A History of NAJA, Part 2: Planning for UNITY and former NAJA President Mark Trahant confronts a U.S. president

by AJ Earl

After the roots for NAJA were set down the work began, including the long road toward joining with other organizations of similar goals. The joining together with other groups of similar aims was not an easy task, but the outcome provided some great memories, including the time former NAJA president Mark Trahant… well, you’ll see.

It was a year later in 1987, during a period of rapid change, when Giago stepped aside to focus on his own affairs and leaders like Mike Burgess (Comanche) and Trahant (Shoshone-Bannock) stepped in. Burgess served one term as president, from 1987 to 1988.

Trahant, who served as president from 1988 to 1992, was instrumental in the formation of what would eventually become UNITY: Journalists of Color (known today as UNITY: Journalists for Diversity). It would be a significant investment of time and resources for NAJA over the next decade. The foundational meeting of UNITY took place in October 1988 in Baltimore.

UNITY existed as a coalition of four of the nation’s minority journalism organizations: The Asian American Journalists Association, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and NAJA. It intended to advocate for increased coverage of issues affecting communities of color as well as for diversity in staffing in newsrooms across the country.

Paul DeMain (Oneida Nation of Wisconsin/Ojibwe), who served two separate terms as president in the 1990s, said the UNITY coalition met at least once a month somewhere in the country as a planning committee, so there was a lot of “hustle and bustle” of delegates to different areas, such as Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. As UNITY grew, so did the prestige of the group, as well as the individual organizations, DeMain said.

MEMORIES OF UNITY

“The organization was able to do in-house projects that became Project Phoenix and begin publishing a newspaper on-site.” –Paul DeMain

“In 1994, when we had the first UNITY [convention], the other organizations had always had these student projects, and it was new to NAJA. NAJA had not had student projects prior to that.” –Patty Talahongva

“I don’t know if Patty mentioned it to you, but it was her idea to start the NAJA lifetime membership, and it was at UNITY in Washington, D.C., where it started. And then a number of us … committed then.” –Lori Edmo-Suppah

“Most schoolkids learn about government in the context of city, county, state and federal, and of course tribal governments are not a part of that at all. Mr. President, you’ve been a governor and a president so you have unique experience looking at it from two directions, what do you think tribal sovereignty means in the 21st century, and how do we resolve conflicts between tribes and the federal and state governments?”—Mark Trahant asked President George W. Bush at the UNITY ’04 convention

“Tribal sovereignty means that. It’s sovereign. You’re, you’re a, you’ve been given sovereignty and you’re viewed as a sovereign entity.” –President George W. Bush, in response to a question by former NAJA President Mark Trahant

DeMain’s first term as president, 1992-94, coincided with the first coalition conference, called UNITY ’94, held in Atlanta. It was the first gathering of all four journalists of color organizations, with NAJA having the smallest membership and NABJ the largest.

UNITY ’94 had its challenges. It was the first time the groups worked together, and through this process they learned about each other’s cultural differences. In the end, it was a successful convention and many of those involved were impressed with their group’s ability to collectively achieve the goals of uniting all four groups and sending a message to the industry that diversity in America’s newsrooms matters.

UNITY ’99, held in the host city of Seattle, also had its share of challenges. A contentious ballot measure in that year would make the site complicated for attendees. Initiative 200, a proposed referendum to overturn affirmative action in the state of Washington, was roundly rebuked by members of the UNITY coalition.

It was DeMain who brought the groups to a consensus, according to Patty Talahongva (Hopi):

“Paul basically put it to the other organizations like this: He said, ‘You know, tribes have been signing treaties with the U.S. government since the U.S. government came around, and before that, tribes were signing treaties with the British and the French, and we can tell you here that all of these governments have always broken treaties with us.’” Talahongva recalled DeMain saying that NAJA had basically signed a treaty with the other three journalists of color organizations, and that “we were gonna come together … and hold this conference in Seattle.”

UNITY ’99 would ultimately become the largest journalism conference up to that point with an estimated 6,000 attendees.

UNITY ’04, held in Washington, D.C., was its own special case, with President George W. Bush and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry both in attendance, as well as Bush’s Secretary of State Colin Powell.

“We said that’s our goal, we want to have our journalists of color talking to these presidential candidates; and so we reached out to President Bush and John Kerry,” recounted Talahongva. “We were the only—the ONLY—conference to get both presidential candidates to their convention to not just talk to us, but to answer questions from our journalists.”

It was at this convention that former NAJA president Trahant famously asked Bush about sovereignty, eliciting an unforgettable remark from Bush that still draws strong emotions in Indian Country.

Talahongva said Trahant asked the question that produced perhaps the most widely broadcast clip of a Bush interview “because it really showed the president didn’t have a grasp of sovereignty.”

Next up: Some NAJA members dedicate their lives to the organization


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