While most Americans have been guaranteed freedom of the press since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, one segment of the population won press freedom under the U.S. Constitution only 20 years ago. It is still in the throes of laying claim to it.
First Amendment rights did not extend to Indian reservations until 1968, when Congress passed the Indian Bill of Rights. Before that, not all tribal constitutions had free press provisions, and the Indian journalists faced an uphill battle to avoid censorship.In fact, the editor of the first American Indian newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix, which opened Feb. 21, 1828, in New Echota, Ga., resigned after four years rather than accept censorship from the Cherokee chief.
Journalists who gathered in Denver recently for a meeting of the Native American Press Association agreed that things haven't changed much in the 160 years since.
Poverty on the reservation has limited advertising revenue and forced tribes to underwrite all but 10 of the nation's 464 Indian newspapers and bulletins.
According to Richard LaCourse, a Yakima Indian writing a book on the Native American press, tribal leaders have fired editors for taking opposing sides in elections, have cut off newspaper funds, forced hiring of their unqualified relatives, and suppressed stories.
NAPA co-founder Tim Giago, who owns independent tribal newspapers in South Dakota and Minnesota, says the newspapers ought to be changed from subsidized, tribe-owned publications, and turned into profit-making ventures.
For the Native American press or any other to become truly free, the economic base must be strong enough to support it.
We applaud the efforts of American Indian journalists to serve their readers, and we support Indian reservations in their quest for economic strength.