Jul 1 2010

Freedom of the Press in Indian Country

Censorship an issue when tribal governments pay the bills

Indian Country: 1.9 million people and 564 tribes spread over more than 55 million square acres. Running staccato from the tip of the Florida panhandle to the tip of Maine, down through the Catskills, out along the Great Lakes through the Badlands of the Dakotas to the Cascades of the Pacific Northwest, down through California and through the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, up through the Martian red sands of the Four Corners, coming full circle in the heart of Oklahoma, the original Indian ghetto, formerly “Indian Territory.”

department of indian affairs logoAs such, the Indian Country galaxy is as diverse and as fractious as the people and land that constitute it. Furthermore, each tribe within this galaxy—a series of nations within the political boundaries of the United States—is governed by their own unique sets of laws and constitution under the purview of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI). While some tribal constitutions do carry freedom of the press provisions, many do not. Due to this fact, often coupled with other aggravating socioeconomic factors, Native American journalists often find that reporting the news in Indian Country may not be as cut-and-dry as it is in communities just a stone’s throw over the reservation line.

And newspapers and other media outlets in Indian Country—where unemployment has historically far outpaced national rates, as high as 80 percent in some areas—have been feeling for generations the economic crunch much lamented in recent years by the mainstream press. Due to these monetary constraints, the vast majority of Indian Country newspapers are funded through tribal governments, which in turn may receive much of their funding through the DOI.

“You’ll find that the freedom of the press and censorship issue is still huge in Indian Country,” said Tom Arviso, Jr., publisher of the Navajo Times—the largest circulation independent newspaper in Indian Country. “And it’s because tribes own a vast majority of the media. So long as they sign the checks and pay the bills, they feel that they have a right to dictate what can and can’t be published.”

For example, in Arviso’s view, the major issue facing Indian Country as a whole is the enforcement of treaty rights, whether it be land use or mineral trusts held by the DOI. “I think a lot of times, if you look and see, a lot of these transactions where we gave up huge tracts of land, a lot of it had to do with just being swindled,” said Arviso.

For Navajo people, we’re finding a lot of grievances that we have are in regards to mineral leases, mining leases where we were paid pennies on the dollar when we should have gotten paid a heck of a lot more. There was collusion or a cooperative effort between the U.S. government and the independent private business people who were involved with these transactions. They worked together to make these agreements go forward, and in a lot of these cases, the native people got ripped off.

Arviso says that more and more Native American youth are attaining higher levels of education and using legal or journalistic avenues to reexamine treaties and trusts held by the federal government. Still, Arviso says, the DOI and BIA are not always the most forthcoming when dealing with information requests from Native media.

“I think it’s so strange when you get newspapers that come in like the Arizona Republic, USA Today or the L.A. Times—those guys go in there and they have a better chance of getting what they want—better than, say, the Navajo Times or the Seminole Tribune, or some of these other Indian newspapers,” said Arviso.

I think they’re real selective in the kind of information they want to release. In dealing with the Interior [Department] —which for us is the Bureau of Indian Affairs or Indian Health Service—you don’t get very much at all, especially at the local level. You end up going to the district office and they tell you, “Well, you need to go up to the regional office,” and everyone is afraid to talk. Everyone is afraid to take responsibility for releasing information. A lot of it has to do with that they don’t want to lose their jobs—there’s not a whole lot of jobs to begin with.

And, says Arviso, this reticence carries on to the tribal administrative level, which, in turn, may be afraid to rock the boat with the DOI—often a major source of tribal revenue.

As a 34-year veteran reporter in newsrooms of tribally owned papers, Native American Journalists Association executive director Jeff Harjo says he knows the perils of tribal censorship all too well.

“It’s a known fact that if you’re working for a tribal paper and you print something about the governor or the chief of the tribe that’s putting him in a bad light, then they will turn around and fire you for doing that,” said Harjo.

Now, if there’s a part of their constitution where they have a freedom of the press amendment, then I would hope that the administration would abide by that and give the tribal newspaper staff free rein to print what needs to be printed, whether it’s good or whether it’s bad. But there’s very few tribes that have a freedom of the press clause in their constitution…. Unless you have that, you’re pretty much relegated to knowing what you can print and what you can’t.

The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal Constitution does have an explicit free speech protection clause—virtually identical to the First Amendment—in its Bill of Rights. However, as journalist Dana Attocknie soon learned, even this clause proved to be insufficient in keeping her neck from the chopping block.

By the time the newly elected Cheyenne and Arapaho (Oklahoma) tribal administration of Gov. Janice Boswell took power in January of this year, Attocknie had served as managing editor of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal Tribune for a little over two years. Attocknie says she received an email just days into the new administration from Ida Hoffman, then acting executive director of the tribal Department of Administration (DOA)—the department under which the government-subsidized paper falls. The email, she says, expressed Hoffman’s desire to review the paper before publication.

“I questioned that, because a review to me is censorship if you’re going to decide what goes in and what won’t,” said Attocknie. “Her response was that basically, if I wanted to call it a review, that was entirely up to me, but that I didn’t seem to mind letting the old governor do it. I responded back that, with all due respect, the old administration or the governor never reviewed the newspaper.”

Attocknie says that Hoffman and the administration were not pleased, and that contentious meetings took place between the Tribune staff—comprised of herself and one other reporter—over the following weeks.

In early April, Attocknie was called into a meeting with the Department of Administration executive director Eddie Hamilton—Hoffman having gone on to her current appointment as the governor’s chief of staff.

“They said I was being let go because of ‘reduction of force,’” Attocknie said. “They said they were eliminating my position. Of course I questioned it—I said, ‘Are you going to have just one person doing the paper?’ It didn’t make sense.”

According to Attocknie, Hamilton made it clear that something the Tribune had printed had not pleased the administration, and that this was the real reason behind her removal. On March 15, the paper had run an article detailing the events of a March 4 legislative oversight hearing written by Michael Kodaseet, speaker of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Legislature.

The intent of the oversight hearing, according to Kodaseet, was to determine the legal validity of a resolution enacted by the Legislature in 1996, which had been called into question by a new resolution introduced by the incoming administration regarding gubernatorial confirmations. The 1996 resolution dealt specifically with Hoffman, charging that Hoffman had attempted to present falsified meeting minutes of the tribal council to the BIA in 1995 and was therefore barred from taking part in certain functions of tribal government.

Kodaseet’s article, essentially written as a public service announcement describing a legislative decision, stated that the resolution was indeed valid and did apply to the new administration.

Regardless of the fact that the article in question was not written by Tribune staff, and that it accurately conveyed the legislature’s resolution, tribal spokesperson Lisa Martin said that Attocknie had been fired for publishing “false information” (El Reno Tribune, 5/2/10).

Lisa Liebl, a Cheyenne and Arapaho public relations officer, said that the March 15 issue, which allegedly contained “a lot of mixed up dates and information regarding resolutions,” was not the only time Attocknie had printed errors and therefore was not the sole reason for termination. However, when asked to provide other examples, Liebl claimed that the tribe was unable to do so since Attocknie “destroyed all of the archives” when she left—an accusation Attocknie flatly denies. Several issues of the paper printed during Attocknie’s tenure under the Boswell administration—including the contested March 15 issue—are available on the tribal website (www.c-a-tribes.org/tribal-news).

According to Liebl, the other alleged inaccuracies appeared in articles provided to the paper by the new administration, which were intended to be published verbatim. “When there were some inaccuracies in the articles, someone from the other branch [DOA] asked if they could look over the paper to make sure it was accurate information, and she perceived that as being censored,” said Liebl. “So that’s really what that pertained to. They just felt it was in the best interest.”

Attocknie says she is currently seeking work outside the tribe.

“I thought it might be nice to teach journalism. I certainly would like to teach Native kids, too—I’ve always thought that there should be some kind of course when you work for Native media, because you face different obstacles,” said Attocknie. “You’ve got to love what you do and you’re either going to stand up for yourself and face tough consequences like I did, or be told what to do.”

Beau Hodai is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Extra!.