© 2024
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Indigenous Representation in the Media ~ Prairie Plates: Rick Gion on BBQ ~ A Memorial to Lost Moms

Ways To Subscribe

Today we learn about an effort to increase Indigenous representation in the media. We visit with Jodi Rave Spotted Bear, founder of the Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance and Buffalo's Fire. Also joining us is documenter Alicia Hegland-Thorpe.

Ashley Thornberg

I wanna start asking a question to each of you, and that is that I like to follow the advice of an Ojibwe scholar who says, if you don't know to say Indian, Native, Indigenous, just ask. Jodi, we'll start with you. Do you have a preferred term and why?

Jodi Rave Spotted Bear

That's a fair question, and one we talk about in Indian Country many times, and the name of our organization is the Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance. But I just wrote a headline in our newsletter today where I used the word Indian, but when I identify myself to people, I'm Mandan and Hidatsa and Lakota. So that's a subject and terminology that is pretty fluid, I would say.

But yeah, it always helps to ask, but I'm comfortable with all three terms.

Alicia Hegland-Thorpe

Well, in a broad text, when we're talking outside of Indigenous areas, I prefer to be called indigenous outside of that, but if I'm talking to another friend, we say Indian. But more than likely, I'm gonna introduce myself as Dakota. Okay, thank you for that.

Ashley Thornberg

Jodi, let's start with your organization. What is the Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance?

Jodi Rave Spotted Bear

Well, the Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance is a 501c3 nonprofit media organization which was founded largely to promote freedom of information and independent media within Indian country.

Ashley Thornberg

And it led to a really wonderful project called Buffaloes of Fire, which has just kind of an amazing origin story. Let's wrap that in and then go a little bit more into detail on the work of both parts of this year.

Jodi Rave Spotted Bear

Yeah, well, that's interesting because Buffaloes of Fire actually came before the Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance.

Ashley Thornberg

Okay, thank you.

Jodi Rave Spotted Bear

So it started as a for-profit when I lived, right after I left Lee Newspapers and started a website called Buffaloes of Fire. And it did really, really well because I had a lot of the readers that were with me during Lee Enterprises follow on to that particular website. But then I moved back to North Dakota and the website went dark for a while, so I had to rebuild it.

But that was only after I founded the Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance to do our advocacy work for press freedom. And then with that was the revival of Buffaloes of Fire. So I'm from the Fort Berthold Reservation.

I live in a community of Twin Buttes, which is largely the Nueta or the Mandan community. But the website's really named in memory of my mother, the late G. Janet Gunderson Spotted Bear, who was a counselor at one time at United Tribes here in Bismarck.

But we live right where the prairie meets the Badlands. And so this is a place where the tiger lilies grow on like mostly on the northern side of hills. And so after my mother passed away, I just wanted to do something in her memory.

So in memory of those flowers, the tiger lilies in the Nueta language, it is called the Buffalo’s of Fire. And so that's where the name comes from.

Ashley Thornberg

It's a really wonderful way to honor a cultural background that across the board is vastly underrepresented. So let's talk about how that manifests in journalism, something that a lot of the rest of us take for granted that I can turn on the TV and I'm pretty much guaranteed to see someone who looks like me, or I can open a newspaper and there'll be a story like that. How do you, we talked kind of mission statement, Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance here, but let's talk about the goals of what you do.

Jodi Rave Spotted Bear

Right, well, really the premise of our work is to be a model of what an Indigenous-led independent newsroom looks like. And you're right, we are not really visible. And so a good example of that, I went to the Indigenous Journalist Association Conference, which was in Winnipeg this year.

And so there was about 500 native journalists from Canada in the US in attendance. But one of the speakers was from, one of the First Nations leaders addressed our audience. And one thing he said that was really poignant was when he crosses the border into the US, you don't really hear or see native people in broadcast or on TV or in advertisements.

But that presence is pretty well felt when you're in Canada. So I think that's really an issue that we have in this country is a lack of media attention to the mainstream, which is one reason I went into the mainstream press and reported there for 15 years. But upon returning to North Dakota, which is where I'm from, I thought, okay, I've got to bite the bullet and try to start our own news organization here because we don't have a lot of that news where we're visible on a daily basis.

Ashley Thornberg

Part of that includes something called the Documenters Project. And this is something, we loved having Alicia on the air. We were sad that she left us, but absolutely understand the drive, Alicia, that you have to be working in an Indigenous-led newsroom.

So tell us about what this Documenters Project is and what you're doing with it.

Alicia Hegland-Thorpe

When I learned of the program, I was chomping at the bit to be a part of it. And I wasn't quite sure how it was gonna work out. I was kind of freelancing at the time.

And then when I saw the ad come around for the documentors, it really intrigued me. I knew more that I wanted to do more writing, but I also know how important this program is. And so I'm getting to do all of that.

So I'm super, super thrilled to be able to utilize all the skills that I have built up over the years. So coming back to the question on what the Bismarck Documenters Program is, the goal of it is really simple. We wanna put people in the rooms where decisions are made that impact us all.

And so attending public meetings, we know how important they are for democracy. So these meetings will help our citizens learn more about and take actions on the systems that are gonna impact their lives. And we know that public meetings are sometimes inaccessible or even learning about the agenda ahead of time or when they're meeting, that can be hard to find, but just attending the meetings can be intimidating as well.

And so to address this problem, Bismarck Documenters is putting the public back into public meetings. We'll train, we incentivize, and we'll pay local citizens to document community meetings and local government.

Ashley Thornberg

What do you mean by document those meetings? Are you saying taking notes or Facebook Live? What do you mean?

Alicia Hegland-Thorpe

There's a number of ways that can be done, yes. For the most part, the simplest is note-taking.

If there are people who want to use recording devices, eventually we would be able to edit that and they could have the whole meeting on an audio piece, for example. But we're not quite at the moment where we're gonna have broadcast television, but how we're starting is how a lot of the other documenter cities started. In fact, we're the 19th city, the first rural cohort, a part of this, and the first Indigenous-led cohort to do this.

But we also found out that every community is different.

So you need to find what's good for your community to make things work. And in this situation, we're gonna start with note-takers, pen and paper, or if they want to use their laptop, however that works. We give them kind of a template to follow on how to take the notes.

And then our editors go in and kind of clean up the notes a little bit. We show them exactly kind of what it is that we're looking for. Nobody's perfect.

Everybody's gonna have their own style. But more or less, we publish the notes on our documenter's website for everybody to see. We know that there's a shortage in newsrooms, and we can help fill that gap with, you know, if there's not enough reporters to get out to these public meetings, we'll be reporting on those meetings, and they'll have access to those notes, and they can also find leads to follow up on.

So that's another great part of this program. And we also feel that partnering with other newsrooms can also be an excellent benefit for both them and us. We train them, give them incentives, and what our partners can do can also offer free trainings as well to get people more well-rounded into what they're doing as a documenter.

Ashley Thornberg

…There is a big public meeting coming up here on May 15th. It's happening at 5.30 p.m. at the Buffalo's Fire Workspace at the Juniper Workantile in downtown Bismarck. How will this work? Who do you want to show up?

Alicia Hegland-Thorpe

Really, anybody who is interested in civic government, anybody who wants to learn how to be in these spaces, be more comfortable in these spaces, and people who are interested in holding their elected officials accountable. How the orientation would work, more or less, is anybody who is interested would get a, it's a small workshop.

We're gonna teach them facts versus opinions, the sunshine laws, and a couple of other things, just to kind of get the base down, and then we show them kind of what we're looking for and how we pay you, and we're gonna eat while we're doing it. I love that.

Jodi Rave Spotted Bear

Alicia had mentioned everybody is invited to participate because this is civic engagement, and so we're being inclusive, but we're also making the effort to reach out to our indigenous community folks that, for the most part, have been not felt welcome in these spaces, and so we really want to show them that city council, county commission, tribal council meetings are a place where it's a chance.

This is what we would call participatory journalism where we're inviting the public to help tell stories, so we're not calling them journalists. They're just simply documenters. They're note takers, and we'll train them on how to take these notes.

We'll bring them back. We'll edit them. We'll fact check them, and then we'll produce all of this information on the buffaloesfire.com website.

Alicia Hegland-Thorpe

Documenters are leaders. They're people who can be relied on for information and knowledge, and so through community, we know anything is possible as long as you have a community behind you, so we're gonna need the help of documenters to be leaders, to help motivate, educate, and activate their friends and family and neighbors to be a part of this. This is a growing movement across the nation.

Ashley Thornberg

And you both mentioned that this is open to anybody, but yes, that special focus on bringing indigenous people into the room. If I may, I'd like to ask, how often have you ladies been the only indigenous person in the room in a meeting like this where big decisions are being made?

Jodi Rave Spotted Bear

Yeah, more times than I would like to remember. Happens a lot, and this is just a way to bring in the community to be a part of the, to be witness and to report and document these big decisions that are happening. Alicia had mentioned that the documenters are in, there's 19 news organizations in 15 states that are doing this work, and we really are helping the documenters network set a new course by going into indigenous communities also.

So not only are we covering local meetings here in the Bismarck, Mandan, Lincoln area, but we've also been in conversation with the publisher of the Teton Times on the Standing Rock Preservation. And she's up for this idea of helping us, help them report on tribal council meetings. So that's a work in progress, but that is something that we're also going into our own communities and reporting on meetings to help get this information out to our communities.

Ashley Thornberg

…The media representation here, vastly non-indigenous backgrounds here for the people gathering and presenting the news. What are we most getting wrong?

Jodi Rave Spotted Bear

Well, just by not being there most of the time, because you know, there are good journalists out there that know how to interact with native communities. There's just, they're just so few and far between. So, you know, I do give credit for the non-indigenous journalists that take the time to know our communities.

We just don't see that big of an investment in mainstream news operations. What I can say though, is there is definitely a rise of indigenous news desks within these mainstream publications around the country. So one of our board members just sent us a press release about KOSU in Oklahoma, who just hired an Indigenous affairs reporter and they have an Indigenous affairs desk.

So there's some good things happening. I'd like to focus and encourage more mainstream outlets to create a greater presence and bring in more native people into their programming and into their newsrooms as staff members and editors and managers and decision makers.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, and I think one of the most sort of racist thoughts that I ever had was in reading a book by a woman who is a now former professor of Native American Studies at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, Linda LeGrde Grover. And she wrote this beautiful book,Seasons of an Ojibwe Year. And she wrote about Thanksgiving.

And I remember sort of thinking, oh, aren't they supposed to not like Thanksgiving? And aren't I as this nice, well-meaning white person supposed to just feel bad about the past instead of at all allowing for, one, the obvious that these celebrations of Thanksgiving, of giving thanks were not at all invented by colonists. And two, just well-rounded, allowing Indigenous people to be in the present, only thinking of them as in the past here.

Jodi Rave Spotted Bear

You know, you talk about being in the past and being in the present. That is our biggest problem that we have in our education system is that the majority of information that's taught about us is like pre-1900. And that does a huge disservice.

Yeah, like 80% of what's taught to students is all of this historical information. But they're missing the larger story that we still exist. I'm part of the three affiliated tribes.

And my grandparents were Mandan and Hidatsa. And the Mandan came close to the brink of totally disappearing with our numbers going down to about 150, depending on who your source is. But we're still here.

And our Mandan culture is very much alive. And those are the stories that actually need to be focused on is who we are as contemporary people and bringing that into our education system.

Alicia Hegland-Thorpe

You know, I wanted to add too, just going back on your question, what is the media doing wrong? Like, how can mainstream media be better? Yeah.

I think, you know, with my experience, when I was in broadcasting, you know, 20 years ago, this is a starter market, North Dakota is. So people come here for three, four months, and then they move on. So when you have reporters here that don't plan on making North Dakota home, they just learn, you know, kind of the surface things and they move on.

So again, this is my opinion, but this is also what I experienced. So when it comes to building relationships with indigenous communities, it can be, obviously, it's gonna be difficult if your goal is to be somewhere else.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. We're running short on time here, but Jodi, you know, you said contemporary, and you talked about telling the stories.

What are the biggest areas of focus for you, specifically, you know, on Buffalo's Fire and on the Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance here? What are the stories that you are most focusing on telling?

Jodi Rave Spotted Bear

Well, that really lies within who we're hiring to be reporters. So we have Adriana Adame, who is coming to us through Report for America, awesome program, and we hired her. Her beat is called Indigenous Democracy.

So we really have her focusing on Indian education, which, as I mentioned, is a real problem area that needs a lot of attention. We already offered a second job to another Report for America reporter, and that's Grace Fiore, who is coming to us from the UMass Amherst out in Massachusetts. And we hired her as an environmental reporter.

So we're really having her focus on the Missouri River, and also going upstream and looking at the oil development and how that's affecting the environment and the river. So those are really important areas. Another key area is missing and murdered Indigenous persons.

I had just been on a panel at the Native Americans and Philanthropy Conference when that question came up, what is really important here? And I had to refer to the First Nations Development Institute, which recently released a survey about what is at the top of voters' minds right now. And the number one issue for Native voters is Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples.

NOTE: Prairie Public transcripts are created on a rush deadline by turboscribe.ai. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of "Main Street" is the audio record of the show.