And what journalists (and NFL team owners) can learn from a fictional show about accuracy when it comes to Native Americans (VIDEO)
I became a fan of A&E’s “Longmire” when I learned one of my favorite former soap hunks had landed a starring role on the modern day western/crime drama. Bailey Chase, with his sparkling blue eyes and chiseled good looks, pulled me in but he isn’t why I continue to watch “Longmire.”
What keeps me watching is the way the show authentically (for the most part) portrays Native Americans, which can be instructive to those of us in news media.
Based on the Walt Longmire books written by Craig Allen Johnson, the show is based in Wyoming and stars Lou Diamond Phillips. Phillips, who is part Cherokee, portrays Henry Standing Bear on the series. Turns out, Henry is based on the show’s real life technical advisor, Marcus Red-Thunder. Red-Thunder, who grew up among the northern Cheyenne Indian people in southeastern Montana, has been praised for adding a level of realness to the show that is rare in today’s media landscape, especially on television where Native American actors are underrepresented and Native American stereotype is often over-represented in film and television. Stereotypes are also prevalent in advertising and news media and Native Americans are also underrepresented in journalism. (Native American women journalists alone have declined to just 38 percent today from 51 percent in 2000, according to a survey released by the Women’s Media Center earlier this year.)
With the exception of Wab Kinew, a correspondent for Al Jazeera, there is no other Native American on network or cable television news, said independent journalist Mark Trahant, who is also the former president of the Native American Journalists Association.
“Here we are in 2014 and when there’s a major story, none of the cable networks turn to Native journalists,” said Trahant, referring to coverage of the controversy erupting around the name of Washington, DC’s national league football team.
“If they do get somebody on camera, they go to an activist. Activists are important, I don’t want to diminish them, but journalists can say things that activists can’t say,” continued Trahant, who is a member of Idaho’s Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. “They can say here’s what’s working, here’s what’s not working. Here are the pluses and minuses, and that is just completely missing from the coverage right now.”
Now that American Indians are in the mainstream news more than usual, and not just because of that certain football team, it’s important that journalists report on this community as accurately, and authentically, as possible. This task would be much easier if more Native American journalists were inside US newsrooms, but as I wrote in the previous paragraph, that just isn’t the case. Hiring and consulting with people like Marcus Red-Thunder, is one way A&E is getting it right; news media can follow suit, Trahant said.
Besides employing more Native Americans, Trahant suggests news organizations look to journalists, such as himself, who cover Native issues and Native voices regularly. Trahant blogs at trahantreports, where he’s written extensively about how the Affordable Care Act impacts American Indians. He also pointed to three other sources journalists can use to improve their coverage on Native communities:
- IndianCountryNews.com and
- “100 Questions, 500 Nations: A Guide to Covering Native America,” which is available via Google Books and Amazon for less than $10.
Meanwhile, Trahant and I both recommend fellow journalists check out A&E’s “Longmire.” It’s fiction, but at least you get to learn about Native customs and a bit more about this country’s narrative, a narrative that started with American Indians.
While the small community where the fictional show takes place has way too much crime compared to what happens in real reservation towns, and the series often trades nuance for the dramatic – hey, it’s a crime drama – at least it tries hard to stay true to Native customs, “and Longmire adds a lot of topical elements,” Trahant said. “If nothing else, it’s just great to see Native Americans on screen. It’s just so rare.”
“Longmire’s” airs tonight on the A&E network at 10/9c.