I got the call around the time I was scrolling my Twitter feed, wiping my eyes dry over the immense promise I felt watching newly-elected Indigenous congresswomen Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) and Rep. Sharice Davids (D-KS) share a heartfelt hug on the House floor. It was a cable news producer from a network that will remain anonymous, and he was calling to book a panel. He’d heard I knew a few things about Native Americans and the geopolitical frame of reference—except that’s not what he wanted to talk to me about. He wanted to know if I could sit on a televised segment to discuss Elizabeth Warren.
The news producer yammered on while I continued to gaze at Twitter, feasting on photo after photo of history literally happening right before my eyes. Two Native American women like me were doing what had never been done before—breaking into one of the highest political arenas in the land. I waited until the producer stopped talking.
I politely told him that the problem with Warren isn’t expired controversy over her silly DNA test and, now, her bid for the presidency. Rather, I said, it’s Warren and the media itself capitalizing on this issue and ignoring the very Native Americans central to the debate—arguably the most marginalized voices in the country.
I suggested the segment be realigned to focus on the days’ unprecedented inauguration of Davids and Haaland into the U.S. House of Representatives, that this was the true moment in democracy the world should be watching. But he said the panel was mostly booked to discuss the Democratic party’s dilemma over whether to support Warren. He wanted a voice critical of the Massachusetts senator and assumed this person would be me—both Democrat and anti-Warren. He said mention of Davids and Haaland could be an aside, an afterthought.
There is nothing new about Indian Country getting short shrift in the media, in politics, or in life in general. And there is certainly nothing unusual about outsiders looking in, assuming that all Native Americans represent a monolith: We all vote Democrat, we think alike, and we’ll go along with whatever corporate agenda is put in front of us—in this case, a conversation about Elizabeth Warren.
There remains no designated journalism real estate in the established elite press for the original voices of America.
But the election of Haaland and Davids represents a resounding call for change, and the time has come for the Indigenous inhabitants of these lands to become a priority in the American narrative.
Last year marked my 20th anniversary of being a career journalist, a profession I entered into because the very people and places I come from across Indian Country simply were not being seen in my newsfeeds or were only being featured in cringe-worthy ways. Even today, it’s common to see non-Indigenous journalists go to an Indian reservation and treat it like it’s some kind of developing country—and in many ways, they would be socioeconomically accurate based on the latest report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which highlights the need to honor the treaties broken by the U.S. government. But that’s the problem. Rarely does the journalism match the Indigenous point of view.
Today Indian Country is comprised of roughly 2.6 million tribal citizens who live either on ancestral lands now restricted by trust relationships with the federal government (i.e., reservations) or ancestral lands stolen and now shared with the offspring of immigrants in cities across the U.S.
But this narrative—this decolonized way of viewing the origin story of America—is rarely, if ever, discussed in a way that is accepted as Western journalism. Rather, these Indigenous points of view are relegated to the opinion column. There remains no designated journalism real estate in the established elite press for the original voices of America.
For this reason, I made a deliberate pivot a few years ago to work independently, so I could go to the places that few newsrooms would send me. And, despite my professional gains, it also works to my disadvantage. The amount of time and energy to be seen and heard by editors on stories of national importance from Indian Country is daunting and often the most difficult part of my job.
To be sure, the story about former Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia blocking the most promising bill addressing violence against Native Americans was a lead I couldn’t convince any of my clients to invest in, even though I had been writing about the issue for them previously. In this regard, the editorial fickleness I contend with is on par with Goodlatte’s message: Indigenous issues just don’t matter that much.
I have stewed over these inequalities in the media and I had found some peace. But then I got that call from the network producer.
We cannot understand the story of this great nation without including the Indigenous narrative.
To be fair, Indigenous media is problematic as well.
Like our ancestors, those of us who crave the Indigenous narrative must forage for this sustenance of our media diets—hunt for it in digital territories like Facebook and Twitter to nourish our minds.
This has to change, and Haaland and Davids are emblematic of this call to action.
Time has run out to convince colonized newsrooms that Indigenous issues and perspectives matter in a way that is legitimate rather than opinionated.
Patience has worn paper thin for Indian Country to be seen worthy of first-class journalism on a daily basis, as opposed to the kind of reactionary framework we saw at Standing Rock.
The hunger for validation from the legacy press of the authentic Indigenous narrative is no longer malnourishment but a famine imposed on our very democracy. We cannot understand the story of this great nation without including the Indigenous narrative.
Rep. Haaland and I come from the same pueblo. Seeing her at the U.S. House dressed in our traditional mhanta and moccasins was immensely powerful. But it cannot, and should not, be one of the only stories of this moment in our newsfeeds.
As she tweeted, Haaland was integral in efforts to partially reopen the government and pass bills that fund tribal services—although as she quipped, “inadequately” so. These are the headlines that should become the follow-up story—not the history itself. And because so few others are doing this, it will unravel here. Our stories deserve more than that; an afterthought no more.