The Native American Journalists Association has become concerned over language used by several mainstream media outlets recently that evoked stereotypes and falsehoods about Native Americans and their history.
The most egregious of the cases came from Jason Vincent, a now-former Fox 21 news director in Duluth, Minnesota on his Facebook page, Vincent reportedly compared a Native American man who had crossed into his yard to “an animal.” The character of the comments falls far short of the standards that NAJA expects of journalists, both in the mainstream and tribal media. Our organization supports the Duluth’s station general manager’s decision to accept Vincent’s resignation from his position this week.
Also discerning to NAJA was Matt Lauer jokingly calling Meredith Viera an “Indian giver” during NBC’s TODAY show coverage of the London Olympics. The term invokes a stereotype and inaccuracy about our history that is offensive to Native people. It should not be used on a national news program, even in a passing reference. NAJA asks that NBC and Lauer apologize for the comment.
NAJA also urges mainstream media to be mindful of wading into the controversy over a Cheyenne River Sioux elder’s allegation that he was mistreated and that medical staff at the Rapid City Hospital in South Dakota violated his human rights. In several instances, news reports have used comparisons that have discredited his claims and made him appear incompetent.
Lawyers for Vern Traversie, who is blind, have filed a federal lawsuit saying “he was verbally abused and refused pain medication by hospital staff, and his abdomen was scarred with the letters KKK” during a stay for open-heart surgery last August. Supporters of Traversie say his family; pastor and Indian Health Service medical personnel in his tribal community informed him of the scars after his release from the hospital.
A May story from the Associated Press stated, “Like those spotting the Madonna in a water stain, Traversie’s advocates are staunch believers,” and while the language has not been used in recent AP stories, it appears to have had a lasting effect.
On July 17, Los Angeles Times columnist John M. Glionna, used a similar comparison, saying, “It could be akin to those cases in which believers see the face of the Virgin Mary in a taco shell or a suburban tree trunk.”
When reporting on Native American issues like this, journalists and media outlets should be mindful of the context of what is being reported. Comparing Traversie’s scars to a vision of the Virgin Mary have the potential to dehumanize the situation.
If in doubt, please contact NAJA, which provides guidance to journalists and media organizations on Native issues across the country
Jeff Harjo is the executive director of the Native American Journalists Association.