When the news about the protest at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation against the Dakota Access Pipeline burst into the spotlight in 2016, Tristan Ahtone welcomed the chance for greater coverage of Native American issues.
But soon Ahtone, a journalist and a member of the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma, grew dismayed at the way the media handled the stories about the first major indigenous protest since the 1973 Wounded Knee incident in South Dakota.
Most media outlets, even the leading ones, Ahtone said, sidelined the central issues of tribal rights and the government’s responsibility in the Dakota pipeline dispute, and instead replicated old stereotypes by typecasting the protesters as warriors, victims, or magical creatures.
“A lot of the stories focused on the prophecy of the black snake coming,” said Ahtone at a coffee shop near Harvard Yard. “Even the New York Times ran a story saying that hundreds of Native Americans on horseback, their faces painted, were coming out of their tepees to join the protest, like it was a John Ford movie.”
A prize-winning journalist who has worked for “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” National Public Radio, and Al Jazeera America, Ahtone is at work on a set of guidelines for fair and accurate coverage of Native American lives and stories, as part of his stint at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow. The Nieman Foundation chooses 24 journalists from around the world to come to Harvard for a year of academic study.
Ahtone’s guidelines will be based on an internal manual that he developed as head of the tribal affairs desk at High Country News in Colorado, his last post before coming to Harvard, to help reporters avoid clichés, stereotypes, and racially insensitive terms when covering Indian lands and culture.
He recommends, for example, identifying people by their specific tribes, nations, or communities rather than a catch-all phrase such as “Native American group” or “Native American tribe.” He also warns reporters not to fall into the trope of the white savior who attempts to explain or save indigenous communities, a concept common in popular culture, and to resist any temptation to use mythological creatures to explain complicated beliefs systems or problems. Among the terms to shun, he said, are “Bigfoot,” “deer woman,” “ghosts,” or “spirits.”
Efforts to fight media stereotypes of indigenous people are not new. During Ahtone’s tenure as vice president of the Native American Journalists Association, the group published a list of terms that reporters should ditch, such as “vanishing culture,” “dying language,” “broken families,” “a warrior,” or “something ‘sacred.’” The list also includes “singing,” “dancing,” and “drumming.”
“It seems that the only way reporters can deal with Native Americans is to make them fit into a narrative filled with stereotypes,” said Ahtone. “There isn’t a typical Native American, just like there isn’t a typical American. I’d love to see a television series, a movie, or a story about Native Americans doing a regular job. My community is made of regular people. My grandfather was a teacher, my father worked for the United Nations. Many of us don’t grow up in reservations.”