A brief history of the Native American Journalists Association
By Alex-jon Earl
Native American Journalism Fellow
Edited by Karen Lincoln Michel, Editor, Madison Magazine (November 2017). Reviewed by the Native American Journalists Association Board of Directors (November 2017). Final version November 22, 2017
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 1828 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
Tim Giago: 8
Richard LaCourse: 2
Adrian Louis: 1
Loren Tapahe: 7
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 offices, past and present
Vermillion, South Dakota
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 Ari-zona 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.
Moving along and UNITY
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 com-munities 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 com-mittee, 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 to 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 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 over-turn 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 De-mocratic 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.”
A lifetime with NAJA
In 2004, NAJA debuted a new way to support the organization: the lifetime membership.
Talahongva said she started discussing the creation of a lifetime membership category with fellow NAJA board member Dan Lewerenz (Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska). Lewerenz would succeed Talahongva as NAJA president for a one-year term in 2004.
“So, I was floating this idea, looking at numbers and talking to a couple of people, and then we had to take it to the board, because this was a change in policy and we had to get the board to approve a lifetime membership category,” Talahongva said. “And they did.”
Talahongva reached out to longtime members of NAJA, including Trahant and Lori Edmo-Suppah (Shoshone-Bannock) and asked them and three others to join her and acquire a lifetime membership. Expecting only the core five she asked to follow her, Talahongva was surprised to see 16 people lined up behind her. A total of $17,000 was raised in that moment.
Each lifetime member was given a medal to commemorate their momentous contribution.
From this solid base, NAJA’s membership continued to grow, as did its space needs. Since its first office in Scottsdale, Arizona, NAJA headquarters had relocated to Boulder, Colorado, in the late 1980s, to Min-neapolis in the early 1990s, and to Vermillion, South Dakota, in the early 2000s.
By the time UNITY ’08 took place in Chicago, the next move was already plotted.
Cristina Azocar (Upper Mattaponi) recalled UNITY ’08 not only as the year she met then-presidential candidate Barack Obama—who spoke at UNITY’s presidential forum broadcast live on CNN—but also as the year NAJA moved its offices to Oklahoma. When recalling which year NAJA made the move, Azo-car said, “Oh, it was 2008, because of Obama, because I met Obama!”
Azocar said that was the year she worked with then-executive director Kim Baca to execute NAJA’s move to the University of Oklahoma campus. “That was the milestone,” she said.
Looking to the future
Bryan Pollard (Cherokee) served as vice president under Azocar’s leadership, and Pollard would be elect-ed NAJA president in September 2016. He recalled his early time in NAJA.
“When I first decided to run for the board the first time around, I was encouraged to do so by my editor at the time, Dan Agent; he was the editor of the Cherokee Phoenix at the time, and I was also very much encouraged by Patty Talahongva and Minnie Two Shoes,” explained Pollard, who added that Talahongva and Two Shoes stood out among the many people who instilled in him a sense of loyalty and commitment to NAJA.
“I had a lot of conversations with the two of them about the importance of NAJA and that’s the reason that I’m so committed to NAJA and its success,” Pollard said.
Pollard explained that financial stability is a major goal of the organization, something enduring from its foundation.
“Five years from now I would like to see the fruits of that effort. I would like to see NAJA have enough revenue stream coming in that money is not a concern, that we have enough money we can pay two or three full-time staff to do the work of NAJA, and to be able to serve our members.”
Pollard also wants to see NAJA increase its outreach to students.
“I think I would love to be able to ramp that up to have instead of having 10 fellows, have 25 fellows,” Pollard said of the NAJA Fellowship Program for college students. He said he would also like to revive NAJA’s Project Phoenix, which was a program aimed at high school students, and would like to have 10 to 20 students attend alongside the college students.
NAJA past presidents
1984 – 87: Tim Giago
1987 – 88: Mike Burgess
1988 – 92: Mark Trahant
1992 – 94: Paul DeMain
1994 – 96: Karen Lincoln Michel
1996: Keith Skenandore
1996 – 98: Paul DeMain
1998 – 99: Kara Briggs
1999 – 2000: Lori Edmo-Suppah
2000 – 02: Mary Annette Pember
2002 – 04: Patty Talahongva
2004 – 05: Dan Lewerenz
2005 – 07: Mike Kellogg
2007 – 08: Cristina Azocar
2008 – 10: Ronnie Washines
2010 – 11: Rhonda LeValdo
2011: Darla Leslie
2011 – 13: Rhonda LeValdo
2013 – 15: Mary Hudetz
2015 – 16: Jason Begay
2016 – 18: Bryan Pollard
2018: Tristan Ahtone
“NAJA is unique in that we really have two missions that serve to advocate for our members, and one mission is we advocate free press in Indian Country,” explained Pollard. “Because tribal media—which is more often than not owned, or at least funded by the tribe itself—oftentimes does not have the editorial independence that they really need to practice good journalism.”
He says on one hand, NAJA is advocating for tribes to enact legislation and other reforms that will help create an independent press in Indian Country. In doing so, he says, NAJA is advocating for its members who work in tribal media.
DeMain agreed. He said promoting First Amendment issues has been a focus of NAJA throughout its history.
“I think every other year, perhaps for a number of years, we would have workshops on freedom of the press in Indian Country, and it had to do with going back to rewrite or add to tribal constitutions to try to get tribes to pass resolutions that supported freedom of press,” DeMain stated. “[That] gave some of the writers and editors on Indian reservations the capability to pursue their career without having to worry about getting fired.”
The other mission, according to Pollard, is to work with advocating for NAJA members and non-members who work in mainstream media.
“We have members who work in mainstream, and so our mission with those members is to help them find their way in the industry, whether it’s recruiting our young journalists and getting them their first job in a newsroom, or whether it’s someone who’s already established, and they maybe want to move into a different part of the newsroom,” explained Pollard.
Another aspect of this outreach is geared toward the news industry itself by ensuring that non-Native journalists have a resource for accurate representations of Native Americans in their news coverage. NAJA has long presented itself as a clearinghouse for such information, from one-sheet references to guides like “Covering Native America from A to Z,” “500 Nations, 100 Questions” and “Reading Red.”
“Accuracy of the non-Indian press, the development and revision of the Associated Press [style]book, trying to make sure that the big newspapers had a Rolodex of Indian people on it so they could call people and say, ‘Does this sound right?’” described DeMain. “Is it stereotypes, is it racist, what is it we missed?”
In 2017, NAJA developed its own style guide of terms for newsrooms to use. NAJA continues to be relevant.
The next generation
Each year NAJA brings on board a new class of Native American journalism fellows and awards scholarships to college students. Not only do these programs provide opportunities for students to get the training and education they need to start their journalistic careers, but they also give students a chance to advance within NAJA.
“I was the first NAJA scholarship recipient … when I was going to go to the University of Oregon,” stated Lori Edmo-Suppah, who became a NAJA president in 1999 for a one-year term.
This focus on opportunity and building relationships is foundational to NAJA. The chance to meet, visit and build a rapport with the next generation of journalists is paramount.
Talahongva says she values the relationships she has made with aspiring Native journalists.
“I mentored students from all the other [UNITY] organizations and some of them have gone on to be news directors, others are anchors on their local newscasts, others are at network, and it’s so cool to see them growing,” explained Talahongva. She says she likes to ask former mentees, “Who are you mentor-ing, because now you’re in a position where you can help somebody else out, so what are you doing for that next generation?”
See you next year
“For a long time, I went to every NAJA conference, and then I quit going for four or five years after I went off the board, but I’ve still always come back, and I’ve always been a member. I make sure to, even though I’m a lifetime member, still pay them an individual membership every year. To me, it’s really important in my life.” Edmo-Suppah says she has made many contacts and maintained friendships. “Every time I go to the NAJA conference, it’s like it really reenergizes me and … renews my soul. It gives me a whole new perspective to go away from there and know that … the work we’re doing is important.” – Lori Edmo-Suppah
A sign of a valuable organization with a lasting legacy is when the group’s members routinely ask, “When is the next conference?”
It’s at these conferences where the mission is solidified and meaningful relationships are formed. Members have the chance to sharpen their skills through career-building workshops and learn what’s happening in Indian Country through issue-oriented sessions. It’s also a time of celebration of the body of work produced by NAJA members. And much of the work in planning the conference—building sponsorships, finding meeting locations and accommodations—is made possible through the efforts of NAJA’s executive director and board.
It matters to members that their leaders demonstrate their commitment in this way.
This narrative of NAJA’s history is based on research into records and interviews with current and former leaders. It’s only one in what is hopefully a long series of histories. It isn’t the first, and it shouldn’t be the last.