In the run-up to Super Bowl LIV, the issue of the Kansas City Chiefs’ appropriative fans and the San Francisco 49ers’ genocide-referencing team name was hashed out at least a dozen times over in the mainstream media, including here, Vox, The New York Times, the Miami Herald, The Washington Post, and The Hill. For a brief period on Saturday and Sunday, my social media feeds were a steady stream of articles with lead photos of fans dressed in redface and headdresses. It felt like it could have been a turning point as the pages of these national outlets found themselves in consensus about the wrongness of the team and the fan responses, a signal of an eventual change in how Americans empathize with their Native neighbors.
The pieces were mostly good, laying out how the Chiefs fans’ “arrowhead chop” and fake regalia are appropriative amalgamations of hundreds of Native cultures and should be instantly discarded. Too bad, then, that you likely won’t see those writers, or any meaningful engagement with those same arguments, in the regular, workaday coverage at these publications.
While talking with another Native writer last week, the two of us realized we were hard-pressed to name a full-time Native reporter covering anything at these outlets, let alone Indian Country. Neither the Post nor the Times (or The Atlantic or the Wall Street Journal or the New Yorker) has a dedicated Indian Country beat or an Indigenous journalist or editor in a position of power to guide them on their newsroom’s coverage of the myriad of issues that concern these communities. That’s not to say we don’t exist in this industry, but our voices are amplified only when we’re espousing opinions that fall in line with what others are already collectively saying in the op-ed pages and on social media: when right and wrong is clear-cut enough for the editors of these publications to feel comfortable printing our words.
Part of this has to do with hiring practices and the calcification of Native invisibility over centuries of American press development. In 2018, the American Society of News Editors reported that there were just 41 Native journalists employed at the 184 digital and print outlets that responded to its annual diversity survey. If one wants to read news on things going on in Indian Country that aren’t the latest social outrage—the legal and political matters that directly impact Native lives—it’s necessary to turn to Native-run outlets like Indian Country Today or Indianz.com or the Indigenous affairs desk of High Country News. This isn’t to short-change any of those outlets, which do the Lord’s work and are a vital part of my journalistic intake. But none of them have a sliver of the financial resources, political power, or social reach of their mainstream counterparts. And so hanging the necessary reeducation of the American public on these more regional, smaller sites is a tall order.
Rather than build out this kind of necessary beat, mainstream media institutions would prefer us to be segregated to their opinion pages. But in between events like the Super Bowl, Thanksgiving, and Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test, the rest of the field’s coverage of Native issues is sparse, to put it nicely. In part, it makes sense. Non-Native reporters and editors, though they are learning and progressing, do not come from these communities, so they do not think to cover them regularly. Instead, they pick and choose their spots, commissioning their reporters to file features every few months on the latest instance of colonizer foolishness. It’s not that news isn’t constantly happening in the interim; it’s that it rarely warrants coverage from a Native-first perspective.
Look to coverage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, both at The Atlantic and across the board, where so often the whims of white families are placed above the needs of the children, and the issue is made a racial one instead of political. Or take the time last fall when New York Times Opinion staff writer Bari Weiss steamrollered over Native voices to sound the alarm about the P.C. reactionaries daring to oppose a high school mural in San Francisco that depicted the massacre and genocide of Native peoples. Or when, in November, the Times flew a reporter up to Cape Dorset in Canada to write a strangely demeaning piece about how art had, in fact, not been the saving grace for the Inuit that the colonizers had promised. Or in December, when the Times referred to Oklahoma tribal nations as “the Indians” in a print headline. This is an industry in desperate need of getting its shit together.
Rarely are we handed the keys to an investigative reporting role or a full-time job indigenizing a culture desk. Even more rarely are we allowed to do something that does not at least in part perform our Native-ness for readers. And that in itself is distressing, because the lack of Native writers writing about Native issues in the mainstream press seems to directly prevent us from being able to write outside of Indian Country. Our perspective is too often buried in the seventeenth paragraph of a story, because editors don’t know how to shape an entire piece around a Native voice or tribal nation.
This week alone, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is going back to court to defend a centuries-old land claim that was undone last year by a single tweet from President Trump; the Indian Child Welfare Act will continue to come under assault in the Fifth Circuit by conservatives hoping to undermine the political sovereignty of tribal nations; and the tribes in Oklahoma will continue a legal battle against a governor who is hell-bent on dipping the state’s hand further into their wallets.
The opinion pieces aren’t the problem. They’re a necessary and positive development, and someday soon, a Native writer will have a regular column in one of the major papers. But the moment these op-eds are sent off into the world, what was said in them is forgotten by the institution profiting from the argument. Until the analysis contained within them penetrates the rest of the paper’s editorial ethos, op-eds about racist team names will continually be printed in publications like the Post alongside “neutral” coverage that repeatedly reprints a slur.
Major media institutions are failing the public by keeping Native reporters on the sidelines and covering Native issues and people as though they’re contained to the past. And while all those mascot pieces certainly seemed to satiate a certain need by the media to perform its hollow identity politics, it appears neither the teams nor their fans read a single one. Progress indeed.