How Native American Tribal Newspapers Lead the Way for Press Freedom

“John”, the editor of a small Native American tribal newspaper, asked VOA to protect his identity. His newspaper, like about 72% of the media in Indian Country, is owned and funded by the tribal government. And because the government controls the purse strings, leaders say they have the right to control what gets printed.

“That’s why my paper is a little docile,” he said.

He writes about community events, school sports, births and deaths, national news that affects the tribe, but says he never reports on tribal affairs – unless it’s something that gives a good image of management.

“I wrote something [negative] a few years ago and I almost lost my paper,” he said. If the tribal government had cut the funds as they threatened, they should have stopped operations.

Photo, front page of the February 28, 1828 edition of the Cherokee Phoenix, the first Native American newspaper in the United States. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Native media today

Because they have long been overlooked by the mainstream media, citizens of the 574 federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States have always relied on their tribes for news and information that affects their daily lives.

The Indian Civil Rights Act (ICRA) of 1968 made it illegal for tribal governments “to make or enforce any law…restricting freedom of speech or of the press.”

Many tribes have laws protecting First Amendment rights, but enforcement can be lax, and because tribes are sovereign, federal courts have no jurisdiction over civil rights violations.

In a 1998 article, “Protecting the First Amendment in Indian Country,” the late Yakama journalist Richard LaCourse described a number of “interfering actions” tribal governments could take to stifle press freedom: hiring unqualified journalists on the basis of blood relationship or political unity; shooting personnel; cut funds; censor stories before they are published; block access to tribal government records and procedures.

US President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Indian Civil Rights Act, Washington, DC, April 11, 1968.

US President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Indian Civil Rights Act, Washington, DC, April 11, 1968.

In 2018, the Native American Journalists Association, or NAJA, launched its Red Press Initiative, reaching out to members and asking them about the state of press freedom in their communities.

Only 65 media executives and producers responded, along with almost 400 consumers. Although not an exhaustive survey, it demonstrates that press freedom in Indian country is inconsistent.

About half of respondents said they faced censorship; a third said they were “sometimes or always” required to obtain approval from tribal leaders before publishing articles; nearly a quarter said tribal government records and financial information were “probably” not accessible to journalists; and nearly half said they had experienced bullying or harassment from tribal leaders or community members.

Today, NAJA says a handful of tribal newspapers have successfully overcome these challenges and can serve as models for other tribes.

Front page, Navajo Times, September 6, 1961 edition.

Front page, Navajo Times, September 6, 1961 edition.

Hard road to independence

The Navajo Times, based in Window Rock, Arizona, is one of the few native newspapers to achieve full editorial independence, but it took decades.

The journal began as a monthly newsletter in late 1959 to keep off-reserve boarding school students informed of events back home. Over the next two decades, publishers came and went, and relations with the tribal government were uneven.

In 1982, Peterson Zah was elected Navajo Chief, replacing Peter MacDonald, who had held office since 1971. MacDonald was, according to a Navajo Times reporter, a man who disliked “working openly and honestly with urge them.”

But Zah disagreed and pledged to restore honesty and accountability to tribal government, as well as freedom of the press, which he said was “absolutely necessary in a true democracy”.

Zah kept his promises, supporting the newspaper even when it criticized its policies.

“We were completely independent, if not downright obnoxious,” former editor Mark Trahant would later tell the US Civil Rights Commission.

But Zah only lasted one term. MacDonald was re-elected president in 1986 and soon after shut down The Times – which had publicly endorsed his opponent – ​​firing most of its staff. It was relaunched four months later as a weekly.


In 1989, a Senate Indian Affairs committee investigating corruption in Indian Country heard testimony that MacDonald was siphoning off tribal money to fund his expensive lifestyle.

“It was a time of great turmoil and political division,” said Navajo Times CEO and publisher Tom Arviso, Jr., who came to the paper as a sportswriter in 1983 and in 1989 was promoted editor-in-chief. “We just tried to tell the story of what was going on with the management and let the readers decide for themselves.”

The Navajo Times covered it all, Arviso said, angering MacDonald supporters.

“People threatened me and some of the reporters with physical harm,” Arviso said. “A group of them actually walked up to our office, telling me to come out and face them.”

On July 20, 1989, MacDonald announced that he was back in power. With his encouragement, several hundred of his followers, armed with baseball bats and wooden clubs, stormed the Window Rock tribal offices. In the ensuing riot, two people died and 11 were injured, including several police officers.

MacDonald was later convicted of federal fraud, racketeering, and conspiracy, including incitement to riot. He was sent to prison.

Navajo Nation tribal legislators hold their summer session at the Tribal Council chambers in Window Rock, Arizona, in this July 17, 2006 file photo

Navajo Nation tribal legislators hold their summer session at the Tribal Council chambers in Window Rock, Arizona, in this July 17, 2006 file photo

Cut the purse strings

In 2000, Arviso was selected for a John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University, where he studied newspaper publishing and business management.

“And that’s how we came up with the plan to incorporate the Navajo Times, break away from the government, and organize [it] as a for-profit corporation,” he said. “The bylaws state that the true owners of the newspaper are the Navajos themselves.”

The Tribal Council approved the plan in October 2003, and on January 1, 2004, The Times officially began operating as a publishing house.

“The tribe asked that we compensate for the investment that the government made,” he said. “But we don’t just write a check and say, ‘Here’s $50,000.’ We give it back in service to our people.

Today, The Times serves 23,000 paying subscribers and generates substantial advertising revenue. But what about small tribes, who could never hope to generate this kind of income?

Front page, Osage News, January 1, 2022.

Front page, Osage News, January 1, 2022.

Legislative way

When former journalist and publisher James Roan Gray was elected leader of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma in 2002, he was determined to shake things up. A century earlier, the U.S. government had passed legislation restructuring tribal government and membership qualifications.

“We were stuck in an old tribal council structure that really didn’t give us much self-determination,” he said. “The BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] agree with us.

Gray was considering an overhaul of the Osage government, and in 2003 took his case to Washington. HR2912, a bill to reaffirm the inherent sovereign rights of the Osage Tribe, was passed and signed into law as Public Law No: 108-431 in 2004.

“The law allowed us to reorganize our government, determine citizenship and chart a future of our own design,” Gray said.

After extensive consultation with tribal members, the Osage Nation drafted and approved its first constitution in nearly a century. It contains language prohibiting the tribal government from making or enforcing laws restricting a free press.

The tribe passed an independent press law, naming Osage News as its official newspaper.

Gray also issued an executive order directing the newspaper to report “without bias on government business and news of interest to foster a more informed Osage population and protect the right of Osage citizens to freedom of speech or of the press.” “.

He didn’t get everything he wanted: Gray had hoped that the executive branch would have sole control over the appointment of the three-person editorial board. The tribe’s supreme court, however, ruled that tribal lawmakers would have a say in the matter.

“We have all learned to live with this structure,” he said.

Since then, the tribe has amended the law to protect journalists from having to reveal their sources and to ban leaders from funding the paper.

The Class of 2019 Native American Journalism Association Fellows at work at the NAJA Annual Conference, Prior Lake, MN, February 5, 2020.

The Class of 2019 Native American Journalism Association Fellows at work at the NAJA Annual Conference, Prior Lake, MN, February 5, 2020.

Increase confidence

Bryan Pollard, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, spearheaded the 2018 Red Press initiative during his tenure as NAJA President. He cautions against assumptions.

“It’s not always because there’s an authoritarian regime that wants to control the message, although there are in some cases. Sometimes it’s just because a tribe lacks the capacity to develop the structures and institutions necessary for press freedom,” Pollard said.

Today, NAJA works with tribes and indigenous journalists to educate them on methods to achieve press freedom and how it benefits both tribal leaders and citizens.

“Society is better off informed,” Gray said. “Freedom of the press benefits the tribe if the tribal leaders enjoy the trust of the people.”

Some tribal leaders don’t trust their own citizens, he added, so they tell them what they think they want to hear “in the hope that it will get them re-elected”.

“And if people don’t trust the content of the tribal diary, then no matter what you post, they won’t believe you — or at the very least, they’ll be skeptical,” Gray said.

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