Fall 2005

When Reporters Lack Access and Knowledge

‘… access would be easier to achieve if reporters had been there to cover some of the more routine stories that had taken place on the reservation.’

By Dorreen Yellow Bird
At mid afternoon on March 21, the mood in the Grand Forks Herald newsroom in Grand Forks, North Dakota, changed from another ho-hum day to open throttle, high intensity. The shift started when the police scanner picked up early bits and pieces of a story about a school shooting on the Red Lake Indian Reservation in north central Minnesota. The report said there could be as many as three dead at the nearby school. After a quick huddle in the newsroom and updated reports from the scanner, a reporter and photographer were assigned to the story.

At the Herald, I am a columnist and member of the editorial board. But I also do some reporting, especially involving stories about the four American Indian tribes in our coverage area. Because I am Sahnish (Arikara) and Dakota/Lakota from a reservation in western North Dakota, I wasn’t surprised when I was also assigned to report on the Red Lake story. I also wasn’t surprised because my experience and reporting resources about Native American issues are extensive. When the reporters cannot reach tribal officials, I am called to help out.

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What 'Band' Means
- Dorreen Yellow Bird
Minutes later we were on our way to the reservation in my car. I knew my way there because I’d written many stories about this band of Chippewa or Anishinaabe people. I had established a relationship and trust with the people. I took a new road not yet on Minnesota maps. As we drove, I remembered my first trip to the reservation. One of the locals pointed me toward this road; at the time, it was a dirt road that eventually ran up to the edge of the gigantic Red Lake. The road now is blacktop.

When we reached the “T,” where the highway meets an endless, azure plane of the lake, there was something in the air—traffic was moving faster, and there was more of it. On the faces of the locals was a seriousness I could see even car-to-car. As we neared the reservation, we lost radio stations, and our cell phones worked sporadically. Just before our cell phones became unreliable, we were told there were more than three dead, and this was going to be a big story. It wasn’t “just another” school shooting. It was the biggest school shooting in Minnesota history, with the most deaths in a U.S. school shooting since Columbine. And it had happened on an Indian reservation.

The Red Lake Band of Chippewa are unique. They’re a people apart, even from the other seven bands of Chippewa and four bands of Sioux in Minnesota. About 5,600 people live on the reservation that’s a bit smaller in size than the state of Rhode Island. The reservation includes Red Lake, which is one of the largest lakes in the region.

A ‘Closed’ Reservation

Red Lake is a “closed” reservation. Alone among Minnesota tribes and almost alone in America, the people who live here rejected Public Law 280, which gave the 50 states civil jurisdiction over reservation affairs. They’ve resisted all attempts at allotting the reservation land. This means the members did what many tribes today wish they had done: They ran off surveyors, social workers, lawyers and missionaries. This effort kept their land from being purchased by non-Indians, as happened on many other reservations.

Today the Red Lake people are more assimilated into the surrounding non-Indian society: The tribe’s Seven Clans Casino is one of the latest moves into the non-Native community. But a certain separation or the potential for it remains. As Bemidji Pioneer photographer Monte Draper told a Twin Cities newspaper, “One former tribal chairman, Roger Jourdain, used to have a rule where you needed to have a passport to go to the reservation. I still have mine, but it is in a frame on a wall at my home.”

We reached the reservation only a few hours after the 3 p.m. shooting. I saw trucks with satellite dishes, vans and cars from outside media. But by the time we arrived, members of the news media were restricted to the small parking lot of Red Lake’s new police station, where I had covered the station’s ribbon cutting a few years before.

As it turned out, there were 10 people dead—one teacher, two adults, six students, and the shooter. There was an air of uncertainty among the reporters, cameramen and photographers. They were finding that the powerful First Amendment didn’t work as well on the Red Lake Reservation. They fidgeted anxiously as they waited to be able to report some news.

When the first news conference began in front of the police station, I stood away from the throng of reporters. Floyd “Buck” Jourdain, Jr., the tribal chairman—whose son, Louis, would later be accused of conspiracy to commit murder—updated the media. I learned from the locals that a tribal police officer, Sgt. Daryl “Dash” Lussier, was one of those killed. The sergeant was the grandfather of the 16-year-old shooter, Jeffrey Weise.

Most of the reporters were experienced and routinely covered breaking news. Some had covered the Columbine school shootings in Littleton, Colorado, but most didn’t anticipate doors being closed in their face. On the Red Lake Reservation, they were restricted to a certain area and not allowed on the highway past the shooting area or into the tribal offices. Nor could they interview tribal officials. Armed officers blocked the roads and buildings.

I didn’t realize that I was the exception. Law enforcement officers didn’t stop me at first as I drove around the area. They thought I was a member of the band.


Red Lake Tribal Chairman Floyd Jourdain, Jr. stands in the parking lot of the Red Lake Detention Center as he speaks at a press conference witht the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Photo by Monte Draper/Courtesy of Bemidji Pioneer.

Reporting Different Angles

When the staff of our large Knight Ridder syndicate began to prepare for its coverage of this story, I was assigned a lead editor with whom I would work. I was one of the few journalists there who had reporting experience on the reservation and good tribal contacts, so it became my assignment to check copy for cultural and tribal correctness and identify contacts for other reporters. At the time I wondered why I wasn’t assigned to report a story, but I didn’t ask. I assumed the editors at the scene thought I would be too close to the story. I do know Indian people who have intermarried (my cousin-brother, for example, is married to a woman from Red Lake), and I have friends who live on the reservation. I also participate in ceremonies with people from Red Lake, since there is a crisscrossing that goes on throughout the entire region during ceremonies and powwows.

There were times during the first two days after the story broke when I was torn between loyalty to the band and my duty to the Grand Forks Herald. One reporter commented that he thought the rest of the Herald reporters should return to Grand Forks, leaving me to do the story with him. That didn’t happen. And I understood the significance of this history-making story. I knew many of the reporters who’d come here wanted their bylines to appear on the stories we did.

There was a worldwide appetite for reporting about Red Lake. Foreign media wanted to be able to pass along information about where this shooting had taken place and what was happening on the reservation. But with reporters not able to get onto the reservation and not having contacts to get those who lived there to share information with them, there was little that could be passed along. Again I wondered why some of these calls were not passed along to me. I suggested helpfully that they do, but nothing more was said. At the very least, I could have easily given these foreign reporters information about the reservation and its people, but again reporters seemed to want to hold their space and control of this breaking story.

After I had been there for more than two days, I made the three-hour midnight drive back to Grand Forks. The following day, when I was back at the Herald, the publisher asked me to interview Floyd “Buck” Jourdain. He said I was probably the only one who could get to him. Jourdain was unavailable to everyone since his son, Louis, had been arrested. With the help of someone I knew who knew Buck, he agreed to an interview. The story was part of our front page coverage on the following day.

During this difficult time, the Red Lake people pulled into themselves. As the network of spiritual leaders came quietly to the reservation, most of the sacred pipe and sweat lodge (inipi) ceremonies were held out of sight of the public eye. At first the people gave few or no interviews, which I thought was a mistake since their voice—their story—would be missing from the news stories going out around the world. Instead they would become the people that reporters—some of whom had never been on an Indian reservation—created in their own minds.

There were times when I felt uncomfortable providing names of spiritual leaders to other reporters, because I wasn’t sure that their stories would be culturally sensitive. At one point, the Herald did assign me to try to interview a medicine man. The idea was that this story would provide an understanding of the tribe’s cultural ceremonies and convey the views of people who were not likely to speak with other reporters. It was difficult to get anyone to talk, but using contacts I’d made previously and relying on my cultural understanding, I was able to interview a Sundance leader. (Sundances are ceremonies for healing.) And when a photograph appeared of Louis Jourdain being led into jail in a black warm-up pulled over his head, reporters and editors wanted to know the significance of the Red Spider on his warm-up. This was an easy story for me to do since the Red Spider is more of a Lakota/Dakota symbol. The story served as a way to teach readers more about the culture.


As Red Lake Tribal members carry blankets into the funeral services for two victims of the shootings, a sign notifies the press, including Native news organizations, that they are barred from attending any services. March 2005. Photo by Ken Blackbird.

Freedom of Press Issues

Complaints about the lack of freedom for the press came not only from the media at Red Lake but from some in my own newsroom. During one news conference, federal officials chided reporters for inaccurate reporting, and the reporters, in turn, complained that they needed more access.

As these complaints rolled in, I realized that such access would be easier to achieve if reporters had been there to cover some of the more routine stories that had taken place on the reservation. That would have helped to establish trust between the two groups. Instead, stereotypes about Indians seemed to slide into conversation among reporters and into their stories—old stereotypes about poverty, rampant alcoholism and drug abuse, alongside new stereotypes about tribal corruption and casino abuse.

The press leaned on stereotypes because they didn’t have other resources. And reporters resorted to trying to get into places where the tribe prohibited the press from going. As the days of the 10 funerals arrived, hundreds of people came from across the nation to comfort the people of Red Lake. On the outside of the auditorium where the first funeral took place, the tribe painted a big, white, wooden sign that said, “No Press Admitted.” I attended funerals because I knew some of the people, not to report on it. As I sat there, I began to realize press people were there. Uninvited, they had come to watch and write about the grief of these people.

Some reporters resorted to more dicey methods. They entered cordoned-off areas such as the area surrounding the home of the deceased police officer. They were stopped and shown off the reservation. One photographer’s camera was confiscated when he tried to take pictures with his long lens. He got his camera back. Reporters were miffed at the restrictions.


A horse-drawn wagon carries caskets during funeral services for two of the nine victims of a teenage gunman on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. March 2005. Photo by Ken Blackbird.

Giving Voice to Indian People

We have a project in our newsroom to give voice to “people like us”—that hometown view. That’s a good idea, but when the newsroom is mainly white, the voices of people like me are rarely heard. There are exceptional people on the Red Lake Reservation who never do receive coverage in those “stories like me.”

At Red Lake, the Chippewa people closed their doors. In their minds, there was little reason for trusting that coverage of this story would be less destructive than other stories they’d read about themselves and the reservation. They were not considered a part of the “people like us,” and they knew it. They live in a village where most people are related or, if they’re not, they almost certainly know each other. Most of the Red Lake residents were deeply affected by the shootings. They were fearful and in shock. If they had experienced finger-pointing in the past, then many of them believed these stories would buy a heyday of blame for them.

The Indian people have made progress in their lives as they recover from centuries of abuse and mistreatment. Tribes are more and more in control of their own destiny, and they are teaching their children who they are and about the culture. It was troubling for me to observe how “in your face” my fellow reporters were and how little they knew about the culture and people who live here. It troubled me, too, to see that information passed on in national and even international news stories fed into or created uninformed views and conveyed stereotypes of Indian people.

Since the shootings happened at Red Lake, there have been a few stories about youngsters attending ballgames or a Minneapolis Police Activities camp off-reservation, but little has been written about the lives and work of those on the reservation. Months after the shootings at Red Lake, the press has left Red Lake, on the hunt for bigger stories, leaving behind people who live in their midst—“people like us”—who deserve better coverage. What happened at Red Lake represents an all-too-common failing of many journalists, and observing this experience has left me disillusioned about the role that journalism should be able to play.

Dorreen Yellow Bird is a columnist and writer for the Grand Forks Herald in Grand Forks, North Dakota. She is a member of Three Affiliated Tribes, New Town, North Dakota. Yellow Bird is Sahnish (Arikara), Dakota/Lakota Sioux.

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