Native American Press / Ojibwe News

April 25, 2003
Free the reservation press

By Jeff Armstrong

Last week, I received a return phone call from Leech Lake chairman Pete White, whom I had asked for information on a scheduled General Assembly meeting on the reservation. White informed me of the time and location of the meeting, but pointedly added that it was open only to “enrolled band members.”

Given White’s praiseworthy early efforts to establish open government and public accessibility, I was rather startled and disappointed by what seemed a transparent attempt to prevent this newspaper from reporting on the meeting. Having previously been arrested without notice for attempting to report on a tribal land claims meeting in Mille Lacs, however, all I could think to say was, “thanks for calling.”

If the intention of the event was to give people a voice, that voice was considerably stifled by the exclusion of what is, for better or worse, the only consistently available forum in the region for the exchange of ideas, opinion, and information between and among Native communities. Only a small percentage of tribal members can physically attend such meetings on even the rare occasions when adequate public notice is given, forcing the majority to rely instead on a free and uninhibited press. 

Imperfect as my contribution may be, my sole interest as a reporter is in defending human rights and promoting grassroots democracy where people are calling out for support in their struggles against oppression. Nowhere have I found the need for such solidarity so pressing as within indigenous communities, which more often than not face daily internal and external affronts to their dignity as peoples and individuals. Tribal government need not continue on as a parody of American Democracy, but could instead serve as an example for the entire world of freedom and democracy on a human scale, one in which each individual would truly have an equal say in the decisions which affect his or her life.

A small—but vital—step would be to liberate the reservation “press” from the control of elected officials. When I proposed such a move to chairman White, he contended that the Leech Lake monthly newspaper is in fact free already. But even if the newspaper were formally outside of RBC control, self-censorship is so deeply ingrained among reservation employees who value their jobs that a strong message from the top is necessary to encourage the honest and wide-ranging debate and analysis necessary to confront social and political ills. I profoundly believe that the lack of popular involvement is not a matter of public apathy, but rather a collective acknowledgement of powerlessness. Why speak out for change, when the only official response is likely to be a punitive one?

A reservation paper which presented sometimes unpleasant truths and diverse opinions would inspire and facilitate public input, to the ultimate benefit of all tribal members. The people would know that things truly had changed for the better.

There are many different routes by which one might make the transition from a kept press to a free one, which is not so difficult as it might seem. For instance, the RBC could formally recognize by ordinance the right to a free press and recommend adoption of a constitutional amendment to that effect at the tribal level. In place of the RBC, an editorial board could be elected for short, staggered terms to oversee the general management of the paper, while respecting the autonomy of the staff.

White may feel wronged by the press for whatever reason, but he is not alone. By far the most irresponsible and indifferent coverage of tribal affairs has come from non-Native media. Secretary treasurer Archie LaRose has ludicrously (if not libelously) been labeled as a veritable ganglord. Press/ON publisher Bill Lawrence has been dubbed an “enemy of his people” by Minnesota Monthly, while I have been portrayed by a City Pages reporter as a “scruffy” non-entity. Perceived errors and even abuses of press freedom can only be remedied by the utilization of the same freedom to argue one’s case, and this newspaper has throughout the years admirably provided a forum for an inherently imperfect grassroots debate.

I, for one, would welcome some competition. 
(Responses encouraged at



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