For the 109th episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Ken Ward, historian Melissa Greene-Blye discusses the importance of representation of Native Americans in the media of the past and present.
Melissa Greene-Blye is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and affiliate faculty in the Department of Indigenous Studies at the University of Kansas. An enrolled citizen of the Miami Nation, her research examines journalistic representations and negotiations of American Indian identity.
Melissa Greene-Blye: To understand the issues of misrepresentation that continue to happen in today’s coverage of Indian country, we have to understand that historical context of what has come before.
Ken Ward: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. And together we’re professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast.
This episode is sponsored by the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.
For more than a century, the college has educated students to relentlessly pursue the art, science, and integrity of stories. They’re committed to following First Amendment principles in a digital-first environment as they prepare democracy’s next generation.
Journalists play a major role in determining what, and in some cases how, we think about certain issues. What journalists covered is the focus of a lot of descriptive historical research that analyzes what was and wasn’t reported by the media.
But at least equally important is how what was said was said. Names matter, definitions matter, and the names and definitions used in reporting whether intentionally or not are loaded with values and assumptions that are presented to audiences often without audiences noticing. At times, this issue of naming and representation has had a powerful impact on how cultures viewed certain groups. Joining me today is Dr. Melissa Greene-Blye, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas and a member of the Miami tribe of Oklahoma.
She explains the importance of representation in the media, both past and present, with reference to Native Americans. Melissa, welcome to the show. So, you you’ve mentioned in the past that news media, both present and past, have failed at times to offer authentic representations of Native Americans. And so here in a minute, we’ll turn and talk specifically about the past. We have to in this podcast, of course, but I wanted first to ask you if, if you could explain precisely why this matter of authentic representation matters. Why is it so important?
Melissa Greene-Blye: Sure. Well, stereotyping is really what makes that process of othering possible. That’s a process that has been the basis for policies and actions aimed at destroying Native nations and culture for centuries. It also leaves Native people relegated to the past as if we are not still here.
It matters because just in the last three weeks, two state-level public officials in Kansas, home to four federally recognized Native nations, have made offensive comments toward Natives as a whole, as well as at individuals, and because a cheer team from Texas was allowed to parade through Disney chanting, “Scalp ‘em, Indians, scalp ‘em” while wearing culturally appropriated imagery on their uniforms. So, we have to ask, are we making the progress we need to be in this realm?
Ken Ward: Absolutely. And thank you for tying that to the present because this is a conversation that we’re going to have here that is very much still a part of the present, even though we’ll be talking so much about the past. And just in case anybody’s listening in the future, right, we’re recording this in March of 2022, in case anybody wants to go and find when those events actually occurred. So, I think let’s focus on the past, right? Uh, at least to start. So, give us an idea. How or why did the news media fail in representing Native Americans in the past?
Melissa Greene-Blye: Well, I think so much of it comes down to recognizing the role newspapers played in the process of nation building in the United States. Through that creation and cultivation of the idea of America’s Manifest Destiny, newspapers really helped to define what it meant to be American. By default, that is defining who belongs and perhaps more importantly, who did not, who does not.
And also considering media messaging factors into societal power dynamics maybe molding, not necessarily creating public opinion for or against policies in groups, but definitely contributing to constructions of group identity and consensus. And that is a pattern we’ve seen consistently repeated in our history and which many of our media scholars that we know have examined in their work related to other marginalized groups and voices.
Ken Ward: I think it’s interesting there that you mentioned that it’s not necessarily that the news media were advocating for or against any of these specific policies, but I mean, would it be accurate to say that, that their role is largely as sort of defining what problems are and labeling different groups? Is that what you’re saying?
Melissa Greene-Blye: Well, you know, there was, there was the moment of boosterism for certain, when, you know newspaper editors were brought to these frontier towns to, by design, attract settlers and, and industry, but there are definitely moments where we hear, particularly in op-eds, strong opinions about what needed to be done around what is defined as the, and I say this in quotes, the “Indian problem” in the late 19th century
Um, we see framing of Native Americans as that problem that needed to go away or as people who needed to be civilized via assimilationist policies. And I think that taught readers that to be American meant supporting policies that furthered American progress, but that also meant and allowed justification of us government mistreatment of Native nations to the point of actively supporting genocide.
You know, L. Frank Baum in those famous editorials basically argued that because they have been so mistreated and we will never be able to live without fear of retaliation, we should just go ahead, put them out of their misery, and then that will allow us to have peace of mind.
Ken Ward: Yeah. It’s an interesting self-contradictory argument. It’s insane to think about, right?
Melissa Greene-Blye: It’s difficult.
Ken Ward: Yeah, we have these, these overt issues. You also speak about some of the covert things and we’ve already addressed some of those, but you know, one of the things you, you mentioned that the news media have failed to do in the past is cover issues that were important to these, these groups, right? In the past, what have been some of those important issues that Native Americans just simply did not see covered in the media?
Melissa Greene-Blye: Sure. Well, you know, we see in the 19th century press that dichotomy of the noble savage versus simply the savage savage. And a lot of that, uh, representation was contingent on compliance with U.S. policies of removal and assimilation, and so what you, you sort of see are the creation of these exemplar Indians who are used essentially as what, what were meant to be role models to follow. One of those I’m examining is actually a Miami leader who started out as this enemy war chief.
And over time you see in the newspapers, he is then framed as a friend of presidents. He, when he dies, he is built up as this exemplar of his kind. And then long after his death, he is touted as this prohibitionist prophet. So there’s a lot of molding these exemplar individuals to fit an agenda in the moment. You see coverage of Native nations in the 19th century as it needed to be done for what we’ve talked about around nation building and the idea of removal west and assimilation, but you don’t see as much coverage around the cost of those policies once removal occurred and the nations are out on these assigned reservations.
You don’t really see coverage of what allotment meant for those nations when it became law. And so, you don’t see the consequences and you don’t see much about the internal toll of those external policies.
Ken Ward: Sure. You know, what caused reporters in the past to write the way that they did? You know, I’m sure cultural prejudice has come into play here and feel free to speak to that. Are there professional practices and things like that that are also kind of involved that, that amplified those cultural prejudices?
Melissa Greene-Blye: Sure. I mean, I think it’s a given that there were cultural prejudices that factor into, you know, what we see in historical newspaper coverage. Um, you know, and perhaps a conversation for a different day is why those were there and why they were allowed to reign so freely in the content that we encounter.
The way that that manifests still is when Indian Country makes “news” for non-Native news outlets, it’s often an issue that isn’t new to the Native communities. It’s something they’ve been dealing with for decades, if not generations. So when a Native-centric story makes national headlines, I think this was true for the past, it’s definitely true in the present, it’s typically because it is part of a larger non-Native narrative.
Ken Ward: Interesting. How do you, how do you go about remedying that? Or I guess to keep it in the realm of the historical, was there any effort made to try and remedy that or were, were journalists of the past more or less either blind to the problem or simply accepting of the fact that this is just the way that we report on these parts of the country and these people?
Melissa Greene-Blye: I think, I think the latter that you say, which is there was broad acceptance of this is just the way it is. There was this attitude because of Manifest Destiny that the demise of the Indian was just a given. And it was really just a question of how that was going to take place. The counter to that is that is what really gave birth to the Native press was a need to counter the anti-Indian narrative that was being established in newspapers.
The Cherokee Phoenix started where it did and when it did because the pressure for removal was mounting in the Southeast. The discovery of gold accelerated that process, and the Phoenix was designed to be a counter voice to what was being sold as necessary in non-Native media.
Ken Ward: So, we’ve been talking largely in terms of the past, but I do want to talk about how some of these same issues are still present in the media of today. So, returning to that idea we were talking about earlier about authentic representations of Native Americans. How do today’s journalists still fall short on this point?
Melissa Greene-Blye: Well, it’s multiple things. You know, for example, you know, we’re talking about that idea of, of when Indian country becomes news it’s because it’s in a larger non-Native narrative. And two really good examples because these are stories that continue to manifest in different ways, the Dakota Access Pipeline received massive coverage when that was happening.
But if you compare, and I will do this sometimes in class with students, I show them imagery, and I ask them to tell me which photos or which video came from a Native media outlet and which came from a non-Native outlet. Because you see the focus in non-Native media was on the conflict. It wasn’t about the water protectors. It didn’t engage with this larger issue of protecting promised lands and resources from further governmental incursion. And you didn’t get the historical context of why these water protectors were doing what they were doing.
Another issue that populates in the press is the Indian Child Welfare Act. There was a famous case out of California where a young girl in the foster system was being removed from her foster family. The imagery out of a San Diego television station was this tearful family, essentially a narrative of them being torn apart and devastated that this girl who had come to live with them was being taken away as if nobody could understand how and why that was happening.
But if you had taken the time to go to a Native news outlet, you would have learned that she did fall under the guidelines of the Indian Child Welfare Act, that her father had been seeking custody for years, and it’s that lack of understanding historical context around broken treaties, of maybe not understanding that the ICWA came out of a legacy of those boarding schools, which only recently made news when bodies were discovered on the grounds of multiple institutions.
Ken Ward: Sure.
Melissa Greene-Blye: I think it’s, it’s a reliance on culturally programmed default narratives failing to give Native people a voice in their own stories.
Ken Ward: Yeah, absolutely. And it sounds as though another part of this deals with framing, right? You know, it sounds almost promise – there bad, there’s bad journalism involved, right? Obviously, a lot of parachute journalism, it sounds like, right?
Melissa Greene-Blye: Yes.
Ken Ward: But it does sound like there’s promise in, you know, through reframing and looking at these same issues from a different perspective, there is opportunity for journalists from outside of these communities still to be able to come in and report for their own audiences in ways that would be beneficial for all parties involved, largely through reframing from a perspective that is more inclusive and less conflict-oriented. Does, is, does, would you say that that’s accurate?
Melissa Greene-Blye: It’s possible. So, the Native American Journalists Association, people probably get tired of me saying it, one of the best avenues for resources out there when it comes to covering Native issues and individuals and identity and, and covering Indian Country.
But NAJA’s 2020 media spotlight report. So not, not so long ago, they did a qualitative thematic analysis of news coverage of five national news outlets in the United States. Their takeaway was that a lot of the stories included wording and imagery that placed Indigenous people in the past. They found a lot of official heavy interviewing. So, instead of talking to the Native communities affected, there was a lot of talking around those communities.
Um, and one of the conclusions was having more Native journalists would help with this. So, the other part of that then, right, is educating non-Native journalists how to cover Indian Country and these difficult issues.
And issues of Indigenous identity are complex in so many ways, and issues of naming and labeling are important. So, it’s knowing questions to ask and it’s taking the opportunity to build relationships ahead of doing the parachute journalism. You don’t ask people, “What percentage are you?” But do ask, “What is your tribal affiliation? How do I spell that? How do I pronounce that?” And when you’re given a title, ask what it means, you know?
So, maybe journalists feel uncomfortable using language that they find to be awkward or unfamiliar, or maybe they assume will be confusing for their audience. So, they only go to those easy tribal references that are familiar, you know, Navajo, Cherokee, and then the others just become the generic Native American. And we need to do a better job of that across the board in non-Native media.
Ken Ward: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that specifically because you know, one, one point that you’ve made in prior comments on this topic is that, that this work can be difficult for journalists and not just well-meaning journalists, but talented journalists because this language and matters of labeling is, is, can be very difficult, especially if you’re from outside of the community.
You mentioned the term “Native American” itself can sometimes be confusing in terms of what, what language would be appropriate and using specific nation names rather than blanket terms, and trying to make sure that when you are using for, for instance, specific nation names, that your audience is going to be familiar with that, right? That, that it won’t be speaking beyond the expertise of your audience.
So, you know, how much of what we’re talking about here deals with professional practice, just journalists who are, who are struggling to try and, and toe the line between authentic representation and also meeting their audience in a place that they’re able to understand what the writing is about?
Melissa Greene-Blye: Sure. Well, I think there’s a couple of things. You know, again, NAJA, so many great resources readily available on their website. If you have not taken a look at the NAJA Bingo, you absolutely have to do that. They have an AP style guide around Indigenous, American Indian, Native American, etc. They have specific guidelines around coverage of issues, such as missing and murdered Indigenous women, around the Indian Child Welfare Act, where they explain exactly what those policies mean and the context of where they come from. And the other thing, NAJA does webinars on specific topics on a very regular basis.
Great learning opportunities that unfortunately go unattended by anybody outside of NAJA or Indian Country. So, I think for journalists, it’s being aware that an organization like NAJA exists, that those resources are there and that they want you to reach out so that they can offer that moment of education, and so I think it’s, I mean, we’re journalists, right? Why, why would we be intimidated? It’s our job to ask questions, so ask them, but ask the right people. So sometimes it really is just a matter of sourcing.
Ken Ward: I think that’s an excellent point, right? Journalists, for some reason, get shy around certain topics when it is, you’re absolutely right, our job to do precisely that. Um, both in terms of the historical conversation that we’ve had and today, if you wanted someone to walk away understanding one thing about this issue of authentic representation, what would you send them away with? What should they understand above all else?
Melissa Greene-Blye: A couple of big things. You should never expect a single Native individual or journalist to know all things Native. There are nearly 600 federally recognized tribal nations. There are other nations who are not federally recognized living within the borders of what is now the United States.
So, to assume that one individual can be the voice for all of them ignores the unique histories and experiences of individual Indigenous communities, and just serves to reinforce this generic “Indian stereotype.” Also understand that Native leaders and individuals have different opinions on issues of the day, both in Indian Country and outside of Indian Country. So, there is not some monolithic Native opinion about things.
And most importantly would be give us a voice in our stories, hire more Native journalists, train Native journalists, and seek out Native sources.
Ken Ward: Excellent. Well, we have one last question. We pose it to all guests on the show, and so I’m interested to hear what you have to say. Why does journalism history matter?
Melissa Greene-Blye: Absolutely. It’s – I constantly find myself saying if we’re not connecting the past with the present, how are we going to affect the necessary change? So, to understand the issues of misrepresentation that continue to happen in today’s coverage of Indian Country, we have to understand that historical context of what has come before, both in representation in our media, but also in the policies that were being covered and advocated for.
So, it’s absolutely essential to understand the history of Indigenous populations in our country and to understand how they have been represented and when, and where they have, or have not had the opportunity to speak for themselves.
Ken Ward: Absolutely. Well, that’s all the time that we have, but Melissa, I just want to thank you one more time for being on the show. I really enjoyed our conversation.
Melissa Greene-Blye: Absolutely. Thank you so much.
Ken Ward: Well, that’s it for this episode. Thank you for tuning in and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter @JHistoryJournal. That’s all one word. Until next time, I’m your host, Ken Ward signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. Good night and good luck.