Feb
21
2001

Washington Post Reporter William Claiborne Responds to FAIR's February 16 Alert

RE: Feb. 16, 2001 FAIR Action Alert:

I believe that Michael Getler, the Washington Post's ombudsman, is writing something in response to the large number of e-mails he received concerning my February 13 article about the Miami Indian Tribe's land claim in southern Illinois. But because many of those e-mails were copied to me, I am replying directly.

It is not the Washington Post's policy to republish ethnic slurs without context, or to equate casino-building with genocidal crimes against Native Americans. Nor is it my policy or practice to do so. I do not write racist stories and have never done so in my 41 years in journalism, 32 of them at the Washington Post as a national and foreign correspondent.

Unfortunately, the context that was present in my 1,500-word article was omitted from FAIR's Action Alert, which republished only two paragraphs of quotations or paraphrases of comments made by white property owners whom I interviewed in the area of southern Illinois that is disputed in the Miami Tribe's land claim.

The context began with the very first paragraph of the article, which was not reprinted in the Action Alert:

A century and a half ago, U.S. Army troops herded the Miami Indians of the upper Midwest at gunpoint onto canal barges and deported them to Kansas, leaving Illinois--a state with an Algonquian name meaning "tribe of superior men" without a single Native American tribe.

The point of this article was that the white man's 19th Century policy of ethnic cleansing in order to make room in the Midwest for the westward expansion of settlers eliminated every single Indian tribe from Illinois. Now, 150 years later, the Algonquian-speaking Miami Tribe of the upper Midwest was returning with a land claim of 2.6 million acres of their ancestral home that could put the land into tribal trust and give the Miamis sovereignty over it and property owned by descendants of white settlers.

The purpose of the article was to report on the reactions of the white landowners in the face of this supreme irony. In the course of my interviews, I heard some outrageous and offensive statements like "they're doing the same thing they claim whites did to them" and "to the victor goes the spoils." Some characterized the Miamis' lawsuit as a "greedy land grab."

I quoted or paraphrased some of these statements in an attempt to illustrate a level of fear bordering on hysteria among some property owners in rural, conservative southern Illinois in the face of a very remote possibility that the Miami Tribe could win anything more than a modest financial settlement (as has happened in other similar lawsuits) or, at best, gain a small plot of land and permission to build a casino. I thought--wrongly, as it turns out--that the statements were so outrageous that in light of my opening paragraph that cited the 1846 atrocity of forced removal the reader would conclude that my only motive for repeating the remarks was to expose the irrational reactions of the people I was quoting.

Most people who responded to FAIR's Action Alert with e-mails to me appear not to have read the entire article and therefore could not possibly have detected my obviously failed attempt to juxtapose the 1846 tragedy with the present-day landowners' hysterical reactions. Some of those who sent e-mails referred to the Miami tribe as "the Florida tribe," indicating they could not possibly have read the lead paragraph of the article that placed the Miami Tribe in the upper Midwest.

In retrospect, even though it was used by some of those interviewed, the term "greedy" is a word that is so highly-charged and emotive that it should have been omitted. I wrongly believed the reader would understand that I was repeating this offensive term only because of the ultimate irony that it was being used by the descendants of white men who greedily dispossessed an entire peoples from land they had inhabited for thousands of years. As for the use of the phrase "gaudy casino," I have never seen a casino of any ethnic ownership that is not gaudy. In fact, casino developers will tell you that they are intended to be gaudy.

However, as one of the few national reporters who has covered Indian Country on a regular basis for a number of years, I've frequently traveled to reservations that have legal gaming and I have written stories about how casinos have provided woefully impoverished tribes with the seed money they needed for non-gaming economic development that has allowed them to improve their social and economic condition. There are many major Native American tribal leaders who will attest to my fairness in covering Indian Country. I have long had--and still have--a deep appreciation of Native American tribes' ability to use casino revenues to improve their members' lives.

William Claiborne

Washington Post

Read FAIR's original action alert.

Read FAIR's reply to William Claiborne's response.