Indigenous Journalists: Two Provocative Provinces, Worlds Apart


The problems of indigenous journalists in the South Pacific and those of Native Alaskans are surprisingly similar, yet there are also marked differences. A comparison of these two remote journalistic provinces is provocative and may provide insight for better coping with extremes in the fight for self-determination in remote areas.

Originally, indigenous people of both regions had diverse languages, religions, economies, and cultures. Some were socialist, others capitalist. While missionaries invaded both realms, they arrived later in Alaska. Rather than `warring for souls' as they did in the South Seas, rival churches formally divided up the northern land (Baptists colonized the central coast, the Methodists colonized the Aleutians, etc.). Most Pacific Island kingdoms had little choice but to ally with foreign nations that invaded their shores. Alaskans became allies, first with the Russians who `discovered' the territory and then with the United States when the Russian government sold the territory in 1867.

Alaskan Victory and New Problems Not Solved

Unlike most Pacific Island nations and American Indian bands elsewhere in the United States, Alaskan Natives had never surrendered, nor signed any treaties. In the mid-1960s, they began to fight for their land entitlement.

Few outsiders thought they would succeed because many Alaskan tribes had warred among themselves for centuries, they had no common language between them except for English which many spoke poorly or not at all, and white settlers made up four-fifths of the population and controlled the government. The mainstream press would not cover native issues, although indigenous Alaskans had the highest infant mortality rate in the world, sub-standard education, and virtually no economic opportunity.

Despite these obstacles, Native Alaskans managed to unite, communicating in English through a small native newspaper called Tundra Times which brought their problems to the attention of government officials and the public, forcing the mainstream press to cover them. In 1971, they won the largest land claims settlement the modern world had ever seen from the U.S. Congress. They received $1 billion in cash and clear title to a million acres of land to be shared among 55,000 people.

Today, the life span and infant mortality rates of Alaskan natives are almost on a par with the rest of the U.S. Educational scholarships and special programs for them abound and some native Alaskans have better economic opportunities than many white settlers. Yet all is not well in the Far North.

The federal land claims settlement was not distributed to individuals, but to 13 corporations of native stockholders, each representing a different region. Many have done fairly well economically and have considerable financial clout, but because these corporations were established to compete with each other under the capitalistic system, the once powerful native coalition in the state legislature is no longer a major political force. State resources are being withdrawn from rural areas which are still the heartland of native populations, and subsistence hunting, fishing rights, and native sovereignty are being compromised. The suicide rate for young native men is now several times higher than the national norm and almost as high in other native age groups. Native men also make up a disproportionately large percentage of Alaska's prison population. Alcoholism and fetal alcoholism syndrome-seldom a worry before there was economic opportunity-have become major problems. Native drop out rates are high and traditional skills and languages are rapidly dying. Many native youth appear without direction or guidance.

Compounding these social problems, many of the same native leaders who came to power through the hard-hitting, honest investigative reporting of their newspaper, Tundra Times, have become as anxious as white capitalists to avoid reporters now that they control well-funded native corporations and local governments. While leaders have embezzled funds from a number of native corporations and school boards and violence in native communities has reached an all-time high, negative stories about native communities are seldom reported by the native press.

During the period that the mainstream Anchorage Daily News won a Pulitzer for compiling statistics on the native suicide rate and alcohol abuse, a line count of Tundra Times in 1989 showed about 80% of its content featured public relations handouts. Because only positive news about native people was allowed, arrests and convictions of native leaders and other jarring news was usually left uncovered, although reported in the mainstream press. The Tundra Times' circulation and advertising lineage dropped, along with its credibility. It ceased publication last year. Public broadcasting stations in heavily populated native areas are currently controlled by native boards that seldom welcome aggressive investigative reporting nor have a budget or trained personnel for such work.

A South Sea Saga with a Different Twist

South Pacific Island nations suffered at the hands of government agents from Spain, France, Germany, England, Australia, and the U.S. Colonists exploited their resources in valued hardwoods, pearls, coconuts, minerals, guano, and human labor. Although colonial residents were always a minority, they totally controlled island governments, claimed most native land, and usurped the indigenous population's legal rights. Native health care and education were left mostly to the largesse of missionaries whose record is quixotic.

World War II caused a major economic slump in the Pacific economy and life in the war zone (the Solomons and the Philippines) was shattered. The armistice coincided with a severe drop in demand for island products. Colonialism became less lucrative and politically incorrect. One by one, foreign powers lowered their flags and declared their Pacific colonies independent. Today, there are 22 sovereign states and three territories distributed over 30 million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean.

At first, the new Pacific governments floated on foreign aid; generosity was encouraged by colonial investment and the islands' strategic military value during the Cold War. When investments soured and the military importance of this area declined with the threat of the Soviet Union, native leaders were left to sink or swim on their own. Generally handicapped by limited economic resources, they faced widespread poverty, illiteracy, massive health care problems, and escalated crime rates, while trying to establish a presence in Third World politics.

Subsequently, some of these tiny republics have amassed staggering national debts and moved to abridge personal freedoms (especially freedom of the press) that independence had been touted to foster. Some suffer the awkward embarrassment of reconciling the myth of democracy with a hierarchy of traditional chiefdoms, hidebound cast systems, and gross nepotism. There is graft, corruption, and-mismanagement, occasionally on an ambitious scale.

Before independence, colonists maintained heavy censorship over island media. Government control and censorship continued with independence and although indigenous residents were very much in the majority, major issues of interest to their rank and file were often left uncovered. Government censorship remains an issue. Since the withdrawal of foreign aid, however, many South Sea governments have found media sponsorship too expensive to maintain and gradually, private enterprise has filled the gap. Two years ago, reporters were jailed in Tonga and investigative journalists in Western Samoa, New Caledonia, and French Polynesia have fought legal action and personal threats.

A Brighter Future

A lack of well-trained indigenous journalists has hampered grassroots media efforts to make reporting more relevant, especially to rural constituents. Until recently, native journalists were unwelcome in mainstream media, therefore few natives trained for the profession, nor is it a popular professional choice for native youth today. Investigative reporting can be a thankless job where finger-pointing is culturally taboo-still the case in both the South Seas and the Far North. However, in the 1980s, the need for good local reporting became apparent to those who realized democracy could not function without an active free press. Many island nations secured foreign aid for journalism training programs. The University of the South Pacific and the University of Papua New Guinea began offering broad programs and the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) pioneered on-the-job training.

In the Far North, training impetus came from the Alaska Public Broadcasting Network which was well-established in the native heartland and from journalism departments at the University of Alaska that aggressively sought native students. In most cases, recruitment was slow because of the cultural biases against investigative journalism and because the profession was little-known among native communities. However, a few good indigenous journalists emerged from this era to serve as role models for the next generation.

In the mid-1990s, foreign governments began to loose interest in the South Pacific. The Pacific Island Press Association (PIPA), funded heavily through foreign aid, was declared financially insolvent in 1996 and many feared it would not be able to sustain its training programs. A year later, however, PINA rebounded with enthusiastic local backing and an impressive education program presented by local trainers. Island journalists who face increased encroachment on press freedoms as they gain journalistic skills, attended the annual PINA convention in record numbers, many paying their own way for the first time. And for good reason.

Driven by increasing literacy rates and a growing interest in voting that has been long overdue in the South Pacific, newspaper sales and audiences for electronic journalism are rapidly increasing. William Parkinson, President of PINA and the Managing Director of Communications Fiji Ltd. stated:

"The genie's been let out of the bottle. Government media is giving way to private enterprise...Private [media] businesses are able to become more viable. Governments are growing more confident about not having to run their own media. People start using media more. They come to value it and the governments are beginning to realize they can't push media around any more."

Coincidentally, a severe cut in government funding in the Far North during the mid 1990s also threatened media training programs and the need was addressed through private enterprise. When the Alaska Public Broadcast Network lost federal backing for its native media training program, the newly created native broadcast system, Koahnic Corporation took the program over. Koahnic, which produces `National Native News' and a nationally distributed health show for Native Americans, just obtained a major grant to continue Alaska training which includes a summer boot camp for high school journalism students, as well as on-the-job-training for native broadcasters throughout the state.

The Alaska Press Club in Anchorage, the state's major population center, has expanded its membership statewide, conducting monthly board meetings via phone. Its annual journalism competition has become well-respected. A yearly convention now features education programs of interest to reporters in rural areas and its newsletter provides a forum for native media issues.

Hopes are dim for reviving Tundra Times. "The idea of an advocacy paper is OK, but there's no sense in backing a weak invalid unless you can give it the resources to make it a really strong paper," explains Pat Petrivelli who served on the tabloid's board since 1993. "We would only restart it if it was a strong, viable paper that could do investigative reporting. But now there are other regional papers and TV, there is a forum to discuss native issues."

Unlike the bleak era when Tundra Times was founded in 1964, there are now privately owned regional media that tackle native issues. Koahnic's new native-owned television station, KNBA does not appear to have adopted a `goodnews only' policy. And although indigenous people still make up only one-fifth of Alaska's population, native journalists are making their way into mainstream media where good coverage of controversial issues-native and white-are the life's blood of competition.

Despite recent funding setbacks, or perhaps because of the challenge these setbacks have presented, interest in training native journalists is on the rise, both in the South Seas and the Far North. Momentum appears to increase as more indigenous journalists enter the field, providing exciting prospects for the future.


Anchorage Daily New, "People in Peril," Pulitzer Prize wining special series, 1989.

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Vete, Steve. 1996. Time to Act: The Pacific Response to HIV and AIDS. Suva, Fiji: United Nations.

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Interview with Pat Petrivelli, Tundra Times board member since 1993. April 2, 1998.

Interview with Anna Pickett, employee, then Editor of Tundra Times since 1979. April 1, 1998.

Interview with Nina Ratulete, Executive Director of Pacific Island Press Association. 1996, 1997.

Interview with Robert Hooper, Professor at Loyola Marymount University and a former Fulbright scholar to Fiji. 1996, 1997.

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Interview with Lewis Wolman, Samoa News, pago Pago, American Samoa. June 24, 1997.

Interview with John Lamani, Solomon Star Limited, honiora, Solomon Islands. July 15, 1997.

Interview with William Parkinson, President, Pacific Island news Association and Managing Director of Communications Fiji Limited. July 27, 1997.

Interview with Diane Kaplan, consultant to Cook Inlet Region Inc. April 10, 1998

Interview with Jaclyn Sallee, Executive Director of Koahnic's Native Training Center, formerly the Indigenous Broadcasting Network. April 7, 1998.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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