Covering Indigenous Communities with Respect and Sensitivity

A smiling child who is hanging fish on a wooden structure. There is water nearby and mountains in the background.
This child is one of more than 150 from the Iñupiaq Alaskan village of Selawik who celebrated the natural history and cultural traditions of their homeland through the Selawik Science-Culture Camp in 2014. Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


In 2001, the U.S. Navy announced it was considering using the Stony Valley, one of my tribe’s most significant cultural sites, for a bombing range. The U.S. Army had once conducted war games in the valley, which is nestled in the Central California Coastal Ranges; however, they had reduced operations there and had begun to work with my tribe, the Xolon Salinan Tribe, in protecting the place our creation stories say we come from. This area contains many cultural and ecological treasures, and tribal leaders and others feared they would be damaged or destroyed.

However, some media outlets misreported—and even distorted—our objections to placing a 500-foot, red-and-white bull’s-eye on the valley floor to train pilots. Some outlets didn’t mention the tribe at all, while others denigrated our objections.

After efforts to dissuade the Navy, including protests at public meetings, the project was halted. Yet the incident took its toll: Subsequent tribal leaders retreated to a 150-year-long tradition of being silent about our 10,000-year-old culture, and they decided to quit interacting with media.

My tribe’s experience isn’t an isolated incident: Tribes and cultural practitioners frequently grapple with the issue of inaccurate information and incomplete stories. This has partially resulted from the historic reluctance of the science community to acknowledge the commonalities between their own disciplines and Indigenous sciences, including traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK, which is a tribal community’s accumulated knowledge of its lands, ecologies, biodiversity, and material culture.

Tristan Ahtone, board president of the Native American Journalists Association and a member of the Kiowa Tribe, sees coverage of Native issues getting better because, in his words, “there’s more of it.” However, Ahtone and many other Indigenous journalists agree that some reporters don’t dig deeply enough, fact-check, or check their own assumptions about Native peoples. They acknowledge that calling for such basic journalistic practices sounds like teaching Journalism 101 all over again—but the need to do so reflects the complex world that is Indian Country. The U.S. alone has several hundred Indigenous cultures with dozens of languages, tribal governments, ecologies, and histories of interaction with European colonial powers. Indeed, tribes aren’t homogenous, and this multitude of nations often requires more research than most other reporting beats.

One exciting development is the small but growing number of Western scientists who recognize the value of TEK and collaborate with tribal cultural practitioners to delve into the intersection of the two disciplines.

For example, historical ecologist Jared Dahl Aldern partnered with the North Fork Mono Tribe and its leader in Central California to demonstrate how TEK can be used to better manage fire-prone lands. The Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance of Canadian First Nations, whose lands lie along the Pacific coast, publishes in academic journals with its Western-scientist partners. And, the National Institutes of Health recently entered into a data-sharing agreement with the Navajo Nation which included respect for Navajo cultural beliefs.

These scientists acknowledge that TEK and other aspects of Indian culture are a valid resource for pursuing ecology and other areas of science.

This movement toward acknowledging the validity of Indigenous TEK has also opened a whole new world of editorial possibilities for science and environmental reporting. Despite past missteps, many journalists can and do cover the collaborations between Western scientists and Indigenous cultures with excellence. Having observed their work as a member of an Indigenous community, I’d like to share a few tricks of the Indigenous reporting trade.


Consult Indigenous Journalism and Subject-Matter Experts

When it comes to reporting, sources—people or otherwise—are our most precious commodity. I frequently ask the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, and the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals for referrals to Native scientists or technologists. The Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) also supports reporters with advice on reporting in Indian Country.

If your story involves tribal cultures and/or history, contact the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums or the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association for referrals to experts such as Native anthropologists, archaeologists, and Indigenous studies scholars.

These organizations have helped me locate many scientific experts. For example, when I was doing research about how ancestral land stewardship can help mitigate deadly, destructive wildfires in California, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society recommended I contact U.S. Forest Service biologist Frank Lake, a Karuk descendent.


Prioritize Cultural Sensitivity

Just as The Associated Press publishes an annual style guide for reporters, NAJA offers several reporting guides, including a how-to on evaluating the credentials of Indigenous cultural practitioners or cultural resource people in a tribal community. In fact, AP incorporated some of NAJA’s suggestions in its latest guide. The late Cree scholar and editor Gregory Younging published the book Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples in 2018, which its publisher calls “the first published guide to common questions and issues of style and process.” Although most of the book is specific to Canadian First Nations, the principles—including a guide to offensive or insensitive terms to avoid, and case studies of culturally sensitive reporting as examples to follow—apply to all Indigenous coverage.

Being sensitive to cultural protocols in tribal communities can sometimes be a challenge for journalists who haven’t yet reported in Indian Country. For example, the NAJA singled out a recent NPR story about a court challenge to the federal Indian Child Welfare Act as “inaccurate and imprecise.” The story not only contained inaccurate information about the child at the heart of the lawsuit but also failed to clarify the child’s status as a tribal citizen, and even contained what many Indigenous people consider racist speech. This is just one example of why it’s important to determine proper protocols when reporting on tribal communities.

Doing deep research before you approach a community can pay off. Aldern, the historical ecologist, says reporters and other scientists ask him for advice about how he formed a successful partnership with a tribe. He says much of his success has stemmed from his advance preparation. He learned what he could about North Fork Mono Tribe’s history, culture, and tribal protocols before approaching leadership. “You wouldn’t walk into the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and say, ‘I want to learn how to build a rocket,’” Aldern says, “unless you have the training and education.”

Aldern also says that knowing one’s boundaries is vital. “You need to be ready for the answer to be ‘no,’” particularly when asking about sensitive tribal cultural information like exact locations of sensitive cultural sites, he says. When Aldern first approached the North Fork Mono Tribe in 2009, he knew of the tribal chairman’s reputation for turning away those who hadn’t done their homework. Aldern showed tribal leaders that he had done his research and respected their boundaries. After careful relationship building over several years—including being turned away a couple of times—Aldern has now written several in-depth papers, in partnership with the tribe’s chairman, about the tribe’s ecological stewardship.


More Reporting, Better Reporting Highlight Recent Coverage

Even though some tribes still express reluctance to engage with media, Indigenous media experts see improvement. Ahtone, the associate editor for tribal affairs at High Country News, has an answer for how reporting on Indian Country can become even more accurate and engrossing, and possibly also how to persuade reluctant tribal members to engage with the media—increase coverage of tribal communities. In a recent article about HCN’s tribal coverage, Ahtone wrote, “Our aim is to avoid inaccurate representations of Indigenous life, and to recognize a rich and complicated network of cultures, subcultures, political points of view, religious persuasions, sexual and gender identities, creation stories, histories and aspirations—to name a few.”

That sentiment could serve as a guide for any reporter wishing to report on Indigenous communities with both sensitivity and high journalistic standards.

Because of other reporters’ failure to follow these standards, my own tribal leaders still turn reporters away nearly 20 years after the negative coverage regarding the Stony Valley bombing range protest, but I’m hopeful for future openness on their part, as they do offer comment here and there, upon my request, for stories involving traditional Salinan culture.

I’m also hopeful that by conducting deep research, being willing to leave assumptions at the door, and understanding cultural boundaries, reporters outside the Indigenous community can grow their knowledge and skill sets to report on Indigenous communities so that tribes like mine don’t feel the need to go underground again.

After all, we all have the responsibility to get the story right.




Debra Utacia Krol Craig Smith

Debra Utacia Krol is an enrolled member of the Xolon Salinan Tribe, whose ancestral lands lie in the Coast Ranges and portions of the Salinas Valley of Central California. Krol reports on Indigenous issues as well as general environmental topics. Her work has appeared in High Country News, The Revelator, HuffPost, VICE News, KCET/Link, and many other outlets. She is a member of the Native American Journalists Association and the Society of Environmental Journalists and is currently serving as the regional director for Region 11 of the Society of Professional Journalists. You can find her on Twitter @debkrol.

Skip to content