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American Indian journalists fight for press freedoms

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American Indian journalists fight for press freedoms

  • In one week last month, an American Indian newspaper won independence in Arizona, while another was dealt a setback in Idaho.

Nov. 10, 2003 — The Navajo Tribal Council in Arizona approved making its newspaper a private corporation last month, marking one of the rare cases where an American Indian publication has been granted independence from a tribal government.

Tom Arviso Jr., publisher of the Navajo Times, convinced Navajo leaders Oct. 23 to free the newspaper from tribal government control. The Navajo Tribal Council approved Arviso’s proposal in a 66-1 vote, bringing American Indians one step closer to ending what Editor & Publisher magazine has called “a long and shameful tradition of tribal government interference with Native journalists.”

Arviso said that there were two main motives behind his proposal.

“From an editorial standpoint, this removes any possibility of tribal censorship or attempts to remove us if the [tribal governments] disagree with us,” he said. “From a business standpoint, the bureaucracy in dealing with tribal governments is just incredible. It’s tough to run a business and be profitable with all the constraints and rules and regulations that government throws out in front of you.”

The Times had experienced its share of government interference. According to Editor & Publisher, six different editors had been fired by tribal leaders since the newspaper’s founding in 1961.

“A lot of tribal governments see their newspaper as a public relations tool, but [the Times] has always stood up for the people’s right to know,” Arviso said.

Almost all American Indian newspapers published on a reservation are controlled at some level by tribal councils. Indian tribes operate as sovereign nations, and thus do not have to comply with state or federal open meetings or public records laws. In addition, the firing of editors and reporters is not unusual on many reservations.

“I can guarantee that just about every year some editor gets fired because what they print is unpopular with the tribal council,” said Paul DeMain, editor of the American Indian newspaper News From Indian Country, located in Hayward, Wis., outside of any reservation. “It shows what can happen when there aren’t strong First Amendment protections in place.”

On Oct. 21, Lori Edmo-Suppah was fired as editor of the Sho-Ban News, located in southern Idaho, by the Fort Hall Business Council, the governing body of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes. Fred Auck, chairman of the council, told The Associated Press that he fired Suppah because of “gross insubordination.”

Suppah, who is also the treasurer of the Native American Journalists Association, says she believes she was terminated because the newspaper attempted to report both sides of a recall campaign to oust Auck and three other business council members.

The newspaper is subsidized by the business council, and was temporarily shut down by Auck following Suppah’s firing. Suppah has filed a grievance in tribal court, arguing that her firing was politically motivated.

“I’m not ashamed of being fired,” Suppah told KIDK-TV Oct. 27. “I actually expected it.”


Editor’s note: In the original story, we mistakenly reported that the Navajo Times, in gaining its independence from the Navajo Tribe Oct. 23, was the first American Indian publication ever to do so. It is unknown which American Indian newspaper was the first to gain independence from its tribe.

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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