by AJ Earl
Before there was a Native American Journalists Association, there was journalism among Native Americans. In this first installment, we take a look at the early roots of NAJA and the people who seeded — and nurtured — the organization.
Native American journalists have a legacy of telling the compelling stories of their communities, and the Native American Journalists Association continues that longstanding tradition.
The first Native American newspaper was the Cherokee Phoenix, first printed in 1829 in New Echota, Georgia, the capital of the Cherokee Nation before the tribe’s forced removal in the 1830s. Since then, newspapers have come and gone, but Native Americans haven’t stopped writing.
The first professional organization for Native American journalists was the American Indian Press Association in 1970. But a failure to get IRS sanction and solid funding caused AIPA to shutter in 1975.
Tim Giago (Oglala Lakota) said he received a call in about 1983 from Bill Dulaney, a journalism professor at Pennsylvania State University. “Bill was reading my newspaper and asked how many publications there were throughout America that were Native American owned or tribally owned,” Giago recalled.
Giago worked with Dulaney to determine how many such papers existed at that time, and together they determined that although a good many had closed shop, there were still quite a few around; enough to justify organizing among them, at the very least.
After submitting a proposal to create a foundation, Giago and Dulaney convened the first foundational meeting of an organization for Native American journalists.
“In 1983, we met on the campus of Penn State, and we had probably 75 to 100 people show up for it,” recounted Giago. “We were really surprised. From all over the country they came, and we had our initial meeting there, and we talked about what we hoped to do by forming our organization that would sort of unite all the newspaper people in Indian Country.”
The following year, Giago said, a smaller group met on the lands of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and formed the first board of directors and incorporated as the Native American Press Association.
1984 vote for NAPA board of directors
Anita Austin: 6
Mary Polanco: unanimous
At the first official meeting of NAPA, the board started planning the first conference to be held in 1985 on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon at the Kah-Nee-Tah resort and lodge. This choice was beneficial for its proximity to numerous western tribally owned newspapers.
The keynote speaker at the first conference was Stan Margulie, famous for producing “The Thornbirds” television miniseries and a then-upcoming TV film, “The Mystic Warrior.”
According to Giago, 150 people showed up to this conference in the relatively remote Warm Springs Reservation in north-central Oregon.
The first NAPA meeting included the conferral of the first NAPA scholarship, which was awarded to future NAJA president Lori Edmo-Suppah.
NAJA’s offices, past and present
The second conference would take place in Scottsdale, Arizona, continued Giago. He and Loren Tapahe (Navajo) sought more stable funding, including an $86,000 grant from the Gannett Foundation. This is when they met Al Neuharth, Gannett chairman, founder of USA TODAY and a supporter of Indigenous news. Neuharth also headed the Gannett Foundation, which later became the Freedom Forum. Giago knew Neuharth because both were from South Dakota, and Neuharth became a NAPA supporter.
“And so for the next few years Al Neuharth came to every one of our conventions and Al Neuharth always brought a check with him to keep the organization strong,” Giago says.
It was Neuharth, Giago says, who in part—along with future NAJA president Mark Trahant—prompted the change from the Native American Press Association to the Native American Journalists Association in the late 1980s. This change was in line with other diversity-minded journalist organizations like the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Asian American Journalists Association.
It was at the end of the 1986 conference in Scottsdale when NAJA hired an executive director to handle its affairs, especially in light of its increasing finances.
Margaret Clark-Price was the first executive director, and the first office of NAJA was opened in Scottsdale—from the spare bedroom of her townhome. It was staffed by Clark-Price (Wyandotte) and her assistant Karen Lincoln (now Karen Lincoln Michel).
Michel (Ho-Chunk) says she met Clark-Price by accident when Michel was a journalism student at Arizona State University and was also working as a grant writer at a nonprofit organization serving Arizona tribes. She says she had never answered the main telephone line at work until one day when the phone rang repeatedly and no one else picked it up. She answered it, and on the other end was Clark-Price, trying to get the word out to the local Native community about the upcoming NAPA conference.
“So I said, ‘Oh hey, that’s great. I’m a journalism student at ASU, and a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation.’ And she was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, I was trying to find a Native student to talk at the conference,’” Michel recalls. She says Clark-Price asked her to speak and she accepted. She also volunteered to help Clark-Price with the conference. From there, Michel was hired to assist Clark-Price in the NAJA office until she transferred to the graduate program in journalism at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Michel eventually served as the first female NAJA president, from 1994 to 1996.
In the next newsletter, Part 2: The rise of UNITY and the question — and the president’s stumbling answer — heard around the world