Elegy for a website where Native voices mattered

AJAM reported on tribal communities and offered coverage on Indian Country that few could match

Priestess Bearstops, right, then 18, with her mother, Reva Bearstops, in their home in Minneapolis, in a photo published Jan. 20, 2014. In a series on the dangers of gang life for young Native Americans, Priestess Bearstops was featured for her determination to graduate and go on to college.
Tomo for Al Jazeera America

In 2013, I received an email from a digital editor at Al Jazeera America. The organization had a goal: to become the go-to place for stories from Indian Country. The email asked for story pitches.

“We’re especially committed to showing good and bad, to go above the stereotypical ‘sad life on the rez’ that seems to get reported all the time,” the editor wrote. “No matter what the story, we want it to be full of portraits and voices, very much on-the-ground reporting.”

It was a curious request. Usually, indigenous people show up in media if they fall into what Reporting in Indigenous Communities calls the WD4 rule: If you’re an Indian who’s going to make the news, you have to be a warrior, be drumming, be dancing, be drunk or be dead.

“We’re interested in tech, environment, health, science, sports, culture,” the editor continued. “Frankly, if it’s a good story, we want it.”

As a reporter and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, I knew a lot about what I didn’t like seeing in the media: journalists parachuting into tribal communities for stories on victims and statistics, written in clichés and stereotypes. I also knew what I wasn’t seeing: the topics I discussed with my friends and family, the heroes, the history and the nuance and context required to make sense of what Native America is really about.

The request seemed genuine, so I sent a few pitches.

Within two years, my editors at Al Jazeera America and I were producing award-winning series and in-depth features from indigenous communities, and stories poured in from other reporters. Al Jazeera America even built its own Indian Country vertical with pieces on food, language, legal battles, uranium mining, sex and dating, drought, law and order, mascots, payday lending, sports, voting, financial mismanagement, pipeline fights, missing and murdered indigenous women, pollution and treaty rights, to name a few.

There was nothing like it at any other mainstream news outlet in the United States.

For whatever reason, news organizations do not report in tribal communities. Al Jazeera America decided to be different.

It’s old news now that Al Jazeera America is closing, and there have been many odes, irreverent think pieces and analytical autopsies — all valid points. But there is something else to consider: Al Jazeera America made sure that Native voices mattered.

It’s a small fact in the hurricane of information about Al Jazeera America’s demise but a teachable one. For an industry dedicated to being a voice for the voiceless, it is an utter failure that news organizations refuse to invest time or money in reporting on the most underrepresented and misunderstood ethnic group in the country.

For whatever reason, news organizations do not report on tribal communities. Al Jazeera America decided to be different.

Al Jazeera America did not become the go-to outlet for Indian Country news; that spot is still held by Indian Country Today Media Network, an outfit owned and operated by the Oneida Indian Nation of New York. But Al Jazeera America invested real money in real reporters, and it found an incredible response from audiences — both Native and non-Native. It’s the same model that National Native News has used to create groundbreaking, original content on public radio stations across the nation and the same idea that has kept indigenous outlets like Osage News and The Navajo Times relevant and vital in a sea of commentary and analysis.

Some reporters do what they do because they believe that telling unbiased, fact-based, in-depth stories helps create a better world. They believe that stories take hold of our imaginations and invite us to confront and interact with the world in new ways. They believe that stories can introduce us to ideas and struggles that lack easy answers or solutions. That storytelling can help audiences identify with people and cultures different from themselves. That when stories are told, something powerful happens. In my mind, that was the kind of reporter Al Jazeera America was trying to nurture and the kind of work for which it wanted to be known. In a way, it’s a very indigenous approach to storytelling. No wonder it failed.

Indian Country is a ballad, a taste, a song, a ceremony. It smells of wood stoves, booze, food and sweetgrass. It’s a mix of stately farmhouses, apartment complexes, dilapidated trailers and cookie-cutter homes. It’s quiet, starry and violent. Full of history, politics, tension and honor. Al Jazeera America was long-eyed enough to understand that Indian Country is important because it is America — her guilt, her hope and her root.

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