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Native American Journalists Oppose Media Stereotypes

November 1, 1994
Related Topics: Diversity, Featured Article
Picture this: thousands of football and baseball fans cheering for the Kansas City Chiefs, the Washington Redskins or the Atlanta Braves. Some sway and wave their arms with the tomahawk chop. Others don feathers and paint their faces red. Anything wrong with this picture? A lot, according to Paul DeMain, outgoing president of the Native American Journalists Association and the president of Unity '94—a convention that drew more than 5,000 journalists of color to Atlanta last August. "You wouldn't allow the Atlanta Braves to be called the Jumping Jesuits," he says. "This Redskin stuff is derogatory. It has to come to an end." Media stereotypes of Native American people was one of hundreds of workshops conducted during the Unity '94 convention. It was titled How Does It Feel To Be a Mascot? and drew an active discussion among publishers and journalists.

Many concur with DeMain's criticism. The Portland-based Oregonian and the Minneapolis-St. Paul-based Star Tribune, for example, no longer use team names with offensive Native American references. They just refer to a group as the Washington team. As Native American journalists call attention to unfair and inaccurate portrayals of their communities, newspaper publishers and human resources professionals are beginning to listen. Nevertheless, DeMain—a member of the Lac Coute Oreille band of Ojibwas—has gone further by launching his own publication seven years ago. Today, he publishes a national biweekly paper with a circulation of 6,700. According to Phoenix, Arizona-based American Indian Digest, there are approximately 2 million self-declared Natives affiliated with 318 tribes. About 437,000—or 22%—live on 308 reservations across the United States.

DeMain says that Native people are offended by media insensitivities. When the press covered last year's outbreak of the hantavirus in the Southwest, copyeditors referred to it as the Navajo flu. Moreover, when a Navajo man became one of the victims, the media violated a sacred tradition among Native people, he explains. "In Navajo country, you don't mention a deceased person's name at least for four days. In some cases, the mourning period takes a year," he says.

Insensitivities such as these have prompted the emergence of Native-owned newspapers such as DeMain's. But they aren't new. In fact, NAJA members took some time off during the convention to visit nearby New Echota in Georgia. The area was the birthplace of the Cherokee Phoenix, the nation's first bilingual Native newspaper founded in 1828. At New Echota, the slaying of the newspaper's first editor, Elias Boudinot, silenced an influential voice. Boudinot had published stories about the federal government forcing Cherokees off their homelands.

Hence, the tribal press is continuing a long tradition of invaluable news reporting. DeMain says that one of the major dilemmas facing mainstream Native American journalists is to satisfy editors and still honor one's tribal values such as privacy and an unquestioning trust in authority. The dilemma also is acute for photojournalists who may be asked to cover religious ceremonies that are often conducted on sacred grounds. "It's rude to violate cultural protocol. These are ceremonies, not photo opps," he says.

Personnel Journal, November 1994, Vol. 73, No.11, p. 108.

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