Native American journalists tackle tough issues during July conference

Stan Bindell
The Observer 7/30/2013

TEMPE, Ariz.-Journalists covering Indian country received training and discussed Native American issues during the 29th annual National Native Media Conference in Tempe July 18-21.

Native American Journalists Associaiton President Rhonda LeValdo speaks with Dr. George Blue Spruce about the state of dentistry in Indian country. Photo/Stan Bindell
Native American Journalists Associaiton President Rhonda LeValdo speaks with Dr. George Blue Spruce about the state of dentistry in Indian country. Photo/Stan Bindell

The Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) and Native Public Media sponsored the conference.

The theme of this year’s conference was “Our voices, Our stories, Our future.” The conference was designed to empower native journalists and media professionals to tell their own stories. Journalism professionals lead sessions to train native journalists to tell their stories in a professional manner.

Arizona was well represented with journalists attending from the Navajo Hopi Observer, Navajo Times, Tutuveni and KUYI radio station among many others.

The issues those in attendance focused on included violence against women, dental care and the availability of radio frequencies for Indian communities.

Deborah Parker, vice chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribe in Washington state, fought successfully to have native women included in the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. The act was signed into law this past year and promises sweeping changes in the way violent offenders on tribal land are held accountable.

Parker spoke about the legislative process and media coverage of the fight to protect women in Indian country.

“This is also an opportunity to teach our young people about laws, the past and what our future looks like,” she said.

When Parker first started to look into the Violence Against Women Act, people told her that it didn’t have the steam to include native women on reservations because “they have no face here.”

“That made me angry,” she said. “I could see all these faces that were from my bloodline.”

With the help of U.S. Sen Pat Murray, D-Wash. Parker put on a news conference and spoke about the lack of prosecutions of non-Indians committing crimes against women on reservations.

“It was amazing to be that voice,” she said. “The Senate was abuzz. How could they not include Native American women?”

Parker continued to work with the National Congress of American Indians to see the bill passed with inclusion of protecting native women. She said many racist comments came out of the House of Representatives. Some congressmen doubted whether Indian governments had the ability to arrest non-Indian men.

At the beginning of the process, she said one congressman was outspoken against the inclusion of Indian women, but Parker was able to get him to change his mind. She said the way to change the minds of elected officials is to personalize the stories.

“So many children, women and men came forward with what happened to them as children, teenagers and adults,” she said.

Tribes have until 2015 to implement the law with help from the U.S. Department of Justice.

One statistic states that 88 percent of crimes against women on reservations are committed by non-Indians. She said some congressmen did not believe that statistic.

Eric Cantor, R- Va., a conservative congressman, was one of those opposed to including native women in the law. When Parker met with Cantor’s aide, she told Parker that neither she nor the congressman had met a Native American.

“There are a lot in congress who don’t understand us politically, spiritually and traditionally,” she said.

Parker said she knows of several hundred women who have been murdered on reservations without any justice.

Parker said the media was a big help in covering the Violence Against Women Act.

Another topic at the conference was the crisis in rural America, including on reservations, where there are no oral health providers. Lack of dental services and dental problems can cause disease and sometimes death.

Indian Health Service’s dental provider vacancies average 20-30 percent.

Alaska natives have offered one solution by creating the Dental Health Aide Therapist program. Tribes could replicate the program in other parts of the country.

The Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health at A.T. Still University in Mesa recently graduated six American Indians to help fill the need.

Dr. George Blue Spruce, the first native dentist in Arizona, said the dental problem also includes a lack of Native American dentists.

Spruce, 82, said until Native Americans can go to a native dentist, Indian self-determination remains a myth.

The others leading this session included Dr. Todd Hartsfield, DDS faculty at A.T. Still; Maxine Brings Him Back-Janis, faculty at Northern Arizona University; Connie Murat, dental aide therapist at Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation and Yvette Joseph, project manager at Kaufman and Associates. W.K. Kellogg Foundation sponsored the dental session.

Geoffrey Blackwell, chief of the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Office of Native Affairs and Policy, announced that those seeking non-commercial radio stations on reservations can apply for low frequency FM radio stations between Oct. 15 and Oct. 29.

President Barack Obama recently signed the Local Community Radio Act, which mandates expansion of low power FM radio stations that provide listening areas of three to 10 miles.

Since 2000, the government has licensed more than 800 low power FM stations.

A session also took place on the importance of bringing more broadband services to reservations. Those leading this session included Loris Taylor from Native Public Media; Traci Morris from Homaholta Consulting, Michael Copps, from the FCC and Blackwell.

Taylor, a member of the Hopi Tribe, said in order for native radio stations to be successful they need champions on the inside who are non-Indians. She pointed to Coppes as one such champion.

Coppes said that better broadband means more money creating more jobs, education and health care. He said that broadband services throughout the U.S. are not as good as they should be.

“It’s not just Native Americans. Everybody in the country is being held back, especially in the rural villages. We need a sense of mission,” he said.

Blackwell said broadband is as important as roads and water. He said the FCC and tribes need to work together on bringing more broadband services to Indian country.

Blackwell noted that local radio stations continue to provide life saving services such as announcing when tornadoes will hit.

“Lives can be on the line when you can’t get a signal,” he said.

Blackwell said his office works with 50 Indian tribes at any given time. He hopes that his office will soon announce that there will be consultations and trainings to bring more broadband to Indian country this coming fiscal year.

Tim Giago was one of the founders of NAJA and one of the many elder journalists who received recognition during the conference. He founded the Lakota Times in 1981 when the Pine Ridge Reservation was located in the poorest county in America.

Giago, 80, had his office firebombed, his office windows shot out and his life threatened, but he continued publishing until he sold the paper in 1998.

Giago urged the young journalists not to get discouraged. He also offered them some advice.

“You can do a thousand good things, but if you do one bad thing that is what will be remembered,” he said.