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Parsing The Press: Covering Native Communities

Parsing the Press

Sally Mauk The Great Falls Tribune is the only major daily newspaper in the state with a reporter dedicated to covering Montana's Native American communities. Nora Mabie is the paper's Indigenous communities reporter. And she's our guest today.

Nora you're from Chicago originally and you moved to Montana just about a year and a half ago to take the job with the Trib. How'd that come about?

Nora Mabie I'm from Chicago and I had just graduated from Northwestern, where I was studying social justice journalism. And in that work, I had really been focusing on amplifying the voices of people in underserved or neglected communities. And part of that meant I took a class that was dedicated to how to respectfully report on Native American communities. And in that class, we took a trip, actually, to Arizona where we visited the Hopi and Navajo reservations, and we talked to people there about how the media has misrepresented them or distorted their communities. And I just found that experience very meaningful. So when I saw this job opportunity open up, I was immediately interested. And so then I ended up moving out here about a year and a half ago to cover Native communities in Montana. And this is actually the first time the Tribune has had a beat devoted to Indigenous communities. And I think that is overdue. But I'm also so grateful that we have it now because I think people really do appreciate the coverage.

Sally Mauk You said you wanted to practice social justice journalism. Tell us what you mean by social justice journalism.

Nora Mabie I really like to focus on amplifying the voices of people who might be overlooked. And as we've seen, Native Americans are often overlooked in media coverage and in representation, and it also involves exposing inequity of any kind. So if people aren't being treated fairly for whatever reason — whether that's race or where you live or your economic status — that would also be part of social justice journalism, and something I'm really working toward. And ultimately, I think that it just means representing communities how they should be represented and not contributing to stereotypes or furthering any sort of inequity that exists.

Sally Mauk Gwen, we've talked before about the dearth of coverage of Montana's Native American communities and how too often that coverage is only when something terrible has happened; that that has been sort of the pattern in the past.

Gwen Florio It's either when something terrible has happened, and then there's the flipside of that, where Native people are almost romanticized. I remember when I first moved west to Denver to cover the Rocky Mountain West, a reporter from a paper that will remain unnamed said to me, 'You want to write a lot about Indians. They're really spiritual.' And it was just cringeworthy.

But in addition to avoiding both those stereotypes, there are some sheer logistical issues in covering Native issues. In Montana, you have reservations spread out over a huge area, not to mention urban populations around the state. So how often are you able to visit tribal nations and how does that affect your coverage?

Nora Mabie I'd say as a white woman covering Indigenous communities, it does take time and effort for me to gain trust. And before COVID, I was visiting a reservation community maybe once or twice a week at least. But then when COVID hit, I did have to change that and sort of had to rely a lot on phone calls and Facebook and video chats and things like that. So I was really grateful that I had already kind of laid a base foundation for establishing those relationships with people, that it wasn't so hard to move to remote reporting because I'd already kind of earned trust in those communities.

Gwen Florio One thing I've noticed — and your coverage has touched on it, Nora — is there seems to be almost a meanness in some of the comments about Native issues. And I know Sharon Stewart Peregoy has spoken to that. It's been striking to me, but I'm wondering what you think about it.

Nora Mabie Yes, I have definitely noticed that in my coverage of this legislative session. Just speaking to members of the American Indian Caucus about bills that are proposed, or proposed budget cuts, there's a lot of question of whether there would be so much pushback if this was a bill that was for white communities or presented by a white sponsor.

There was a proposed budget cut that was going to cut funding for Native preservation of language. And when I spoke with Jonathan Windy Boy in Box Elder, he's a representative there, he was talking about how, 'why would we cut this out of everything,' you know, is it because we're Native? And then also there was a proposed cut for the only two tribal health positions within the Department of Public Health and Human Services. And the same questions were being brought up among members of the American Indian Caucus. Why are you cutting these? Is it because we're Native? Or why is there pushback to a Native American Voting Rights Act? You know, things like that. It seems to be, from their perspective, targeted.

Sally Mauk There are so many issues that could be covered. You mentioned several in the Legislature. How are you deciding what issues you're going to highlight, what stories you're going to do?

Nora Mabie You know, it's kind of a mix. It comes from people telling me what they care about. The legislative session obviously provides a lot of stories when people are speaking up about bills that would pertain to them. But then there's so many inspiring stories in Native communities of hope and resilience that I think sometimes can be overlooked. And so when I see something like that, like a Blackfeet tribal elder who was just honored in her community or a Fort Belknap woman who had just started her own business to help people navigate health care. Covering those stories really means a lot to people because it allows Native communities to be more accurately represented and not just constantly having coverage focused on trauma. And then I think people are really grateful because they finally are getting the recognition that they deserve.

Sally Mauk That's a key word, isn't it, Gwen, that she just used accuracy? That's what's been missing, I think.

Gwen Florio I think so.

And Nora, you just answered the next question I was going to ask, which is what you'd like to see more of in terms of coverage of tribal communities in general. Obviously, you're just one person. There are a lot of newspapers in the state and a lot of news organizations. What would you like to see everybody doing more of?

Nora Mabie I think there has to be more diversity in the reporting when we cover Native communities. While issues of missing and murdered Native people or how COVID has disproportionately impacted Native communities are so important and those do deserve coverage.

I think there are so many other stories in Native communities that deserve coverage as well, whether that would be, you know, positive stories or stories of high school graduates or how students were navigating remote learning, things like that. I think we're really missing that because sometimes I think we only cover a story about Native communities because they're Native, but we don't cover them in the same way that we're covering white communities where we see something newsworthy or a high school graduation, we want to cover that. So I think we really do need to have more reporting, focusing on a lot of different topics that are important to people, not just the hot-button issues of trauma or things like that.

Gwen Florio I think what I'm hearing you say is covering Native communities as communities, you know, not specifically Native.

Nora Mabie Yeah.

Sally Mauk You started a newsletter, Nora, called Eight Nations that readers can subscribe to. I assume you just outlined your hope for that newsletter.

Nora Mabie Yes, the newsletter, in it, you know, people will hear from Indigenous community members or leaders and artists. And my main hope with it is to continue to amplify Indigenous voices and represent them as communities, as Gwen kind of just said. And then also for me to continue to earn that trust and build those relationships in those communities. And the newsletter has a section called Join the Conversation, which is dedicated to having meaningful discussions about Native communities and topics that are important to people. And so I'm hoping that will really help educate the public as well as just have further discussion on these communities and why it's important to cover them accurately.

Sally Mauk Nora and, Gwen, we're out of time. Thank you both so much.

Do you have a comment or suggestion for a future show? Contact Sally Mauk at sally.mauk@mtpr.org.

Parsing the Press is a weekly look at how the news is reported, featuring journalist and novelist Gwen Florio and Montana Public Radio's Sally Mauk. Listen on MTPR Fridays at 7:50 a.m., or find it wherever you get your podcasts.

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