Coward podcast: Press Portrayals of Native Americans

podcastlogoFor the 17th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke with John Coward about problematic portrayals of Native Americans in the press throughout history and how native journalists have used the power of their own presses to make their voices heard.

Author of Indians Illustrated and The Newspaper Indian: Native American Identity in the Press, 1820-90, Coward is a Professor of Media Studies in the Henry Kendall College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Tulsa.

This episode is sponsored by the University of Tulsa.


Teri Finneman: [00:00:10] Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Teri Finneman, guiding you through our own drafts of history.

[00:00:24] This episode is sponsored by the University of Tulsa, TU, a private research university that features small classes taught by accessible professors with 90 plus majors in three colleges. Ranked number 86 among colleges and universities by U.S. News, TU is home to 17 NCAA teams. TU Students do undergraduate research, regularly win prestigious national scholarships, and upon graduation land some of the highest paid jobs in the region. Forward thinking, the University of Tulsa emphasizes global education, community service, and lifelong learning.

[00:01:05] School mascots, pipeline protests, addiction, welfare. These are common themes today for how and when Native Americans are covered by the mainstream press. In today’s episode, our guest John Coward of the University of Tulsa delves into problematic and stereotypical press portrayals of Native Americans in both historical and current times. He is the author of Indians Illustrated and The Newspaper Indian: Native American Identity in the Press, 1820-90.

[00:01:37] John, welcome to the show. Today we’re going to talk about two topics, how Native Americans are portrayed in the media and then also how they have used the power of their own presses to make their voices heard. First, though, how did you become interested in studying Native American journalism?

John Coward: [00:01:55] This was really a topic that I did as a research project as a graduate student at Texas. I got interested in 19th century journalism in particular and what fascinated me there was the technological shifts in 19th century journalism, the invention of the telegraph, the development of photography, the organization of the Associated Press.

[00:02:21] So, I had this interest in 19th-century American journalism and that’s what got me thinking about what happened, what was being covered in the 19th century in journalism. And, you know, there’s westward expansion, manifest destiny, the gold rush, those kinds of things and that’s what led me to Indians because, you know, I was well aware of the Indian wars, especially after the Civil War. So, it was a topic that kind of grew out of my general interest in 19th-century American journalism.

Teri Finneman: [00:02:53] Ok. So, let’s talk specifically about why you wanted to write Indians Illustrated, which focuses on illustrations published between the mid-1850s and 1890s.

John Coward: [00:03:05] I just was interested, starting out with the pictures. Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper were popular in the 19th century and I just got fascinated with the images. They became popular with the Civil War and then after the war, with westward expansion, there were increasing numbers of pictures of Indians and these were popular and they were widespread and you had things like the most famous Indian battle of them all is the Little Big Horn and there are these quite fictional images of Custer’s Last Stand, that kind of thing.

[00:03:48] This was an interesting topic to me because the pictures are so well done, some of them, and they’re also quite fictionalized, some of them. And so there was this, these amazing pictures that some people had researched them, but there wasn’t a full study of these kinds of pictures and I thought, well these are important and they’re understudied and I could do something with this. The other thing about it was photography existed. And some of the Indian portraits and other things that showed up in Harper’s and Leslie’s were based on photographs. But there was no halftone process; there was no technology for Harper’s, Leslie’s or any other daily paper to publish photographs. So, that’s where you get the illustrations and one of the things that fascinated me about that was how the illustrations could be fictionalized. If a photograph could be staged, but an illustration based on a photograph or the imagination, you know, purely fictional that could be even more fantasy, so that I thought, there’s a lot of room for – a lot of wiggle room in here for portraying reality or portraying fantasy and – and Native people were certainly subject to that.

Teri Finneman: [00:05:06] You talk about illustrations that “reduced them to symbols or caricatures, actions that had major consequences on the lives of Indians in America.” So, talk more about some specific examples of what you found and what the consequences were of this.

John Coward: [00:05:22] Right. Yeah. What I discovered was certain kinds of visual tropes or stereotypes get repeated. So, there is a range of Indian imagery in Harper’s and Leslie’s, but it’s fairly narrow. I do a chapter in there on women, Native women, and a lot of Native women are portrayed either, as it’s called, the Pocahontas Indian princess. That’s one major way that Native women were thought of in the 19th century and Harper’s artists and Leslie’s artists tended to repeat that. And so you get the Indian princess on one hand, and then on the other hand, you get the Indian squaw. They use the word squaw and the squaw imagery in those papers, tends to be older women, sometimes women as beggars.

[00:06:19] So, the princess is young and beautiful and motherly, a lot of admirable kind of romantic qualities and then, the squaw, on the other hand, is kind of the polar opposite the sort of degraded, poor, impoverished older or Indian woman as beggar. So, there are some exceptions, there are lots of ambiguities and contradictions in these images, but that’s one example of native women reduced mostly to these two kinds of competing stereotypes. And the same thing happens with Native men who are – can be romanticized sometimes as the noble savages is the cliché, the stereotype. And so you get some of that. Native men with kind of muscles rippling and on horseback, you know, surveying the Plains.

[00:07:11] You get this Plains Indian stereotype and then, on the other hand, you get the bloodthirsty warrior, the ignoble savage who is a bloodthirsty killer. And so it’s again kind of competing stereotypes. So, those that dominate, they’re not the whole universe of Native images in these papers, but they’re pretty popular and especially in times of war after the Little Big Horn or [when] there’s any kind of violence in the West, this would get reported in New York, and Harper’s and Leslie’s and reduced to cliché. So, you get a lot of that.

Teri Finneman: [00:07:52] You criticize the media’s “continued inability or unwillingness to deal with race and culture in a fair, balanced, and nuanced manner”. Why do you think that inability or unwillingness exists?

John Coward: [00:08:04] Yeah, that’s a complex question and my professional life as a scholar has been looking at this. I have a term I use called the understanding gap that in colonial United States and then later in the early National period and then after the Civil War, papers published by English-speaking Americans, Anglo Americans, they just brought a whole different set of assumptions about Native people to bear.

[00:08:38] And so there’s just this kind of profound gap that Native people have their own traditions, their own customs. It was very different. If you think about a nomadic tribe like the Comanche or the Lakota in the Plains, there, the gap between somebody like Horace Greeley, actually wrote about [Indians]; Greeley as an apostle of going west; “Go West, Young Man” is attributed to him. And you know Greeley when he does go west in 1859, sees native people on the Plains and just is, by today’s perspective, certainly, he’s pretty clueless.

[00:09:17] He doesn’t have a way to make sense of these people. He thinks – [in terms of] the Protestant work ethic, the kind of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of guy, and he thinks, you know, these people are lazy, the men are lazy, the women do all the work, and they’re primitives and they’re they don’t have any religion worth speaking of, they don’t have any social life, any or no political organization, no technology.

[00:09:47] That’s profoundly ethnocentric, but that’s where we are in the 19th century with a lot of people, not just Greeley. Native people did have certain kinds of technology, they were great with subsisting off the land, the Comanches and Lakota and the Crows, and people were wonderful horsemen and loved their horses and adapted to the horse, which was not native to the new world, they came in with the Spanish. So, they had their skills and their abilities and their ways of life. And this was just so different and newspaper people—printers, publishers, reporters later—never quite grasp the enormity of this kind of cultural clash. And you can’t in a way expect them to; cultural pluralism is something we could talk about today. No, Horace Greeley didn’t think that way. Nobody in the 19th century really kind of could fully make this kind of leap that that you needed to make to see Native people from the Native point of view. The 19th century war reporters are certainly not going to do that.

[00:10:58] And on the Plains and you’re certainly not going to, even people who were friends of the Indians, Philadelphia and Boston and New York had church people, some women after the Civil War turned their attention—some well-to-do white women—turned their attention from abolition to supporting the Indians. But even they were wholly unprepared for them, for understanding these people that they wanted to help, so that, you know, it was a persistent problem. And in some ways it’s still out there.

Teri Finneman: [00:11:38] What do you think of coverage of Native Americans in the press today, and how much of the coverage they’ve had historically, the problematic coverage, are we still seeing printed today?

John Coward: [00:11:51] Yeah, I think the short answer is yes, to some degree. We’re not in the 19th century anymore, of course, but Native people are a small part of the U.S. population, less than 2 percent, I think, is the most recent figure I’ve seen. They’re easy to ignore and overlook and they frequently are ignored and overlooked even in communities where Native people live they frequently are not—they’re not news sources, they’re not covered.

[00:12:24] So there is a kind of marginalization that continues and they’re not taken seriously sometimes when they are covered. I know Mark Trahant, who’s a longtime Native editor and stuff, talked about now getting a Native [viewpoint] and a lot of communities, getting a Native perspective on, he says, like on [the] prayer in the schools issue, that would be covered. There’s a Native perspective there that could be covered in a lot of communities, Oklahoma and Tulsa, Oklahoma City we have large Native communities and other places do too. And a lot of editors and reporters don’t think about that in part because they’re so invisible. So, there is an invisibility problem and that continues today and it could be, and sometimes is, addressed. And so there are small steps forward and that’s a good thing.

Teri Finneman: [00:13:24] So, we talk about the invisibility of Native journalists. Native journalists I’ve talked to have certainly complained about parachute journalism and how Natives tend to only be covered when there are negative issues like the battle over school mascots, the pipeline protests in North Dakota, addiction, criminality, welfare. What advice do you have for non-Native reporters about how to do a much better job covering these communities?

John Coward: [00:13:52] I think you’re right. Native people, I do listen, try to listen, myself to what Native people have to say and listen to people. There’s an organization, Native American Journalists Association, that I’ve done some things with them, and they have good guidance on this. And one of their ideas makes sense, of course, is just to learn some history about, you know, there are almost 600 federally recognized tribes. The tribes are not all the same. The 19th century and the work I did on Indians Illustrated, in the Newspaper Indian, Indians get reduced to sort of generic Indians, an Indian is presented in Leslie’s and Harper’s sometimes as an Indian with no tribal affiliation, a lot of times without a name, they’re very loose that way. But with all this diversity that’s one thing that reporters today, an editor’s assignment, editors can do is this, [ask] what tribe are we talking about and then learning something about that tribe, its traditions. That’s one way of showing some respect and getting the story right. And you’re right, I know Native people do complain about this sort of crisis.

[00:15:10] We’re only news when there’s something bad [that] happens, it’s all crisis-oriented. And so we can’t get any good news stories or just ordinary stories about life on the reservation, or in Oklahoma where we don’t really have reservations. But just Native perspectives on the stand that is changing as I say, I think slowly, but this there is a need for mainstream journalists to go to Indian Country and learn something first and listen to people, sort of listen and learn. And that would go a long way, I think, toward alleviating some of the problems.

[00:15:48] Here’s another way of thinking about it that somebody explained it to me one time is Native people from their perspective, they see a reporter come in and it’s not new to them. They’d say, we’re gonna get the same old [news] treatment. And it’s part of a pattern. It was it was true 100 years ago where we’re reduced to stereotypes. Fifty years ago stereotypes, 20 years ago and even today, and I think their perspective is, we need to get beyond this. We need to talk about something besides ceremonies and alcoholism and poverty. And those have been and still are issues in Native communities. But there’s more to it than that. There’s a lot more going on. And some of those things are worth covering too. So, there is a lot of work to be done and I do think the Native American Journalists Association is an organization that’s really tried to tackle that. And I recommend that, they have guidance on their website and they have publications. They even produced a little bingo card that they passed out and each of the little bingo slots is for one of those clichés. And they say if you bingo on this card, you need to go back and rethink your story because you’re hitting all the stereotypes.


Teri Finneman: [00:17:09] Yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about. I have a copy of that card myself and we can include that as an extra with our transcript in case any of our listeners are interested in checking that out later as well. [Download PDF of bingo card.]

So, let’s switch gears a little bit and discuss the Native press itself and how it’s provided a voice that the mainstream press hasn’t. Briefly discuss the history of the native press.

John Coward: [00:17:34] Right. Yeah. That’s been an interest of mine as well. Most of my scholarship’s been on mainstream press covering how they cover and represent or misrepresent Native people and Native lives. But the Native press does have a long history and a really interesting history that’s frequently overlooked. The first paper was the Cherokee Phoenix, which dates back to 1828 in Georgia and was started—founded—to fight Indian removal. And they ended up losing that fight. But the press was continued in Oklahoma once the Native tribes, the Five Civilized Tribes, were moved out in the 1830s. And a lot of them started papers then. So, there is a long tradition of the Native press and giving Natives a voice and obviously a good thing because they didn’t have a voice frequently in the mainstream press. So, there were tribal papers that were started. And then over the years those friends of the Indians started papers, missionaries started papers, Indian boarding schools had papers. So, there are just dozens and dozens—hundreds of these papers —that are some of them were minor and lasted only a few issues. Some of them were more or more militant and outspoken some were administrative kind of papers, like I mentioned missionary and school papers.

[00:19:09] But there’s this rich history of this Native journalism that there has been work done on it over the years so it’s not completely unknown to scholars and people who are interested, but it does, a lot of times, fly under the radar that that there is this history at all. And like I say, some of these papers were minor and only lasted a few issues, but other papers had long and pretty interesting histories, which – that needs to be recovered and I am trying to work on some of that since my Indians Illustrated came out a couple of years ago. I’ve been working on this area to try to bring more attention to it.

Teri Finneman: [00:19:51] So, a couple of questions related to that. First of all, how you’re finding access to these papers. Are many or any of them digitized, or are you having to go to individual archives? Where can we find these papers?

John Coward: [00:20:04] Now more and more of them are being digitized. I have seen just recently there is a Native American digital project. I don’t have that name, the exact name off the tip of my tongue, but I have seen the work that they’ve done digitizing papers. One paper I’d looked at was called—it’s actually a magazine that was started— called The Indian Voice in California, and it has been digitized now.

[00:20:34] But there are some things in various libraries digitized. And the other thing that’s been helpful to me is the archive at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. They have a Sequoyah National Press Native Center there. It’s a whole library started by a couple of English professors there, Daniel Littlefield and James Parins, who back in the 80s wrote a big, three-volume guide to the Native press, this big sort of bible of the field, three volumes with documenting and all these papers and they collected them and the university in Little Rock has them. So, I’ve been able to travel there and look at original copies. Now there are also always gaps in the collections, but they have a really good collection. And in my case it’s not that far away, it’s only a four-hour drive. So, I’m using their archive and I’m going to try to go back. I go back in the summer and look at things there. So, there are things online at various libraries and the Little Rock archive is terrific. And there are some other libraries that have collections of rare documents as well, but there’s more online and coming online all the time. So, that’s actually a good thing.

Teri Finneman: [00:21:57] So, to go along with that, I know that in North and South Dakota there have been discussions in recent decades about losing language and trying to preserve Native languages. So, with these newspapers, are some of them written in languages that are dying out so to speak? Do we have to worry about that?

John Coward: [00:22:23] I know the Native people are concerned, a lot of tribes are working hard to preserve the language and capture things on audio and video and teach the language to young people.

[00:22:36] And historically the Cherokee Phoenix, I mentioned before, was bilingual there was published in English and in Cherokee and there were other papers that did that as well. But today, I don’t know of any papers that are publishing in a Native language, although that might be the case in Oklahoma. The Cherokees have some resources these days, they do have casinos here and that’s given them access to capital and the capital has been used to build up their cultural resources, one of which is language preservation. So, about an hour away from Tulsa here is Tahlequah, there is a Cherokee capital in eastern Oklahoma and they have Cherokee immersion classes for young people there.

[00:23:28] So, they are working really hard. I know other tribes, I know the Chippewa up in Minnesota have language programs. And so I know several of the larger tribes that work really hard at keeping the language alive. And obviously a good thing. But in some cases it’s certainly an uphill battle. But the media with online and digital technology, there’s more of that you can do. I know I went to a ceremony here several years ago and they recognized a new language app for your iPhone and Android phones for Cherokee language and I think some of the tribes have done things like that, so that there are more access through technology. That’s a good thing obviously.

Teri Finneman: [00:24:18] When you’re working with some of these historical newspapers that are partly written in Cherokee, do you have an interpreter who helps you or have you tried to learn some of the native languages yourself?

John Coward: [00:24:29] No, I haven’t gotten that far back. The stuff I’ve been working on has been 20th century more, so that hasn’t occurred to me. Obviously, if you look back at the beginnings of the Phoenix with the Cherokee language, well, what does this say and other people, other scholars, have done a lot of work on the Phoenix because it was the first paper, and so I’ve just looked at the secondary literature on that and I have not gone back and looked at it, although I’ve been to some presentations where some of that has been translated and so I’ve heard references to it but I haven’t gone that far. Although what I would like to see is some younger scholars, Native folks, some Cherokee scholars and students and Chickasaw and Seminoles and all these tribes have younger people who do learn the language and can go back and translate and read what was published in the 19th century or later, so that there are records of this and people who are aware of it. That would be a great thing. So, I’m all in favor of that.

Teri Finneman: [00:25:38] One of your interests is the rise of Red Power journalism in the 1960s and 70s. Tell our listeners what that’s all about.

John Coward: [00:25:48] Right. Yeah. I’ve started looking at the Native press, like I mentioned the Cherokee Phoenix and other papers, and some of them are interesting and have these amazing lifespans and interesting characters associated with them, activists and others. But what really caught my attention in the last couple of years when I realized that in the 60s and 70s there were activist Native writers and activists who said, there’s the women’s movement, there’s a civil rights movement, and in Indian country there was the Occupation of Alcatraz and Wounded Knee in the early 70s and some of these activists started newspapers and magazines and newsletters and I thought, wow this is amazing. There has been some scholarship but there hasn’t been a lot. And so I started looking at those.

[00:26:50] And I did a paper on one called The Warpath started in Berkeley by a guy named Lee Brightman who had some ties to Oklahoma, one of his parents was from Oklahoma. And he ended up as a grad student at Berkeley and became more and more activist and started an organization called United Native Americans and published this newsletter called The Warpath for several years and the United Native Americans, his organization, was sort of competing with the American Indian Movement and kind of lost out to them; it didn’t thrive after a few years. But he lived a long life and just died a couple of years ago.

[00:27:35] But in the newspaper—that is, his newsletter was—lasted four or five years and was kind of the militant voice; [it] was called The Warpath and he really attacked the BIA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and he was a big critic of boarding schools, which were underfunded and poorly staffed and there were lots of problems there and he was pretty much a kind of rabble rouser and muckraker on that. He visited Indian schools and published findings here. Here are the students at these Indian schools, all the buildings are drafty and the teachers are ill prepared and they don’t have Native teachers, the libraries are bad, the food is terrible. So, Indian education was one thing he went after as kind of a Native muckraker in the late 60s and early 70s and there are more; he’s not the only one.

[00:28:34] So, I did get interested in that. I’m of that generation. I was an undergraduate in the late 60s and early 70s, so this sort of anti-war [time], and I’m a veteran, so I wasn’t particularly activist myself, but I can certainly relate to the social movements of the late 60s and early 70s. And so that Lee Brightman, The Warpath, and there was a Mohawk paper up on the Canadian border in upstate New York Akwesasne Notes is the name of it, another militant paper which kind of worked as a kind of Reader’s Digest of activist news.

[00:29:23] The guy that ran it was a guy named Jerry Gamble and they would clip stories from the New York Times and Ramparts magazine, if you’ve heard of that activist magazine, and other publications and would just reprint them. And they had some original content, but they did a lot of reprinting of stories from Indian Country, and that Akwesasne Notes caught on and had a circulation in the thousands and thousands. They said at one point in the early 70s, I think, one hundred thousand readers was what they claimed, and then they were really producing thousands of copies and distributing them. So, that was fascinating to me. This uprising of, I mean what is it, Indian consciousness here, of native militancy, we want our rights and we want to be respected, we don’t want to be marginalized anymore like the African-Americans, we want to have a voice, we want a place in the body politic here, and so these papers, that’s [also] to mention the Indian Voice, this magazine in California, they did this; they were Alaskan the papers that also did some activism. So, this got my attention and I’ve been working on reading these papers and trying to interpret them and understand what impact they had and how they did create a kind of activist Indian voice of in this period of time.

Teri Finneman: [00:30:59] It’s interesting to hear about the strong readership from several decades ago. What is the state of the native press today?

John Coward: [00:31:07] Yeah. There’s still tribal papers going and what’s really happening I think is more online stuff so that we have individual native folks who have the wherewithal to do their own blogs or their own websites and some of the tribes have, of course, have a print version of the newspaper, but they also have an online version. So, you’re getting more media that way. I know here locally, the Cherokees have started a weekly television show called Osiyo, the word Osiyo means “hello” in Cherokee, and it’s a really well done, 30-minute broadcast, feature stories and news and travel concerns. It’s putting the Cherokee voice out there and it’s produced by a Native crew. Yeah, I’ve met some of the folks that work on it and they do interesting stuff and so here they broadcast it here locally and around Oklahoma.

[00:32:15] So, with the resources that some of the tribes have now they’ve got educated people and people who want to get the tribal perspective out there so they had all these decades and decades of not getting their voice out in the mainstream press. So, let’s do it ourselves and let’s do it in a more visible way. And so you do see that. And I do see it in other places; I know, I’m here more around eastern Oklahoma where I live, but I know in California there are tribes that are doing things. And in Minnesota and in other places as well. And that’s I think revitalized some of the Native voice out there. It’s just more technology and some of it’s fairly inexpensive, setting up your own website. It can be done on the cheap. And so you’ve got people who can do that and so they’re doing it.

Teri Finneman: [00:33:17] And the final question of the show, why does journalism history matter?

John Coward: [00:33:23] Well, from my perspective it matters because I’ve devoted my scholarly life to working on Native people in the press, indigenous and Native voices and so you can understand some of the problems of today by going back to the past. I mean that understanding gap, that it’s not the same as it was a 19th century.

[00:33:48] But there’s still some of that out there. And so studying journalism in the past shows you—I mean it’s a window into the past. You can see what happened in 1870. One of the joys of the business, and I know I see this in my students too, if you have them read a newspaper article or a magazine article from the 19th century or the 20th century it’s all the sudden vivid and immediate and you can, by doing that, capture a little piece of the sort of consciousness of the past; what did people think in 1870. Well, we can’t ask any of those people, but we can read their newspaper. We can read newspaper stories about events that happened and [the] reaction to those events and it captured something.

[00:34:44] So, I think journalism history is about journalism in part but it’s also about all these other issues, about race, and in my case with Native people, about ideas in the 19th century, about progress and civilization. And the fight over resources, land. So, all this stuff still reverberates today that Native people still want to be recognized as they are, Indian Native nations, and they have treaty rights and sovereignty is one of these issues that Native people take real seriously and most mainstream, most ordinary journalists or ordinary citizens have no clue about this. And so studying the past obviously can enlighten us about where did these problems come from and how did we deal with them in the past. And then how can we bring that to bear on the problems of today. So, I think there is something valuable in it. I think sometimes journalism history is written off as a little subfield that doesn’t really matter. But obviously it does matter in ways that a lot of people don’t always think about.

Teri Finneman: [00:36:04] Thanks for tuning in. An additional thanks to our sponsor, the University of Tulsa, and to Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Until next time, I’m your host, Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, Good Night and Good Luck.



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