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Media is Tribal Sovereignty: The Best Form of Self-Determination Is a TV Broadcasting Station

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Inside the brand-new control room of the Gila River Broadcast Corporation.

On June 2, 1924 United States Native Americans, or “Indians” as commonly known by the majority of non-Natives, were bestowed U.S. citizenship by the Indian Citizenship Act (or Snyder Act).  For the ninety-one years following the approval of this act, Native peoples across the United States would struggle to retain their cultural traditions and religious beliefs as well as language and self-governance capabilities due to the subsequent bombardment of external entities to assimilate the Indians into mainstream U.S. society.

Today, the widespread development of media outlets and national communications systems are helping tribes regain some of what has been lost of their cultures in the tumult of historical trauma.

Keeping Native Voices Heard

While their citizenship wasn’t gained until the early 1900’s, American Indian nations and individuals made concerted efforts to keep their voices heard and push their presence in the media as early as 1828.  Starting with small community newspapers like the Cherokee Phoenix (a series published and written by Native Americans since 1828), the Lakota Times (the first Native American owned and operated newspaper
in the U.S. in 1981 which later became Indian Country Today in 1992), and The Navajo Times (originally owned and operated by the Navajo Nation since 1959 and later gained its financial independence in 2004).

Later, with the help of larger political movements such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) of the 1960’s, the Indian Civil Rights Act (1968), and the formation of the Native American Journalists Association (1984), tribal nations established strong footholds in radio broadcasting in the 1970’s and saw the creation of national infrastructure to support and progress Native media in the U.S.

On the Rise

By the early 1970’s Native and non-Native communities alike recognized mass media as a vital tool in tribal nation-building efforts across the U.S. and a crucial element to cultural preservation as well as community safety.  Although lengthy and often a racially and politically charged process, it didn’t take long for Native media to be embraced within tribal communities and flourish nationwide.  With the first radio station going on-air in 1972, the number of tribally-owned radio entities has grown to a total of 53 stations across the U.S. as of 2015.

At the grand opening event of the Gila River Indian Community’s Gila River Broadcasting Corporation on April 6, 2015, Native Public Media’s President and CEO, Loris Taylor, states, “Today we have fifty-three radio stations that are licensed and operated by Native American tribal communities, and we have a handful of television stations and projects.  But if you put it into context of 566 Native nations in this country, we’re just barely making a difference.  So to have another facility come online is really huge.”

To tribal nations, Native-owned media isn’t just about the ability to start a newspaper or radio station; it’s about nation-building as sovereign entities.  Taylor emphasizes, “It’s about our public health, it’s about our community, it’s about everything that we do – it’s like our public square, our plaza…it’s where we can hear our own languages.”

With new technology coming online every day and more tribes jumping on board tomake use of it, the potential benefits seem endless.  Dr. Traci Morris, Executive Director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University states, “The importance of media and communications and technology cannot be underestimated.  Telecommunications is part of the future of economic development, and by placing culture at the center of the model we make it tribal-centric.”

Digital Smoke Signals

Apart from establishing entirely new media outlets, which could take years of planning and fund raising for most tribes, more and more local community groups, activists and individuals alike are seeing what having a strong digital presence can mean when enough people connect online and the effects have been astonishing.

As recently as 2012, activist groups like Not Your Mascot and Idle No More have harnessed the power of social media then rode the digital currents to create massive “thunderclaps” of social interaction and organized thousands across the U.S. and Canada to rally behind their causes.

As explicitly stated on their website, use of social media is a key component of their outreach and organizing efforts; “The focus of Not Your Mascots is to address these issues through the utilization of education, social media, as well as community and media outreach”, a tool which their predecessors of AIM didn’t have access to and marks the advent of an entirely new generation of digital activism.

With mass media campaigns produced by the National Congress of American Indians using the hashtag #ProudToBe airing a powerful video during nationally televised NFL games, and national coverage from just about every major media outlet, it seems that a little nonviolent, civil disruption along with targeted messaging and collective media presence is what is needed to begin – or continue, rather – reshaping public opinion of American Indian stereotypes and offensive mascots in mass media.

Visions Realized

With the ability to house, produce, and record their own stories from their unique, indigenous point of view, tribal nations now have the power to control their “media destiny”.

Taylor states, “if we don’t have access, control, or ownership over our own media and even our own broadcast facilities, this results in a few things; one, that somebody else tells our stories, or two, they make us invisible – it’s like we don’t exist.  Or three, they just make it up; they fabricate the Native American experience.”

These issues are what the Gila River Indian Community intends to combat with the establishment of their new $1 million broadcasting facility producing local programming on three low-power television stations in Arizona within their tribal community.

Stephen Lewis, Chairman of the Gila River Indian Community believes the technology will usher in a new era of cultural preservation and awareness stating,

“It will empower us.  This will make our government work more efficiently, work more ethically; better for the people.”  The goal of the GRBC is that Gila River Indian Community members and non-tribal communities alike will have continued access to cultural teachings, life-ways, and positive stories as told by tribal members themselves.  Says Lewis, “It’s only a technology, but it’s how we’re going to use it in the future; that’s what’s important.”

Indirect benefits of the media outlet could also have immense impact for neighboring tribes in the form of collective political presence as Taylor cites,

“Whatever we say and do on these facilities, [we know] that it can shape public policy for us”, referring to several Arizona state laws that have passed in recent years restricting cultural and ethnic studies being allowed in public school systems. Taylor adds, “We have to be guardians of our own freedom.”

Sticks and Stones, Pens and Swords

News to some, but a broken record to others, Native American historical oppression is not as historical as many think.  As late as 1957, some states still barred Native Americans from voting and many off-reservation Indian boarding schools still in operated until the early 2000’s.

It wasn’t until the late 1970’s that tribal leaders began to rebuild their governments, and actively determine the future of economic development within their communities, but it will take many more generations to reclaim even a percentage of what has been lost of their cultural life-ways and languages that has resulted from centuries of historical trauma.

Tribal leaders and community members agree; what is left for tribes to decide now is not a question of capability or skill, but one of will and determination – self-determination, that is. Media could be the vehicle to get them where they need to go.

As Lewis sums up, “This is a true exercise of sovereignty, of defining who we are and what we are as a culture.”

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