Valerie Vande Panne

Covering Indigenous Communities — Tips for Non-Native Journalists

Journalism is inherently extractive. Especially when it comes to covering the coveted, so-called “marginalized communities.”

On these assignments, the reporter asks people who have already been taken advantage of (often severely, for generations), to share their story, for free, so it can be packaged and sold. Or so their outlet can sell it, or ads or subscriptions around it. The reporter gets paid. The outlet gets paid. The source gets nothing. And the reporter often justifies it by saying, “This story will help these poor people. I’m doing them a favor by covering this.”

In reality, this type of story doesn’t help. In fact, it often hurts. Badly.

In my experience, the biggest offenders in this arena are the media that people too often assume get the story right. In fact, the more esteemed and “correct” the outlet claims to be, the more offensive it can be. For example, the Native American Journalists Association examined The New York Times’ coverage of Native American communities from 2015-2021. NAJA found the Times repeatedly published stereotypes and other racist tropes in its coverage of Native American and Indigenous communities around the world.

So how does a well-meaning reporter who isn’t Native American cover Indigenous communities?

First, I gently suggest, don’t. Your newsroom might be wise to hire someone who is Indigenous, from the community you seek to cover, to do the work. And pay them well for their expertise.

If your newsroom already employs a citizen of a tribal nation, do not expect that person to know everything about all communities of color — let alone, all tribes. Be mindful that Indigenous communities are diverse. Just because someone is Osage doesn’t mean they have a “card” that gives them access to the Navajo Nation, First Nations, or Alaska Native communities. And this person owes their non-Native colleagues nothing beyond their good journalistic work — no explanations of culture, no tours of the rez, no “inside” information about the tribe.

It is exhausting being the “person of color” in a newsroom and tasked with the bucket of all “person of color issues.” This is one of the largest complaints I hear from non-white reporters working in newsrooms. 

Once when I joined a newsroom, I was asked by a reporter who had lived in the predominantly white city for over 40 years to take him to where the African American community lived. The reporter had never been there. Not once, in decades. He didn’t even know where it was.

If your job requires that you cover Native American issues or communities (and this advice can go for any community you are not a part of), start by being in the community. Don’t parachute in and helicopter out. Don’t come in with questions. Sit and listen. Even if it takes weeks, or months. Or years.

Yes, you might see this as time consuming. But it is absolutely necessary if you want to cover Indian Country accurately.

Share of your self (two words). Support the community. That might mean sharing your own story, or giving clean water to a community that has none. Journalism “ethics” says that’s unethical. Yet, I think it’s unethical to not share of your self, to not give water to those who have none.

Listen. Be quiet. Don’t try to hide who you are, or your ignorance.

I recently had a famous TV news reporter from a mainstream outlet tell me he has a home “next to the Shinnecock reservation.” I believe he thought he was being clever and respectful, and perhaps even attempting to make himself appear poor. In reality, he is wealthy, and his descriptor was evasive and disrespectful. The truth is he has a home on stolen land in what is now known as the Hamptons. Southampton, to be precise — one of the wealthiest locales in all of North America.

And, it’s not “Shinnecock reservation.” It’s Shinnecock Indian Nation. A sovereign nation.

Few things are more demeaning than when people think the words they use to describe you and your place are the correct ones  — and that, somehow, the words you use to describe yourself and your own community are wrong. 

The Associated Press is an offender of this, consistently misrepresenting Native ways of being and thinking and demanding everyone in news media follow their lead. For example, the AP insists Hawai’i  is spelled without the okina — that little apostrophe-like mark between the two i’s. Yet, the Hawai’i  state governmentstate university system, and public radio all spell it with the okina. The okina indicates a glottal stop, and represents how the name is said by Native Hawaiians (no okina).

Respect for people and their language is so basic it shouldn’t need to be so often stressed to reporters, and yet, here we are. Colonialism and supremacy are baked into journalism’s so-called ethics and rules of language.

Native news organizations often have their own style guides to correct what other style guides have failed to acknowledge. NAJA has several helpful resources on its website. As reporters know, always ask how people spell their names, their places, etc. — then incorporate what they say, and how they spell. Respect them, even if it means alarming the AP police. It’s OK. English in the United States is delightfully pliable — there is plenty of space for growth and honoring of Indigenous language.

Think about the passion some reporters and editors have for the serial comma — not an Indigenous issue, but one whose case passionate language lovers understand. Consider applying that passion to the incorporation of Indigenous names and language.

Answer questions. Ask for permission. Listen. 

Ask for permission to ask questions for your story. Share what your story is about. Ask for permission to snap any photo. Yes, all photos, even if you think it’s something benign, like a photo of a plant, or a piece of pottery. Ask for permission to record video or audio. And ask for these permissions before you start doing anything — even writing things down.

“Why do I need permission to take a picture of a plant or a piece of pottery?” you might ask. Because what you might see as inanimate — or as nothing — is something that might be deeply sacred and filled with life and story and purpose, and it might be very wrong to take a picture of it. You’re taking something you don’t understand, something you think your perspective of is the only one and correct perspective. Stop.

Stop taking.

Read peoples’ quotes back to them. Let them know what you’ll be including of theirs in the story. If they change their mind, don’t want to be a part of your story, or want to rework their quote, give them the grace to do so.

Repeat your understanding of situations, so those sharing their stories can know and understand if you understand. If you don’t understand, let them correct you. If the person you are getting your information from feels exploited, consider that you may be behaving in an exploitative and extractive way.

Also: Refrain from all-encompassing Indigenous statements, such as, “Sage is a sacred herb used for cleansing by Native Americans,” or, “Turtle Island is how Native Americans refer to North America.” All Native Americans are not the same. Not all tribes use sage traditionally, or share the Turtle Island origin story. Honor Turtle Island and sage by specifying the tribe(s) or the place(s) of honor.

Share your story with everyone involved once it is published. Listen to their feedback. Check in to learn how the story impacted the people and the community, weeks, months, years later. Listen.

Understand that you, the reporter, are in a position of power. The stories you are extracting are often from people who do not wield the same power. People to whom the mic is often not passed. That is an enormous responsibility and requires humility to do honorably.

If you are navigating tribal affairs for the first time and seeing power dynamics in play, listen and observe until you understand what is happening. True power isn’t always what it seems to be. 

Cover Indigenous communities outside of the months of October (Indigenous Peoples’ Day/Columbus Day) and November (Thanksgiving myth and Native American History Month and Day). 

Understand that Native people have a different calendar of events and lives that are likely radically different from your own. Respect that as equal.

Don’t demand Native people live on your time. Don’t demand they live by your code, your culture, your way of being, your deadlines, your science, your understanding.

Be honest in Indigenous communities, even if it means being uncomfortable. That means truth and respect must come before colonial constructs. Understand those constructs continue to function in oppressive ways that perpetuate erasure.

If these are new concepts to you, take some time to understand them. 

Listen before you Google. There might be a difference of information. Talk with folks from the communities you are covering. Connect with Native American reporters and the Native American Journalists Association.


Just listen.

This feature was copublished by SEJournal and Poynter.

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