Treading Lightly on the Reservation

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Even for an experienced reporter, gathering the news on an Indian reservation poses unique challenges. For a white reporter on Indian land, Indian sovereignty can sometimes mean, "Shut up and listen."

SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

Earlier this month, NPR's Martin Kaste reported from Washington state on the Makah Indian tribe's cultural ties to whale-hunting and a controversial hunt that took place last year.

As with all of Kaste's stories from Indian country, this one found him treading lightly. Here's his reporter's notebook.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man (Makah Indian): (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

MARTIN KASTE: Just 10 minutes ago, the man singing this Makah prayer song was yelling at me. He dropped the F-bomb, if memory serves. It was a sudden eruption. He'd been telling me the tale of a whale-hunting ancestor of his, and I'd interrupted him.

I just wanted to clarify something: Was he talking about his grandfather or his great-grandfather? It was the kind of interrupting I always do, just routine fact-checking as we go. Most people take it in stride, but not this man. One moment he's telling a tale in reverent tones, and the next he's yelling at me to shut the F up and listen.

Now we're down on the beach, and he's singing this song as if nothing happened. I'm still stunned. I hold my microphone with freezing fingers, wondering how long this is going to go on, but there's no way I'm stopping him to find out. I'll just let him sing while I take in the view of the North Pacific and the looming wall of mountains over on Vancouver Island.

This is all just another reminder that when I'm on Indian land, I'm not the one making the rules. A couple of years ago, I was reporting on the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon, and I asked to record the sound of a burial prayer. Not only did they say no, they told me they were offended that I'd even asked.

Now this Makah man, the man who just yelled at me, has volunteered to sing his prayer into my microphone. The point here is not that Indians are somehow inconsistent. Everybody's inconsistent. Everybody has different ideas about what's sacred. The point is about me. I feel less sure-footed when I'm on Indian land.

Even when I was reporting from foreign countries, I felt the rules were clearer. Do I have a guilt complex about our painful shared history? Yeah, that's probably part of it, but it's more basic than that. Over the years, the courts have gone back and forth about the exact meaning of Indian tribal sovereignty, but for a white reporter working on Indian land, it's pretty simple. Sovereignty means shut up and listen.

Unidentified Man (Makah Indian): (Speaking foreign language).

STAMBERG: NPR's Martin Kaste.

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