Tribal council shuts down Native American newspaper

Aaron Mackey | Prior Restraints | Feature | July 6, 2011

A Native American newspaper in a remote region of northern California will not be able to publish again unless editors can justify the publication's budget and content to tribal leaders, one of the paper's editors said Wednesday.

The staff of the Two Rivers Tribune met with the Hoopa Valley Tribal Council on Tuesday after the council's chairman issued a memo late last week that abruptly shut down the paper. In the memo, Tribal Chairman Leonard Masten said the paper would be closed immediately because it was losing money and because of controversial articles about marijuana.

After Tuesday's meeting, it is unclear if the Two Rivers Tribune, which covers the Hoopa Valley Tribe and other communities in eastern Humboldt County, will publish again, said Allie Hostler, the paper's interim managing editor.

During the meeting, Masten asked Hostler and the other members of the Tribune's staff to come up with a plan to fix the financial and content issues he objected to in his initial memo.

No deadline was set for submitting the plan, Hostler said, adding that other council members discussed creating an editorial board to review content prior to publication.

"I see it as a potential censorship board," Hostler said.

The Tribune's staff learned the paper was being closed when the memo was sent on Friday. At that point, the newspaper's Internet connection was shut down, Hostler said.

The publication's website was still shut down yesterday, Hostler said, though it appeared to be back up and running on Wednesday afternoon.

In his memo announcing the closing of the paper, Masten said that the publication cost the tribe $189,000 during the past three years and was in financial trouble, according to the Times-Standard in Eureka, Calif. But Hostler said her audit of the newspaper's books shows that it has not misused tribal funds.

The Tribune has an annual operating budget of $237,000. Of that, the tribe provides about $80,000 each year with the remaining balance paid through advertising, subscriptions and other revenue, Hostler said.

While the budget year is nearing a close for the paper, it has only spent about half of the money given to it by the tribe, she said. She also disagreed with the suggestion that the subsidy was losing the tribe money, as it had appropriated the money to the paper at the beginning of the year.

Hostler said about 50 people showed up to the meeting on Wednesday to support the paper, which touts itself as the last Native American-owned newspaper in California.

Regardless of whether it was for budgetary or content reasons, the newspaper's closure violated the Hoopa Valley Constitution, said Kevin R. Kemper, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arizona who specializes in press issues involving Native Americans.

Hoopa Valley's Constitution has a clause nearly identical to the free press clause of the First Amendment, Kemper said. And another clause in the constitution requires the Tribal Council to obey federal statutes and the U.S. Constitution.

"The tribe has press protections built into its constitution," Kemper said. "The question is whether or not it's going to be enforced."

Because of the status of Native American tribes and various legal issues, enforcement of the Hoopa Valley's Constitution would likely have to come from the tribe itself rather than the federal government, Kemper said. But that doesn't mean that Native Americans lack constitutional rights.

"It's legal fiction to say that the First Amendment doesn't apply to Indian country," Kemper said.