painted Natives as an artifact of the past. “Most people knew more about dead Natives than live ones,” Fife said. He said reporters in the national media didn’t understand, for instance, that “Germany is as different from Italy as the Apache are from the Seneca.”

He wanted Native Americans to get accurate information from Native professionals, “and we had to have our own media to put our people to work,” Fife said.

In 1971, Fife became a legislative intern with the Indian Legal Information Development Service, won a Ford Fellowship in Education in 1978, then became a freelancer working from Washington, D.C.

The Muscogee Creek Nation Public Relations Department produced a show called “Gary Fife: A Life in Media” in 2018. In one segment, Fife told the producer and host Mark Abbott, “I was fascinated by the give and take of the legislative process, how the political games got played, how Native American people were part and not at all part of the power.” He wanted to bring home the personalities and voices of the people that shape the lives of people back home.

He also thought it important to cover legal battles, new legislation, in addition to the social conditions affecting Native people like loss of language and culture, and poverty.

“And if there's a bad side to it, like somebody sold somebody or something out or somebody had their fingers in the till when they shouldn't have, well, then we have to own up to it and tell those kinds of stories,” Fife said.

“So that pretty well set my philosophy up until this very day on making sure our people got as much of the complete story as possible.”

Gary Fife with American Indian Press Association door sign

In the late 1970s, “the American Indian Press Association had just started up … and I just started as support. I worked with people like Dick LaCourse and Richard Trimble and so many others who were the builders of Native American journalism.”

Then Fife went to work for the Alaska Public Radio Network as producer and editor of the first Native daily radio news show to broadcast across the nation.

Koahnic Broadcasting Corp. President and CEO Jaclyn Sallee said, “I worked with Gary Fife in the mid 1980’s when he was hired to help create and produce National Native News. Gary came to Alaska to help create the newscast which was ultimately launched and distributed by the Alaska Public Radio Network. This was funded by a grant to help increase the number of minorities in the public radio system. Gary was a pioneer in radio broadcasting in developing a network of journalists reporting on Native American issues. This was a time when there was very little information about Indigenous groups being voiced on the airwaves throughout the nation. It was groundbreaking to have a talented journalist develop the program and to see that it is still a popular program nearly 35 years later.”

Gary Fife panelist at UNITY conference

Fife was elected to the board of directors for the Native American Journalists Association, along with another builder of Native journalism, Paul DeMain. DeMain, who is Oneida and Ojibwe, is also known as Skabewis. He’s a long-time journalist and publisher of Native media.

DeMain said Fife was part of a well-structured operation with National Native News, a background he brought to the board during a period of rapid growth. DeMain said Fife also brought reporting skills to the organization just as it was setting up classes to mentor young reporters. DeMain said Fife knew radio production, asked good questions in his interviews, and “was utilized throughout the organization to help present classes.”

By 2009, Fife’s father was in his late 80s and ailing, so Gary moved back to Oklahoma. He still misses Alaska’s beauty, the people of Alaska and his friends there. But he was also glad to be back in Oklahoma.

“It was odd, pretty much (traveling) the same area I traveled as a child and young person and seeing the same places and that changed somewhat, meeting many of the same kinds of people, many of the ones I used to know, and “oh, I remember that kind of thing.”

“Being around Creek people again, it gave me an initiative to want to first of all, to learn my own language and new respect for our spiritual way, and to bond together with the rest of our people as a sovereign nation, and pride in being Creek and all of that was there.”

Mvskoke Media staff. Front row Left to right: Jerrad Moore (Mvskoke), Angel Ellis (Mvskoke), Joshua Slane (Cherokee), Liz Gray (Mvskoke) Daniel Roberts (Mvskoke), Mark Hill (Yuchi). Back row Left to Right: Pauline Randall (Mvskoke), Lani Hansen (Cherokee), Breanna Dawson (Cherokee), Morgan Taylor (Mvskoke), Gary Fife (Mvskoke), Jennifer Watters (Mvskoke). Not pictured: Chelsie Rich (Mvskoke), Betty Delso (Mvskoke), Debra Sayres (Mvskoke) and Lindsey Arneecher (Cherokee). (Photo courtesy Angel Ellis)

Fife said he encourages youth to look at journalism as an exciting career. “When you sit down and kind of look back and say, ‘oh yeah, I talked to (American Indian Movement founder) Dennis Banks, laughed and joked with (actor) Floyd Westerman. You know, I actually got on stage and played harmonica with him a couple of times – things you might not get to do as ordinary people.”

However, with that access, he said, comes responsibility. Reporters need to tell stories “fairly and accurately.” He said sometimes that doesn't win you friends, and in fact, may make enemies. But “you get the chance to make our people more informed, more educated.”

He’s fought for Native media and for freedom of the press in Indian Country from the start. His tribe, the Muscogee Nation, recently amended its constitution to ensure freedom of the press, which Fife said was a relief to “his heart and soul.”

Fife worked for the Muscogee Nation’s communications department and has a weekly radio show. He said he isn’t planning to retire anytime soon. “I want to keep my mind sharp and working helps with that.”

ICT logo bridge

Like this story? Support our work with a $5 or $10 contribution today. Contribute to the nonprofit Indian Country Today. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.