In Depth

Expanding the Native Talent Pool

Native American Group Promotes Awareness, Training

The Native American Journalists Association may be the smallest of the four groups involved in the Unity Conference, but its strength lies in the dedication of its members and its leadership.

The organization expects nearly 200 attendees, including about 30 students taking part in weeklong workshops to define convergence media models. NAJA is sponsoring four panels and an awards banquet and ceremony during the Chicago confab.

NAJA will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year. The organization was born in 1984 when a group of 30 Native American journalists met at Penn State University to ascertain the state of Native media, and to find ways to nurture and develop Native American communications.

The conferees decided a national organization was necessary to reinvigorate Native media and to address pervasive barriers and challenges facing Native American journalists. They created a constitution and bylaws establishing the foundation for a national organization, originally called the Native American Press Association. The name was changed in 1990 to better reflect the organization’s broader goals and the inclusion of radio and television professionals among its membership.

Within the context of recognizing that Native Americans are distinct peoples based on their traditions and culture, NAJA provides its membership with programs that promote diversity, and it defends against challenges to a free press, free speech and free expression.

The organization is committed to increasing the representation of Native journalists in mainstream media, while encouraging the highest standards of professionalism, ethics and responsibility across the board.

“My goal is to see membership increase by promoting new, fresh ideas,” said Jeff Harjo, executive director of the Native American Journalists Association, which moved last summer from South Dakota to its new home at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. “We’re nurturing young ones to keep the organization moving forward. We want to promote journalism, and help as many students as we can. We have a mentoring program every summer, and a lot of former students returning to mentor, so it’s an ongoing circle.”

Even with all of the organization’s efforts, Native Americans remain a tiny percentage of working media in the United States. Of those, most work in print.

“We are very unrepresented in journalism,” said Jeffrey Palmer, NAJA’s education director. “We’re behind the curve in broadcast, where most of the mainstream public gets its information, and we see a lot of misrepresentation. The major issue that we’re trying to deal with this year is focusing on the fact we want to get Native issues into the mainstream media.

“A good portion of [Native American] students are in school districts that don’t teach journalism, and our representation of people is low, just 1% of the national population,” Mr. Palmer said. “I don’t think we’re ever going to have numbers that compete with other groups. But if we can raise the numbers and awareness and bring it to a level just comparable with the population, I think we’ll be able to do more things.”

One barrier is that the issues of concern to Native American communities across the country are complex, and not easily told in 90-second reports. They range from fishing, hunting and water rights to the digital divide to alternative energy sources, economic development, gaming issues and tribal politics and leadership.

Many Americans do not realize that each Indian tribe—including the Navajo and Cherokee Nations, which are the largest in the United States—has its own sovereignty agreement with individual states and with the federal government that can further complicate issues.

Another hot-button topic is the question of exactly who is an Indian, which will be addressed in a Friday Unity Conference session. Sponsored by NAJA, panelists for “Who Is an Indian: Your Guide to Covering Native Americans” include Kara Briggs, president of Red Hummingbird Media Corp.; Oklahoma State Representative T.W. Shannon; Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation; Suzanne Jasper, director of the First People’s Human Rights Coalition; John Echohawk, director of the Native American Rights Fund; and Joe Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians.

“There is a strange thing that revolves around identity that other minority groups don’t have to cope with. It’s certainly an issue people in academia are writing about, and tribal governments are concerned with,” said Mr. Palmer. “It’s a kind of controversial and taboo subject. Anything to do with racial issues people treat with kid gloves, and Native American culture is no exception.”

NAJA’s other conference panels include “Power of the Word: Revitalization of Native Languages and the 2008 Reading Red Report,” “Reaching an Off-Line Audience in an Online World” and “The Politically Savvy Journalist: Getting It Right in a Political World.”

“There’s a gap for people of color compared to the general population,” said Cristina Azocar, board president of NAJA and director of the Center for Integration & Improvement of Journalism at San Francisco State University, who will moderate the latter panel. “There’s a real cultural disconnect when it comes to what types of stories people think are important. Our vision is to make news more inclusive.”

Board member Shirley Sneve is participating in the “Power of the Word” panel and is concerned with how Native Americans deal with the new-media landscape and demonstrating to young people how they can make a career in journalism.

“With the conglomeration of news sources, a lot of individual stories of people are getting lost to headline news and sensationalism,” said Ms. Sneve, director of Native American Public Telecommunications, an entity that provides support and funding to filmmakers and television producers. “You hear the same stories over and over again, such as when you hear news from Indian country about corruption at casinos and teen suicide. I like to know more about positive things tribes are doing.”

And some very positive things will come from Friday night’s awards banquet at the American Indian Center of Chicago, when NAJA will hand out 44 awards in categories such as feature news story, environmental story and general excellence awards in television, radio, online and print reporting.

Jack Marsh, executive director of the Al Neuharth Media Center at the American Indian Journalism Institute in South Dakota, will be honored for his service and excellence in representing Native peoples in the field of journalism. Native comedian Charlie Hill will provide the evening’s entertainment to the expected 200 guests.