Students of Native American coverage in the national media viewed the controversy with ambivalence. On one hand, an important matter of tribal sovereignty and treaty obligations is in the public eye. On the other hand, it's yet another opportunity for Indians to be reduced to caricatures and their concerns to a few hot button issues.
AURA BOGADO: So there's the Washington team name and whether or not that team should use that slur. And there’s the perennial issue of should people be allowed to wear Native headdresses at Coachella.
BOB GARFIELD: Aura Bogado is a writer for the environmental news website, Grist.
AURA BOGADO: Those are interesting stories. I think that they bring out different perspectives, but I also think that those stories are very old and very played. You know, reservation to reservation, you have a lot of stories. A lot of those are often energy and environmental stories. And if you're not really paying attention to “Indian country,” as it's called, and if you’re not paying attention to what's happening on reservations, then you’ll sort of miss it.
BOB GARFIELD: How important was the Amy Goodman piece?
AURA BOGADO: Too important? [LAUGHS] I really respect Amy Goodman's work, but I think that the story isn't about Amy Goodman, nor do I think that the story is about Jill Stein. This story is fundamentally about the right of people to determine their future. The arrests are up to something like 40 or 60, at this point. All of those people have a story and a lot of them have a pretty big stake in what is happening, in terms of themselves, their families, their tribe, their future, their children, their grandchildren, all of those generations. And I think that this focus on somebody like Amy Goodman, while again, I think that it's important that we track that, I would like to see that along with more robust coverage about people who are truly being affected and, and threatened by this pipeline.
BOB GARFIELD: Your beat is environmental racism, the premise being that the biggest part of the public doesn't worry about brown water until it's piped into white homes. Can you document a double standard of environmental indifference along racial lines?
AURA BOGADO: Definitely. We can document it back to the founding of this country, right? Any of us who are not indigenous to these particular lands are able to live here. A lot of times, that came from the colonization and complete destruction of what used to once be here. And we see, to this day, that people of color in the United States - I mean, I'm here in LA and I can tell you that if we stick a map of where all the refineries are and overlay that with a map of where black and brown people live, it's kind of the same map. People of color like literally [LAUGHS] reathe worse air.
BOB GARFIELD: But luckily, a vast corps of Native American journalists are being recruited and brought into newsrooms to add sensibilities and perceptiveness.
AURA BOGADO: [LAUGHS] That – well, actually, there is a, a conference for Native journalists and it is pretty well attended. There are a lot of Native journalists. But it's difficult, especially when you don't find people who look like you or the stories of journalists who came before you who were Natives and did amazing work. Let’s say you do get one Native American journalist at an organization, it's difficult for them because a lot of times those journalists might be doing two jobs. One is to educate not the public but the same people who are there to support them as editors, right, and sort of have to do that work, while they’re actually also trying to do their actual job as a reporter. From what I understand, [LAUGHS] it’s pretty taxing for some people to sort of have to do that kind of double duty at work.
BOB GARFIELD: Apart from the current controversy, public perception and media coverage of Native life and culture is already, let’s just say, problematic. [LAUGHS] To you, which is worse, the portraits of grinding poverty and despair or the kind of condescending noble savages with quaint preindustrial lifestyles and spirituality?
AURA BOGADO: They’re both pretty destructive. I think what’s telling is that when you say that, I sort of have all this imagery that comes to mind, and I'm sure that's true for every listener right now, but with a lot of this coverage some of the imagery that's come out, I think, has been pretty amazing, Lakota elders, young people on horseback, you know, a lot of the amazing beadwork.
But I think that a lot of that imagery, it's very romanticized and it relegates it to the past in a way that we don't think we really have to deal with it in any way in the present. It makes it easier to say things like, well, they've always been so screwed over and it's just happening again, as if it's fate. And I don’t [LAUGHS] think that that's reflective of what's actually happening.
BOB GARFIELD: If you could do one thing to influence coverage of Native life, what would it be?
AURA BOGADO: It would be really wonderful if every journalist had a, a short crash course in what a nation-to-nation treaty is and what tribal sovereignty means. They're not exactly one and the same but they’re related, I think that that would fundamentally change the way that we tell these stories of Native life because without understanding that, I think that too many times we think of Native Americans solely as a racial group that have civil rights claims, when a better understanding is realizing that these are tribal nations, with the emphasis on “nation,” whole people that are using these treaties to preserve their life in the present and their life and people and land for the future.
BOB GARFIELD: Let’s just say the government acted poorly, let's say that the coverage has been, at a minimum, flawed; Native Americans have, once again, been screwed. Let's just stipulate all of that. What good has come out of this?
AURA BOGADO: I think that a lot of journalists have started to realize that this, this is a little bit of a black hole in their coverage, to say, you know, we’re gonna have to rethink how we do this in the future. And so, the right way to tell a coming story is to make those connections in Indian country today, before the big story breaks, because then at that point it is a scramble and people might really worry like, well, if you're a journalist who didn't care for me for the last 10 years that you’ve been covering the environment or energy, or what have you, why are you calling me today? And I think that that is something good that has come out of it and that hopefully will positively impact coverage in the future.
BOB GARFIELD: Aura, thank you very much.
AURA BOGADO: Bob, thank you so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Aura Bogado writes about environmental racism for grist.org.
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That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess and Jesse Brenneman. We had more help from Micah Loewinger, Sara Qari, Noah Kernis and Leah Feder. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. And this week our show was edited by Executive Producer Katya Rogers. Our engineer this week was Casey Holford. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I’m Bob Garfield.