Indigenous journalist Tristan Ahtone speaks about media representation of Native communities, issues

Tristan Ahtone, award winning journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, speaks at an event in the Crane Room on Dec. 6. (Alexis Serino / The Tufts Daily) Alexis Serino / The Tufts Daily

Indigenous People’s Day at Tufts, a campus group formed to recognize the holiday, held the final two talks in its four-part Indigenous Speaker Series during the last week of this semester. With the tagline of “After Standing Rock,” the series featured indigenous activists to show continued support of indigenous issues and scholarship.

In one of those talks on Wednesday, Dec. 6, Tristan Ahtone, an award-winning journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, spoke about his view of indigenous journalism and Native issues, especially in the wake of the Standing Rock protests.

Junior Parker Breza, who is a founding member of the Indigenous People’s Day at Tufts movement, was involved in planning this speaker series.

Elaborating on the movement as a whole, Breza noted that a Facebook page was formed to coordinate the campaign for Tufts to recognize Indigenous People’s Day on the official calendar. He added that the movement is not an official organization, but an informal group of students who are Native or are passionate about Native issues.

Breza noted that it was this campaign for Tufts to recognize Indigenous People’s Day that sparked greater conversation and action on campus, including the annual celebration and the speaker series.

“It’s become the central organizing space for lots of different initiatives, including the celebration of Indigenous People’s Day every single year,” Breza said. “That’s manifested in a couple of ways, including the political effort to change it to the cultural celebration of indigenous peoples. And now [there is a] push for Native studies and the Indigenous Speaker Series.”

Ahtone’s talk, titled “Indigenous Journalism,” was centered around the protests at Standing Rock in 2016 and highlighted how major media outlets covered it.

By showing slides of different news headlines, Ahtone noted that reporting on the Standing Rock protests was a time of great visibility for indigenous issues, but it was coverage from major news sources like The New York Times and The Washington Post that dictated the stories.

“The stories are always about how non-Native Americans are interfacing with Native Americans,” Ahtone said. “It’s never about us, it’s about them.”

Junior Amira Al-Subaey is interested in examining the representation of marginalized communities in the media, which led her to attend Ahtone’s talk.

“I’m really interested in dissecting who creates the news that we read and who determines the narratives that we believe to be true,” Al-Subaey said. “Especially in this age where we’re seeing big media giants like New York Times and Washington Post producing their own narrative.”

According to Al-Subaey, Ahtone’s talk explained the ways in which the news media can exploit marginalized communities in their reporting.

[Ahtone] coined the term in his talk of ‘exploitative colonialism’ and how reporting on various marginalized communities’ struggles can reproduce colonial narratives, through erasing certain voices, through erasing certain stories and through reproducing stereotypes of those people,” Al-Subaey said.

Echoing Al-Subaey, Breza noted that Ahtone’s discussion of the failure of news outlets to sufficiently cover indigenous issues complicates media objectivity and reflects the biases of society at large.

“I think that when you hear these really simple examples of just how racist media outlets are being, often unintentionally and unknowingly, it makes you pause [to think] about how general society talks about Native issues, [and] specifically our news outlets that we look to as reputable, objective, etc.,” Breza said.

Throughout his talk, Ahtone mentioned many indigenous media sources that highlight indigenous voices and issues in their reporting. One example is High Country News, where Ahtone is a contributing editor.

“There are almost 200 different indigenous media organizations,” Ahtone said. “These are indigenous stories, by indigenous people, which usually does not happen very often.”

Al-Subaey said that she found Ahtone’s suggestions helpful in raising more awareness of indigenous issues.

“I thought that was a very tangible way that [other] people can know what’s going on in the indigenous communities across the country and across the world, and ensure that we’re supporting indigenous voices. If we care about indigenous issues, then [we center] indigenous voices to speak on those issues,” Al-Subaey said.

Events in the Indigenous Speaker Series, like Ahtone’s talk, could not happen without funding from other organizations on campus, as the Indigenous People’s Day at Tufts group has no funding of its own, according to Breza.

The Media Advocacy Board (MAB) has funding for speaker events in their budget and chose to dedicate it to Ahtone’s talk, according to Chair of MAB Ben Kesslen.

“We have a budget that we can use to put toward causes and events that are media-related that we think are worthwhile and important, which is why we helped fund the event,” Kesslen, a senior, said.

Kesslen noted that it was important for MAB to be involved in bringing Ahtone to speak on campus, because he offered crucial insights on Native representation in the media.

“I thought [Ahtone] said really important and interesting things about how the media reports on indigenous people,” Kesslen said. “I think among student journalism here, it was a great lesson on how to better report on and talk about indigenous issues that face our campus.”

Breza noted that with the conclusion of the speaker series this semester, the team behind Indigenous People’s Day at Tufts will continue working to establish a program in Native studies, as reported on Oct. 26 in the Daily.

“What we’re trying to do is establish a Native studies minor within the [Consortium of Studies in] Race, Colonialism and Diaspora which houses … Latino studies, Africana studies, Asian American studies and colonialism studies,” Breza said.

Breza said that at present, Tufts does have classes but no program in Native studies, which makes it harder to centralize the subject and get funding for faculty.

“It’s natural that Native studies would be included in [the consortium], and it’s a huge gap right now that [it] is not present,” Breza said.

Looking to the future, Kesslen commented on how he hopes Ahtone’s talk will incite change on campus.

“I hope the MAB can continue to use our budget to bring speakers to campus who will teach us how to become better and more critical,” Kesslen said. “And I hope that the success of this event is evidence for the need of Native studies on campus and more dialogue around indigenous issues.”

Rob Katz contributed reporting to this article.


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