The past, present and future of Indigenous journalism

Tim Giago (Oglala Lakota), keynote speaker at this year’s conference luncheon, shares a photo of NAJA’s first four directors. Pictured from left are vice president Loren Tapahe, secretary Mary Polanco, treasurer Anita Austin, and a young Giago. (Photo by Taylor Notah)

By Taylor Notah

PRIOR LAKE, Minn. – At the 2019 National Native Media Conference luncheon and business meeting Monday afternoon, Tim Giago (Oglala Lakota) recounted on the beginnings of the Native American Journalists Association and shared the important roles that today’s storytellers have in keeping the legacy of Indigenous journalism ongoing.

“That’s how we got started many, many years ago. I’m just so happy to see what we’re still doing after all these years,” he told the crowd. “You’re beginning the legacy of Native American journalism.”

Giago is heralded for many notable achievements in his decades-long career in journalism. He was the association’s first president who founded Indian Country Today nearly four decades ago. He is the editor of Native Sun News Today in Rapid City, South Dakota, a role he says he still hopes to continue serving for several more years.

“I’m an old Dakota cowboy. I come to this conference this year and I call it going to my last rodeo. I’m 85 years old now and I’m still publishing a newspaper. I hope I can continue for a few more years, but I’ve taught a lot of young journalists. I’ve trained a lot of good Native American journalists that are going to pick it up by going through here,” he said.

Giago also recognized pioneering Native journalists the industry has lost in recent years, such as Adrian Louis, Ray Cook, Jerry Reynolds, Minnie Two Shoes and more. 

The history of the association traces back to 1983 when Giago, Adrian Louis and William Delaney of Penn State envisioned Indigenous journalists establishing a much-needed press association.

Almost 40 years later, the association is thriving and equipping budding Native American journalism students across the country with the tools needed to report for and about Indian Country through the Native American Journalism Fellowship program.

2019 NAJF mentor-in-training Taylor Notah (Diné) spoke with today’s Native American journalism leaders about the past, present and future of Indigenous journalism.

Mark Trahant (Shoshone-Bannock)

Editor of Indian Country Today

Mark Trahant (Shoshone-Bannock) is this year’s recipient of the 2019 NAJA-Medill Milestone Achievement Award. Pictured at the NAJA luncheon Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. (Photo credit: Eugene Tapahe, Tapahe Photography)

What does the future of Indigenous journalism look like?

Trahant: I think we’re going into the golden era. I think things have been getting better anyway, but I think it’s really going to be pronounced because there’s going to be more opportunities for people to tell stories. We live in a storytelling society and the opportunities to get that across and this goes back to history, but Elias Boudinot (Cherokee) when he started the Cherokee Phoenix called it a spacious channel and I think that’s more true now than ever, it really is a spacious channel. 

Indigenous peoples, we have been telling stories since the petroglyphs. Would you mind talking more about that?

Trahant: I mean, we have a 10,000-year history in media. We’ve been involved telling stories about things that have been happening. You look at the petroglyphs in New Mexico or Arizona and the stories that are told about the Spanish coming in, or even in the Glittering World. These are stories that have been told by essentially journalists. I always imagined what it was like getting out a rock and saying, ‘Gotta write something on deadline. Mmm, maybe I’ll make coffee first. Maybe I’ll walk around the room first. Oh no, I got to get this out.’ (Laughs) But it shows how universal it is and the stories have always been told by people about things happening in the world, which is journalism.

Tristan Ahtone (Kiowa)

NAJA President and Tribal Affairs Editor at High Country News

NAJA president Tristan Ahtone (Kiowa) at the National Native Media Awards Banquet Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. (Photo by Makayla Sloan)

As current NAJA president, what about the conference gets you excited every year?

Ahtone: (Chuckles) You know, the thing that excites me about getting here every year is just seeing everybody. I know that might sound kind of cheesy, but it’s such a nice place to reconnect with friends and with relatives. Just a good place to re-energize, reconnect and get grounded again. 

I want to learn a little bit about your history with NAJA. When did you first become a part of the NAJA family?

Ahtone: My first NAJA conference would’ve been 2008 in Chicago. I was there kind of briefly. I would say real involvement with the organization was in 2011 (when)  I came onto the board of directors. So I ran, got elected then, and have really been with the board basically since then. 

At the luncheon, Tim Giago mentioned all of these notable Native journalists and figures who recently passed. With the student newsroom encouraging the next generation of Indigenous journalists every year, what are your thoughts when you see the new students come on board each year?

Ahtone: It fills my heart with joy. I think we need a lot more Indigenous journalists working. The perspective and voice that you all bring to the profession is incredibly important, so I’m always glad that we can find a way to support and make sure you all have a network to plug into and hopefully feel like you’re a part of the community.

What is the power of the Indigenous story?

Ahtone: That’s a good question. I think that when it comes to story and storytelling, I think that Indigenous voices and perspectives are absolutely necessary in every single way. What I mean by that is that we have such a unique way of looking at the world, we have such unique ways of dealing with state and colonial structures, we have such unique ways of living with each other in our respective homelands, that perspective has to be included in these sort of reporting that you do.

That said, because there’s not a lot of news organizations out there that understand how important that perspective is, we need Indigenous journalists who can provide that experience and point of view to news organizations. The importance is that we can really start making a lot of change in the world in this organization and in the ways that we all see each other.

Patty Talahongva (Hopi)

Executive producer for Indian Country Today

Patty Talahongva (Hopi) poses at the NAJA National Native Media Awards Banquet Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. (Photo by Makayla Sloan)

Tell me about your pathway to NAJA.

Talahongva: It was incorporated as the Native American Press Association because back then, tribal media was largely print and then eventually radio came in. I joined NAJA in ’94 and that’s when we started the television component.

I had met Conroy Chino who was a TV news reporter in Los Angeles and we actually met on the streets of Los Angeles covering the Rodney King riots. From that, we kept in touch and then Conroy is the one who told me about the UNITY ’94 conference in Georgia and he said he was involved in a student project but because of ceremonial duties, he couldn’t commit to the whole week of the project. So he asked me to step in for him and that was my first introduction to NAJA. And it was with the other three journalism associations and we ran the student television workshop. I went there without knowing anyone from NAJA except for Conroy who didn’t arrive until three days later. I represented NAJA even though I was brand new to the association. I met the staff of NAJA, met some members and had a great time. The next year they asked, ‘Could you come back and run the student television project for NAJA?” so I said, ‘Sure.’ I’ve been coming to NAJA ever since.

Do you have a favorite memory since your days with NAJA?

Talahongva: When I was president in 2004, with the help of the board we passed the lifetime membership category. It’s a $1,000 and our idea was to make that commitment to NAJA and all of that money we’ve raised would go into our endowment fund… So we wanted to make sure that we had this pot of money that NAJA can draw on. I asked people would commit to being lifetime members of NAJA, and I was the first lifetime member of NAJA. 

When we started that announcement, within that night of the banquet we had 17 people who stood up, pledged and became lifetime members. So within an hour we had raised $17,000. And we continue to add that today.

Since being involved, how does it feel seeing new students come on each year and hone in on their skills?

Talahongva: One of the values of NAJA is to help raise the next generation of journalists. I think it’s really great to see all of the young people coming through the NAJA projects and then continuing to work with the mentors. We care about you guys, we care about whose going to replace me in the newsroom. I always thought about that. I was in commercial television news, I was the only Native American in every newsroom I worked in, and fighting for those stories that were connected to our communities. I can’t be the only one fighting, but that’s the case for a lot of Native journalists in most newsrooms. Our concern is, we need more of our people to help present the perspective of American Indians… so helping the students in their careers, helping them to hone their skills and yet creating those mentorships truly last a lifetime, that’s really important. 

And it’s fun! It’s really a lot of fun to see other people succeed and I can point to several people who went off, got jobs and not just in the U.S. but also Canada, and I say, I helped them and I continue to help them. Because I want them to succeed. Their success is a success for all of us. 

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