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Speech on the Reservation Isn't Free
By Dan Gunderson, - April 2001
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Press freedom is a constitutional guarantee for most American journalists. But many who work on Indian reservations do not enjoy the same freedom, because the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not apply to them. Their protection comes from the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, which guarantees free speech. But it leaves the enforcement to tribal governments that own most reservation media outlets.

The press room of the White Earth Tomahawk newspaper, 1906.
(Photo courtesy of the Becker County Historical Society.) View larger image

LOUISE MENGELKOCH REMEMBERS THE EXCITEMENT of stumbling upon what would turn out to be an important story. As a young reporter for the Red Lake Times in the late 1980s, she discovered the areas economic engine, the Red Lake walleye population, was in serious decline. The reason? Commercial over-fishing. She recalls being shocked at what happened after the story was published.

"I was fired for printing that story, because it was a truth people didn't want to hear," she says.

Mengelkoch says because the newspaper was funded by tribal government, those in power at the time wanted to control what was printed. She says it was impossible to function as a journalist under such conditions.

"You couldn't possibly imagine the Washington Post being published by the U.S. Congress. Yet, on reservations people haven't thought through the ramificaitions of tribal government paying for a tribal newspaper," says Mengelkoch.

It's been nearly 15 years since the Red Lake Times fired Louise Mengelkoch, but today things are much the same on most reservations. Nearly all newspapers and radio stations on reservations in the U.S. are owned by tribal government. Mengelkoch says she's not convinced the relationship between media and government on reservations is all that different from what happens in many small towns. She says it's just more visible.

Numerous journalists working for tribal newspapers or radio stations declined to be interviewed for this story, saying they fear economic reprisal. Media maverick Bill Lawrence isn't surprised.

"On the reservation, the tribal government controls the courts and almost every aspect of life. Unless you get along with them and write what they want you to write, you don't have long to exist on reservations," says Lawrence.

Lawrence is a veteran of legal skirmishes with tribal government. He publishes the independent Ojibwe News - what he calls the only truly independent newspaper in the state that focuses on tribal issues. Lawrence survives mostly on the ads bought by businesses in towns near reservations. He's currently involved in a lawsuit over the arrest of a reporter sent to cover a regular meeting of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe executive committee.

"Orders went to have him arrested, and he was removed from the meeting - normally an open meeting. He was hauled 30 miles to the Mille Lacs County jail, and charged with trespass," Lawrence says.

Minnesota Chippewa executive committee officials did not respond to interview requests.

The publisher of the Ojibwe News, Bill Lawrence, claims his is the only independent newspaper in the state focusing on tribal issues.
Other links:
Indian Country Today
Native Americas Journal
A primer on the Indian Civil Rights Act

Bill Lawrence says his paper has been banned in many Minnesota tribal-owned casinos, and businesses who advertise in his paper have been pressured by the Red Lake tribal government.

"Advertisers in the Bemidji area were told - if they advertised any more in our paper, they wouldn't be able to deliver their products to the reservation. The reservation would not buy their products. And it's going on right today," says Lawrence.

Red Lake Tribal Chairman Bobby Whitefeather says he does not ban any legitimate publication on the reservation.

"We don't even recognize that publication as a newspaper," says Whitefeather. When asked why, he responds, "because it is not objective."

First Amendment rights on Indian reservations are not protected under the U.S. Constitution. Free speech protections are guaranteed under the Indian Civil Rights Act, but the Supreme court has ruled that any alleged violation of free speech on the reservation should be resolved in tribal court. In many cases, that essentially means the tribal government is asked to sanction itself, since it appoints the judges and owns the media outlets.

Doreen Yellowbird says journalists who work on a reservation have little recourse when their rights are violated. She published a newspaper and ran a radio station on the Turtle Mountain, N.D. reservation in the 1980s. When she decided to start broadcasting tribal council meetings against the wishes of the tribal chairman, she lost her job.

"You couldn't possibly imagine the Washington Post being published by the U.S. Congress. Yet, on reservations, people haven't thought through the ramifications of tribal government paying for a tribal newspaper."
-- Journalist Louise Mengelkoch

Despite her experience, Doreen Yellowbird does not lay all the blame at the feet of tribal government. She says reservation journalists are poorly paid, often poorly trained, and without proper supervision their reporting is sometimes more opinion than fact.

"So to say that they should have free access to everything that comes out of the tribe, and to be able to interpret that for the tribal people on the reservation, I think would be as harmful as the tribe not providing that information," says Yellowbird.

Many Minnesota tribes fund publications that are distributed on the reservation. Most are called newsletters, and are unabashedly pro-tribal government.

Some tribal leaders say they are concerned tribal members are not well informed. Mille Lacs tribal executive Melanie Benjamin says she's working on an editorial policy that will allow divergent opinions to be published in the tribal newsletter. Red Lake Tribal Chairman Bobby Whitefeather says the newsletter is a good tool for tribal government, but can't replace a newspaper.

"With a newsletter, you put what you want in there - not necessarily what should be in there. It may not tell the full story. There are some things around here that should be told, but it's like you don't want to talk about the bad things," he says.

Whitefeather says he believes tribal members would benefit from objective reporting of tribal issues. But until tribal economies improve, he doubts an independent newspaper would be economically viable. Whitefeather says with unemployment above 50 percent on most reservations, fostering an independent media is a low priority for most tribal governments.