Wisdom Watch: Veteran Journalist Beats The Odds
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, music from the Morehouse College Glee Club. But first, it's time for our Wisdom Watch. That's the part of the program where we talk to people who have made a difference through their work and have wisdom to share.
Today, a journalism pioneer: Tim Giago. In his career, he's weathered everything from death threats to indifference about the importance of a free and unbiased media.
Despite it all, he has started important media organizations that are dedicated to serving the public at large and Native Americans in particular.
Giago is the founder and first president of the Native American Journalist Association, and in 1981, he founded the Lakota Times, the only independent, Indian-owned weekly newspaper in the state of South Dakota.
The paper is now known as Indian Country Today and is considered the largest independent, Indian-owned newspaper in the country. And now, Tim Giago is at it again. He's starting a new weekly newspaper, the Native Sun News. It debuts today, and Tim Giago joins us now. Welcome. Thank you for speaking with us.
Mr. TIM GIAGO (Journalist): Hello.
MARTIN: So I have to say, a new newspaper in this economy. What do you know that the rest of us don't know?
Mr. GIAGO: Well you know, it's tough, but if people think that recession is tough in America, they should try living on an Indian reservation, where it's almost always that way.
Reservations are isolated. You know, the Pine Ridge Reservation is 100 miles long and 50 miles wide. It is still one of the poorest counties in America, and a lot of the people on a reservation can't not only not afford a computer, but they sure can't afford to even pay the monthly Internet fees to keep it going.
So the majority of my readers are going to be those people who read papers the old-fashioned way. They go down to the local store, they buy their paper, they take it home and pour themselves a cup of coffee and sit down and read it.
And I think it's a really erroneous assumption for most Americans to believe that everybody is hooked into the Internet because out here in Indian country, that's not the case at all.
MARTIN: What made you catch the news bug? Were you one of those nosey little kids who was always listening to the adult conversation?
Mr. GIAGO: No, it was kind of an odd thing. I was attending college at the University of Nevada in Reno, and I was taking a political science course. And one day, they took us down to the courthouse on a Monday morning, and this was in early 1960, I believe.
And I was really appalled to see about 25 Native Americans from the local Paiute tribes brought up and stand before the judge, and the judge tried them and sentenced them as one person, and most of the charges against them were being out after midnight, when the curfew against Indians set in, and Indians had to be off the street by midnight.
And so I thought this is really an injustice, and what can I do in my life to try to bring about some changes? And I thought the best way to do it was to be able to have a voice and to give the Native American people a voice, which at that particular time they sure didn't have.
MARTIN: I'm sorry, this whole curfew thing is - I'm still trying to process a curfew aimed at a particular group of people who are not juvenile. So this applied to Indian people regardless of age. This isn't if you're 16, you have to be off, you have to be home?
Mr. GIAGO: That's right.
MARTIN: So the kind of segregation that we associate with the American South aimed at African-Americans was also the way of life?
Mr. GIAGO: I think it's probably one of America's best-kept secrets that what African-American people suffered throughout the years in the South, in a lot of instance we're still suffering the same prejudice here in South Dakota.
MARTIN: So you saw this, and you said you know, we need a newspaper, too because - well, presumably you knew that these things were going on, and your neighbors and your family and people in your community knew these things were going on. Was it that you felt that even Native American people didn't understand the full picture of what they were experiencing as a community, or you felt that it was a way to tell the larger world about what was going on?
Mr. GIAGO: We understood it completely, but the problem was we had no access to the media. I mean, the local media never called on us to ask our opinions about anything. The only news you ever saw about Native Americans is what some of the local media found out when they went down to the courthouse on Monday morning and reported crimes and, you know, nefarious things that happened among the Indian people.
That was the sum total of news on American Indians back then.
MARTIN: So no high school graduations, no triumphs, no scholastic awards - none of that.
Mr. GIAGO: You know, that - Michel, that's one of the things that bothered me the most is that all I ever saw in the media - not just in South Dakota, but, you know, in states with large Indian populations, all I ever saw growing up was negative news. I mean, there were a lot of good stories going on that not only the Native American people never heard about, but a lot of the non-Indians in South Dakota never heard of.
MARTIN: So, the newspaper - you've been subjected to death threats. The Lakota Times had its window shot out with shotguns on three separate occasions. There were firebombs directed at the building. Why? Why all the hostility?
Mr. GIAGO: Well, you know, when I started the paper on the Pine Ridge Reservation, we were just coming out of a very terrible conflict on the reservation. We'd had the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, and it fractionalized a lot of the people on the reservation, sometimes even pitting father against daughter, mother against son. And when I started the paper, one of the things I wanted to do was to have a strong editorial page that pointed out some of the violence and how much harm it was for violence to be between Indian against Indian, and I used the editorial page to condemn acts of violence. And unfortunately, some of the violence I saw on the reservation were being perpetrated by the American Indian Movement, who were very strong on the reservation back then.
MARTIN: So some of the violence directed at you was inside the community, not outside in.
Mr. GIAGO: It was totally from the inside, and one of the people who was a target for a long time was the president of the Oglala Sioux tribe during the AIM occupation in '73, and his name was Dick Wilson. And I think I'm probably still bothered by the fact that this man was villainized without no one ever talking about the good things he'd done when he was the president of the tribe.
MARTIN: How did you get through that period? I mean, here you are doing something that you feel is for the benefit of the community, and you're being targeted because of it. How did you get through it?
Mr. GIAGO: You know, I think there was such a fear on the reservation, people were terrified of some of the violence that was taking place. And one day, an elderly lady from my community, the Pejuta Haka district of Kyle, wrote a letter to the editor. It was one of the first letters we published. And she said I've known Tim since he was a little boy, and if he has the courage to speak up, we all should have the courage. And after that, we started getting a lot of letters supporting us, but it took that one elderly Lakota woman to bring that up.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with journalism veteran pioneer, Tim Giago. He is the founder of a new newspaper, The Native Sun News. It debuts today. What will The Native Sun News offer that existing institutions do not, including the ones that you founded, which are still going on?
Mr. GIAGO: Well, you know, the people on my staff primarily are Lakota people, and we know our own people. Like, if I had to do an obituary and I see someone that I have known all my life had died, I can add something to that obituary that that a funeral home can't because I knew this person as an individual. I knew their nicknames. I knew some of the members of their family. So we can bring that personal thing that only someone who has been there and lived there and know the people can write upon.
MARTIN: To my next question, because sometimes people don't want to be known all that well, you know what I mean? Sometimes people don't want their full dimensions to be known, and this is always a question for targeted media, I think, is how do you draw the line between wanting to offer a corrective to the distortions that you sometimes see in general audience media? You know what I mean? Where you feel like you're only depicted in a certain way or in a narrow way, and the cheerleading that sometimes a community wants - I mean, sometimes people, they only want to be seen in a certain light and don't appreciate it when you tell the truth about the full picture. Right? How do you balance that? How do you think that through?
Mr. GIAGO: Well, you know, I think probably the Native American people enjoy being in something they consider to be their own, and they know that we approach this with the sensitivity that is built into ourselves. We know how to be respectful. And I think probably a good example of that is many years ago, I worked for the Rapid City Journal as a reporter and I was asked to go down and do a story on Chief Fools Crow.
Well, I knew Chief Fools Crow from the time I was a child because his allotment land was right next to ours, Three Mile Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation. And my father gave Fools Crow his very first horse, and when they were boys they used to ride together across the reservation. So I sat down with him and I did what I would do as a Lakota person. I took him a pound of coffee. I took him some tobacco as gifts, and after he had his coffee and smoked a cigarette, and then he talked with me. And when I got back to the office and I turned in my expense report and it showed coffee…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GIAGO: …I mean, my editor…
MARTIN: I know where this is going.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GIAGO: He chewed me up one side and down the other until I finally explained to him that this is cultural. And so there's a vast gap in the local people's knowledge of what is cultural and traditional among our people.
MARTIN: Yes, but there's also this question of the airing dirty laundry piece. I mean, this is something that is discussed within, say, African-American oriented media when there are issues within the community that need airing and sometimes people don't want it aired. Has that ever happened to you?
Mr. GIAGO: Well, I think that within the Native community, we have things that we have to report sometimes that are unpleasant, and we go ahead and do our story just as any newspaper would do it. And we get responses sometimes that are angry at us for doing the story, but if we find corruption within the tribal government, we'll write about it. And we've done articles sometimes that even opened up the door for investigators to come in and actually arrest people.
MARTIN: To that point, the trajectory for many journalists of color has been to start out in ethnic media and then move to so-called general audience outlets. You've done that, too. You've gone back and forth from media targeted at your community and then also working general audience, as we've discussed. How do you talk to young journalists about that? Do you wish that more Native American journalists would stay in ethnic media? Or do you feel like you just got to do what's best for you as an individual? How do you talk that through with the young folks that you mentor and work with?
Mr. GIAGO: Well, there's a lot of journalists out there right now that came through at the Lakota Times and my Indian Country Today newspaper that are working in the mainstream. But they found their comfort level working among their own people, so that they when they finally went into the newsroom of a mainstream newspaper or radio station or television station, they were comfortable with themselves. And I think that's probably what I stress most to the young native journalists that, you know, you've got to find your own comfort zone. And sometimes working amongst your own people you learn the rudiments of journalism from teachers and mentors who are from your environment, it makes you understand the media and the acceptance of some of the stories you're going to do a heck of a lot better.
MARTIN: Are you disappointed when a journalist leaves to go to another paper?
Mr. GIAGO: Oh, well, when you spend a lot of time and money training a journalist, especially a person who's extremely gifted, you hate to lose them. But you can't stand in their way, and so you pat them on the back and shake their hand and wish them the best of luck. And, you know, too often - and I'm sorry to even say this - but I find that good Indian journalists go into the mainstream and find out that they aren't able to do a lot of the stories they did when they were worked for a small Indian newspaper, that there's a lot of restrictions placed on the - some of the articles that they want to do. Because I know I found that out myself when I was working in the mainstream then.
I felt that I had a - maybe a special understanding of things happening on the reservations, and I was assigned to cover the county courthouse and things that I was totally unfamiliar with. So you fight really hard when you're in the mainstream media to be able to do the stories that you think are going to benefit your own people, but you're too often denied the opportunity to do that.
MARTIN: Tim Giago is the founder of The Lakota Times, Indian Country Today, The Dakota Journal. He is also the founder of a new newspaper The Native Sun News, which debuts today. He joined us from Rapid City, South Dakota. Mr. Giago, thank you so much for joining us, and good luck to you.
Mr. GIAGO: Thank you.