Native Americans are People, Not Animals or Objects

Former KQDS-TV news director Jason Vincent may not have realized he was channeling Lt. Richard Pratt at the time, but Vincent was when he posted a rant on his Facebook page calling a Native American man an animal. In 1898, Pratt wrote in the Carlisle Indian Helper (school newspaper for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School), “when we agree with the oft-repeated sentiment that the only good Indian is a dead one, we mean this characteristic of the Indian. Carlisle’s mission is to kill THIS Indian, as we build up the better man.”

So it seems that Vincent was in agreement when he wrote on his Facebook page, “Add drunk, homeless, Native American man to the list of animals that have wandered into my yard… Then he proceed to wave at me and give me the peace sign when he spotted me in the window. Wow…”What makes Vincent’s comment even more egregious is that he claims to be part Native himself.

Just when so many of my students claim there are no more race problems in America, we see issues such as this on the rise again. This isn’t the first attack against Native American images in the past few years; it is only one of the latest. The idea of the Native as an animal was resurrected a few years ago with the popular Twilight series – the idea that Native men can transform themselves into hairy, snarling animals, giving the illusion that Natives are less than human. The idea seems to be catching on.

The Native American Journalists Association issued a statement decrying the Vincent incident and two other recent words/works by journalists that defames Native Americans. NAJA called on journalists to be more careful in both their reporting and the casual comments that may go before readers/viewers/listeners.

“The character of the (Vincent) comments falls far short of the standards that NAJA expects of journalists, both in the mainstream and tribal media,” the NAJA statement reads. “Our organization supports the Duluth’s station general manager’s decision to accept Vincent’s resignation from his position this week.”

In the same statement, NAJA officials cited Matt Lauer who jokingly calling Meredith Viera an “Indian giver” on the Today Show. NAJA officials said the term “invokes a stereotype and inaccuracy about our history that is offensive to Native people. It should not be used on a national news program, even in a passing reference. NAJA asks that NBC and Lauer apologize for the comment.”

So far, there has been no response from either Lauer or NBC.

NAJA also cautioned reporters to be careful when delving into the controversial human rights case out of Rapid City, S.D. involving a Cheyenne River Sioux elder, Vern Traversie. The elder has post-surgical scars on his body which the AP used to liken the elder’s supporters as stanch believers of “spotting the Madonna in a water stain.” Los Angeles Times columnist John M. Glionna used a similar image, this time saying the image was in a taco shell or tree trunk. “When reporting on Native American issues like this, journalists and media outlets should be mindful of the context of what is being reported,” the NAJA statement reads. “Comparing Traversie’s scars to a vision of the Virgin Mary have the potential to dehumanize the situation.”

[Correction: The above paragraph originally referenced "Rapid City, N.D." The city is in South Dakota.]

Native Americans are people, not animals or objects. Journalists need to remember this and act accordingly. As it states in our SPJ Code of Ethics:

• Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.
• Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
• Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.
• Give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid.

Any journalist who has a question about how to accurately cover Native Americans should call NAJA at (405) 325-9008.

Vincent who was the news director of Fox 21 in the Duluth, Minnesota, resigned on August 17. The station issued an apology and Vincent also apologized on
Facebook.

Rebecca Tallent is a member of the SPJ Diversity Committee.  She’s an associate professor of journalism at the University of Idaho and an award-winning business and environmental reporter in her previous life.  Her current academic research involves Native American news media.  She is of Cherokee heritage. 

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  • Betty Nyasembi

    I agree with NAJA officials that Journalists should be careful about what they report about people, as it could be very offensive. I also believe that if Native Americans were to be “animals”, they could have been in the “zoo” by now. We should watch whatever we say to others; each individual is unique in its own way.


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