Time will tell whether it’s a journalistic trend or merely a fad. But Cable News Network may have started something in recent weeks with its 20-part series, "Native Americans: The Invisible People".
During the past month, CNN viewers saw numerous well-researched reports venturing beyond the usual media treatment of Indians to explore what rarely gets much air time — in a word, history.
Most news outlets are loath to recount the realities — recurring betrayals, broken treaties and virtual genocide — inflicted on this continent’s native peoples over the course of 500 years.
The customary media approach is akin to assessing what’s on stage without considering the play’s earlier acts. Typical news items are brief snapshots of current conditions — high rates of unemployment and alcoholism on Indian reservations, or disputes that involve fishing rights or gambling casinos — without historical context.
Television tends to be the worst media offender. But CNN broke away from the pattern with "The Invisible People." What distinguished the network’s special reports was attention to the content of treaties.
"When a government makes an agreement with another nation, that government is expected to abide by the terms of the agreement," said a CNN anchor, introducing one segment. "But many Native American nations are struggling to uphold rights granted in treaties with the United States."
Correspondent Stephen Frazier explained that more than 150 years ago, a pact with the Mille Lacs band of Ojibwa Indians "reserved the right to gather and hunt and fish on the land they were giving up. Otherwise, they said, they would starve." Although the U.S. government signed the treaty, "when Minnesota became a state it deliberately did not recognize any treaty privileges of Indians."
The CNN story gave coverage to foes of Indian rights, like the Minneapolis businessman who blasted Indian activism as "political revisionism of history." But the report also provided a platform for defenders of Indian treaty rights.
The Mille Lacs won their court case last summer. And, correspondent Frazier concluded, "157 years after the Mille Lacs made a treaty with the United States, it is still valid. It is still the law of the land. It must still be respected."
Without historical explanation, the Mille Lacs’ court victory — retaining special hunting and fishing rights — might have seemed unfair to viewers. With the factual background, it was much more likely to seem just.
In another CNN segment, focusing on a land dispute in Nevada, correspondent Bonnie Anderson explained that "the only treaty between the United States and the Western Shoshone was signed here in Ruby Valley in 1863 and it seemed to affirm the Indians’ ownership of the land." In modern times, most Western Shoshone people "did not want money for land they did not want to sell."
Reporting from Indiana, CNN chronicled the struggle of Miami Indians to regain tribal recognition from the U.S. government. Across the country, "150 tribes have petitioned the Bureau of Indian Affairs but the odds are against them. Thus far fewer than a dozen have been recognized."
And, near the Grand Canyon, CNN spotlighted an example of how lucrative projects — in this case uranium mining — can run roughshod over lndian spiritual rights. A woman who is part of the Havasupai tribe said, "It’s sacrilegious to go build a mine or make a profit off of an area which people respect and consider sacred or is part of their culture or their religion."
As CNN’s Anderson reported: "Tribes across the United States are waging similar battles to protect more than 50 sites sacred to them. But they’re up against formidable opponents, like oil, gas and logging companies — modern-day enemies armed with big bucks and industry-friendly laws. So far, Native Americans have not won a single sacred sites dispute based on the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion."
In a poignant moment, a Native American activist commented: "I don’t believe that if these were Christian sites important to mainline religions that we would see them being bulldozed without any legal protection."
The executive director of the Native American Journalists Association, Ruth Denny, told us that she had "mixed feelings" about the CNN series. She noted that the network’s father, Ted Turner, has helped to perpetuate negative stereotypes with his Atlanta Braves baseball team and its "tomahawk chop."
In the future, you may be seeing a lot more Native Americans on network television. CBS has announced plans for a major eight-hour series about North American Indians, to be hosted and co-produced by Kevin Costner.
Whether such upcoming TV projects will represent genuine progress, or just a Hollywood gloss, remains to be seen.