The Internet: Continuing the Legacy of Storytelling
‘I often reflect on my work as a journalist and wonder if I’ve some inherent genetic code that comes from this time-honored practice.’
There is a lasting image I have of Brian Bull. He is standing with earphones in his ears, a digital recorder at his side, and his microphone trained on the person he is interviewing—a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.; the president of the Navajo Nation at an Arizona reservation; a member of the Acoma Pueblo Tribe atop a sun-swathed New Mexico mesa.
Bull is a reporter with Wisconsin Public Radio, and he asks questions that will help shape a series of pieces about Native Americans that have been gathered during a weeklong seminar on “Covering Indian Country,” sponsored by the Western Knight Center for Specialized Journalism.
Beyond Bull’s broadcast stories, the words that resonate with me are ones he writes in his hotel room and posts in the dead of night for a Weblog that chronicles this seminar and its participants on their cross-country journey.
“According to the elders of my tribe, the Nez Perce Indians handed down their values and history through oral tradition for centuries. Particularly during the long winters, when people gathered in longhouses, stories were passed on to younger generations who, in turn, would repeat those passages for their children.
“To keep the culture preserved, such speakers had to be observant, accurate, objective and bear excellent communication skills.
“Sound like a familiar job today?
“I often reflect on my work as a journalist and wonder if I’ve some inherent genetic code that comes from this time-honored practice. And while print, television and the Internet have given us more venues to learn of events and culture, I’m still drawn to the spoken word.”
Using the Internet as a Reporting Tool
As journalists, Native and non-Native alike, we are all drawn to the spoken word—even those of us who have spent our careers largely putting those words on a printed page or searching our vocabulary to capture the timbre and nuance and inflections of a speaker we are profiling or quoting.
But for Native Americans, especially, when storytelling is so ingrained in their culture and when much about their traditions and history have not been absorbed by so many journalists, the ability to hear the authentic voices and to share those voices with an audience is vital when it comes to covering Indian Country. And increasingly, the medium that raises the volume and—in most cases—improves the understanding of Native Americans is the Internet, with its proliferation of stories and resources on Web sites, its array of streaming images and audio, and its future in Weblogs and podcasts.
There was a time when the specter of a digital divide underscored the lack of access to the Internet that residents of more rural and less wired communities endured, including those on Indian reservations. Six years ago, the federal National Telecommunications and Information Administration reported that rural Native American households ranked well below the national average for telephone penetration and access to computers. It also said that, overall, Natives had less access to the Internet than other Americans. Last summer, on the syndicated radio show Native America Calling, a Federal Communications Commission official was still speaking about the issues that face Indian Country and the need to address the limitations that still beset some reservations.
But despite those difficulties, there are indications that more and more Native Americans—just like everyone else—are logging onto the Internet. Tribal colleges are wired for computers, and while some outlying regions of Indian Country remain beyond the grasp of cyberspace, most Native Americans live outside the reservation in cities where there is increased computer access and opportunities to get online, if not at home then in schools and public libraries.
More and more, the Internet has become a conduit for Native Americans to tell their individual and collective stories—and for journalists to print and broadcast them.
So what can Native Americans and non-Natives find on the Internet? Plenty. Among online publications are newspapers that specialize in Native issues or individual nations such as the Native American Times, Indian Country Today, News from Indian Country, or the Navajo Times.
There is also reznetnews.org, which covers Native issues through a network of Native American reporters and photographers in colleges around the country. Various Web sites promote the preservation of a specific language or culture and the cause of indigenous people. One site, the Sequoyah Research Center at the University of Arkansas Little Rock also acts as a clearinghouse for information on American Indian and Alaska Native newspapers and periodicals. There are also sites that might have started with a specific tribe but have evolved into a resource for general news and information affecting all of Indian Country. One of those, Indianz.com, is based on the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska and provides an array of links to stories in other media and information on specific issues. And in California, Victor Rocha of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians saw his pechanga.net Web site blossom into a vital source for many journalists. “I don’t know of a more comprehensive or balanced ethnic site anywhere,” says Stephen Magagnini of The Sacramento Bee, who has long covered Native issues.
While the Bureau of Indian Affairs Web site has been temporarily shut down because of an ongoing court case, there are other federal Web sites to tap. There is the site for the Indian Health Service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And for a nongovernmental viewpoint, there is the Web site run by the National Congress of American Indians that includes a directory of tribal governments.
Browsing the Internet, one can listen to a live feed of the talk show “Native America Calling,” hosted by Patty Talahongva, a Hopi living in Albuquerque. Her show is heard on more than 30 stations in the United States and Canada. And on the show’s Web site it is possible to listen to archived shows dating back a decade or patch through to American Indian Radio on Satellite and be able to listen to Native shows from as far away as Anchorage, Alaska.
Sharing Stories on the Internet
Indeed, the Internet has become home for disparate people seeking and conveying news about Native Americans. They include veteran journalists like Magagnini and Bull. And they also include less experienced ones like Louis Montclair, a 22-year-old member of the Assiniboine Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana. Montclair, who spent the summer working on his tribal newspaper, relies heavily on the Internet to do his work and to showcase his stories. Internet users also include Lee Marmon, a 79-year-old of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo, whose photographs of Indian Country date back decades and are among the most striking images of Native people in ceremony and in everyday life.
Marmon, Bull and Magagnini were among the speakers on the Western Knight Center’s cross-country tour last spring on which 20 journalists traveled 2,600 miles in eight days to learn more about Indian Country. In this too-short journey, the Native and non-Native participants discovered that Indian Country is more than a legal entity and a state of mind. It is a place journalists must find by going there—walking the ground, encountering the people, asking questions, and listening to their answers.
When Western Knight Director Vikki Porter heard the journalists praising this program, she began to contemplate the possibility of repeating the seminar in other parts of Indian Country, with other Native issues. As one of the seminar organizers I, too, marveled at the popularity of the Covering Indian Country Weblog that gave the seminar participants a way to share their experiences and thoughts about what they heard and observed, whether in a Senate hearing room on Capitol Hill or at the home of a Navajo mother in Window Rock, Arizona. For some, this was their first exposure to writing on a blog, and some did so only reluctantly at first. For others, the blog offered a chance to contribute to a medium that is becoming a more familiar aspect of journalism. In time, for everyone, the blog served as a way to construct and share the story of our journey, whether through reflective or observational writing.
Wisely used, the Internet can enhance our understanding of Indian Country. By parsing the wealth of information that is let loose in cyberspace, we can deepen our knowledge and stir our creative ideas. This technology can help provide greater insight about a people and a culture that so many people still know so little about. As Brian Bull would remind us, by navigating Indian Country we can find the spoken word, the written word, and the word in images, all of which can convey the words of storytellers. And we can share these stories through our journalism and on the Internet.
Victor Merina, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, is a senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism, an editor for reznet, and instructor at the American Indian Journalism Institute.