ICT at 40: 'We Reported Like Indians, from the Ground Up'

Mark Trahant*
Republished with authors permission from ICT, July 9, 2021, https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/ict-at-40-we-reported-like-indians-from-the-ground-up.

Forty years ago the Lakota Times rolled off the press in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, published by Tim Giago. That paper became Indian Country Today in 1992. Later it was the Indian Country Today Media Network, owned by the Oneida Indian Nation. It became a magazine and a daily website. Then in 2017 the publication was shuttered, at least temporarily, and the assets were given to the National Congress of American Indians. And by 2018 Indian Country Today was back in business with a tiny crew of three people.

This March ICT’s ownership changed again. Indian Country Today (or ICT4 as we call it internally) is now independent and owned by IndiJ Public Media, an Arizona not for profit corporation, led by Karen Michel, Ho-Chunk.

“While working as a reporter for the Rapid City Journal, I was bothered by the fact that although I had been born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, I was seldom given an opportunity to do news stories about the people of the reservation,” wrote Giago in a 2005 article in Nieman Reports. “One editor told me that I would not be able to be objective in my reporting. I replied, ‘All of your reporters are white. Are they objective when covering the white community.’”

Giago said by the spring of 1981 he knew he had to start a newspaper at Pine Ridge. The first office was in a former beauty shop. “It seems strange now but when our newspaper hit the stands,” he wrote, “we became the only independently owned Indian weekly newspaper in America.”

The newspaper company was successful by several metrics. It went on to win hundreds of reporting awards from regional and Native press associations. And Giago said investigations from the newspaper “caused banks to be fined and rip-offs of the tribal government to be halted … Lakota Times proved that freedom of the press could not only succeed in Indian Country but that it can make a major difference in the way news is covered on the Indian reservations of America.”

Over the years the Lakota Times expanded its reach. “Even though we eventually had news coverage from all nine Indian reservations in South Dakota, we always considered them to be one community. All of us grew up in the same fashion, which meant we lived in poverty and shared many of the same difficulties,” Giago wrote.

Then in 1992, “to reflect its national circulation,” the Lakota Times became Indian Country Today. The national map was expanded with bureaus in Washington, D.C., Spokane and Albuquerque, as well as financial support from the Gannett Foundation (now the Freedom Forum) and The New York Times.

The paper’s offices moved to Rapid City in 1989 and by 1999 the circulation was reported as reaching 50,000 copies with a pass-along readership that topped six figures. 

Three themes emerged in the early years of Lakota Times and Indian Country Today: An honest accounting of the boarding school experience (so relevant now); an exploration of the mascot issue and its impact on Native people; and a strident challenge to the work of the American Indian Movement. 

And like any publication, Indian Country Today earned both praise and criticism for its writing.

Giago had a longtime feud with Chuck Trimble, Oglala Lakota. Trimble had been an editor in Denver and was executive director of the American Indian Press Association (before he moved on to the National Congress of American Indians). Both men attended Holy Rosary Mission School and for many years Giago (and a lot of us) thought Trimble was the secret author of a newsletter, Lakota TIM (or Truth In Media). 

Giago complained that Trimble wrote a column about him that was “a mixture of lies and half-truths disguised as fact. It is too bad that a man with such a good record as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians should sink so low as to air his vicious, personal attacks upon someone he has known all of his life.”

But Trimble in 2012 revealed that he edited Lakota TIM but it’s author was mostly a politician, Shirley Plume, Oglala Lakota. “Her new single-page journal ... would be authored by Lakota persons under the nom de plume of ‘Iktomi.’ Like its legendary namesake, Iktomi used satire with humor and self-deprecation in their rollicking crusade,” Trimble wrote. “ Lakota TIM* had a limited press run which was mailed to only several members of the then-Native American Press Association (NAPA); but it usually got a much wider circulation via fax from there on. Sending it to his peers, it was hoped, would put pressure on Giago himself to be more fair and truthful.”

What’s missing from that narrative is that Shirley Plume is also Chuck’s sister (and gatherer of gossip.)

The feud ended by the time of Trimble's death in March 2020. Giago wrote that Trimble's "passing has left a big hole in the field of Native American journalism."

Tim Giago’s legacy

The impact of ICT founder Giago is remarkable. Many publications have significant ties to Giago and the original ICT. Giago’s latest venture, Native Sun News, as well as the Lakota Journal, and the Lakota Times (which had been Lakota Country Times until a couple of years ago).

Avis Little Eagle, who worked with Giago at Lakota Times, later edited the Teton Times in McLaughlin, South Dakota. While at Lakota Times, Little Eagle wrote a ten-part series on fake medicine men. She also suggested the name, “Indian Country Today.”

Indeed Giago has retired several times. When he sold Indian Country Today to the Oneida Indian Nation’s Standing Stone Media, Inc., he cited retirement as a goal. But soon after he started another newspaper at Pine Ridge.

"I made a mistake, I think, in selling it," Giago told American Journalism Review. He was 65 years old. "So I decided to start another one." 

Then 10 years ago Giago announced his retirement from Native Sun News. “I may retire from the news business,” Giago wrote in a column, “but certainly not from life.”

He credited his mentor, Rupert Costo, Cahuilla, the legendary editor of the national publication, Wassaja, based in San Francisco. “Rupert could be a hard man with strong opinions, but he was a man who had the courage of his convictions and he pounded that sense of standing up for the rights of others into my head.”

Last month at 87, Giago again reached for the gold watch. He wrote in June that he was going to retire from the business in July. “For more than 40 years I have worn the visor and the arm garters of an editor and publisher. I am proud of the many newspapers I have published all of those years, but it is time for a new generation of Native journalists and editors to take over,” he wrote. Giago’s birthday is July 12.

One legacy, which literally means a gift to the next generation, was the 1990 Year of Reconciliation led by Giago and South Dakota Gov. George Mickleson. Mickelson proclaimed 1990 as the "Year of Reconciliation," leading to the proclamation for a "Century of Reconciliation." And, at Giago’s request, Mickelson and the Legislature established Native American Day in October. It was the only state to celebrate it rather than Columbus Day.

A shift to New York

Indian Country Today was sold to the Oneida Indian Nation and its company, Standing Stone Media, Inc., in 1998. That venture included a magazine, “This Week in Indian Country.” An active website, and the framework for a broader news network, Indian Country Today Media Network. The venture also lost a lot of money. 

As Mary Annette Pember, Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe, wrote in Columbia Journalism Review: “From the beginning, the news organization was mostly a losing financial proposition for the Oneida Nation — part vanity project, part desire to influence movers and shakers in Washington. However, while I’ve never spoken with Halbritter or leaders of the Oneida Nation, I think ICTMN was also a genuine source of ethnic pride for them. Rather than being misquoted and overlooked by the media, Indians were finally part of setting the news agenda.”

There was a lot of remarkable journalism that took place during Oneida’s ownership. Tim Johnson and Jose Barreiro teamed up to broaden the scope of coverage, expanding the Indigenous world beyond U.S. borders. The paper staffed and covered the United Nations including the development of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Indian Country Today’s print magazine started and ended publication a couple of times (magazines are expensive) but starting in 2013 the publication was largely online. At one point ICTMN had a New York City office and a team that was meant to establish the publication as a player in national media. 

ICT produced a “best of” book in 2005, “America is Indian Country,” repurposing some of the writings, photography and cartoon.

Three current employees of ICT worked for the Oneida venture: Vincent Schilling, Akwesasne Mohawk and associate editor; Heather Donovan, ICT’s advertising director; and Pember, national correspondent.

“We reported like Indians, from the ground up,” Pember wrote. “We spoke to the aunties, cousins, grandparents and kids who do the business of living in Indian communities. Jacqui Banaszynski, former Knight Chair in editing at the Missouri School of Journalism and fellow at the Poynter Institute, once described great journalists as wing walkers, those air-show barnstormers who wandered the edges of airplanes mid-flight. ICTMN editors urged us to walk way the hell out.”

Perhaps the most important legacy was the ICTMN coverage of Standing Rock. As Pember wrote: “ ICTMN supported Jenni Monet of the Pueblo of Laguna as she reported tirelessly from the Water Protector camps near Standing Rock, and received the Paul Tobenkin Memorial Award for her coverage.”

Another cool thing from the Standing Stone Media era was the American Indian Visionary Awards. In 2006, for example, the paper gave that award to Hank Adams, “the lifelong activist who negotiated peaceful ends to some of the most dangerous standoffs in modern Indian history, is the 2006 recipient of Indian Country Today’s American Indian Visionary Award.”

Other award winners were Billy Frank, Jr., in 2004 and Vine Deloria, Jr., in 2005.

This award represented a window into the brilliance of Indigenous leaders. (So easy to do when you think of the chiefs of the 19th century … but the 20th century experience was just as rich.)

As the award announcement read: “Adams was a crucial  behind-the-scenes figure in practically every scene of the militant Indian revival of the last four decades. He is best known in the history books for his negotiations with the White House to resolve the takeover of the BIA building in Washington in 1972 during the Trail of Broken Treaties protest and to wind down the 10-week siege of Wounded Knee in 1973. Both incidents could have caused untold casualties, but his ability to gain the confidence of both sides is credited with keeping bloodshed to a minimum.”

Giago said he regretted selling Indian Country Today and claimed that the publication avoided its critics. “In the 13 years Ray Halbritter has owned Indian Country Today, the newspaper has never published a letter, a column or a news report that was critical of him, the Nation, or the newspaper. And that my friend, is known in the newspaper business as censorship,” Giago wrote in a January 2011 column. “How do I know this? As the former editor I began to receive letters shortly after I sold it, letters and emails that continue to come to me even today from Native Americans who were angry that letters and columns they wrote to ICT critical of Halbritter and of the newspaper, were never published.”

Then Pember wrote about what it meant to her to be a reporter at ICT during this era. 

“Indian Country is a tough and complex beat. Meaningful coverage demands a depth of historical, legal and social knowledge that reporters are seldom allowed the time necessary to acquire. ICTMN gave reporters that time,” Pember wrote. “At ICTMN, writers reported on scientific findings regarding the connection between trauma and ongoing social ills in Indian Country. Rather than excuse the widespread ‘dis-ease’ that touches Indian Country, the reporting helped communities gain a measure of authority and knowledge over seemingly intractable problems. I CTMN produced a special report based on my research and writing about this issue.

“          We blew the lid off Hollywood-style stereotypes that would have the world believe we are stoic, humorless creatures who somehow remain unengaged in contemporary life. ICTMN covered Indian rappers, artists, filmmakers, entrepreneurs and chefs.”

ICT’s nonprofit business model

I have written a lot about the NCAI and IndiJ Public Media ownership of ICT. So I won’t go there today.

ICT4 has grown significantly over the past four years and yet we have so much more to do. Our goal is to raise about $4 million a year so that we can operate bureaus in key regions, continue to improve our digital reports and our daily broadcast. (And on this front: We have a lot more news that’s coming soon.)

But I want to mention another legacy … one that will lead us forward along our other path, broadcasting.

Even though our roots come from The Lakota Times and Tim Giago, there are also other contributions and influences. All of the people my age benefited from the work and guidance of Richard LaCourse, Yakama, Howard Rock, Inupiat, and so many other legends. I still greatly appreciate my friendship with Suzan Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee. Every phone call is a history lesson where we swap stories about those who’ve helped us and share our love for our people.

Harjo has been a columnist for ICT in every era. Most recently she has written lengthy pieces that defy expectations — I say that because a June 2018 “column” about the Reclaiming Native Truth report was more than 8,000 words. 

Most of our readers — four out of five people — read ICT on a mobile device. That’s a really long story to be scrolling on your iPhone. 

But Harjo’s piece was the best read story of that week. And that month. And one of the top stories of the year. All told, more than 100,000 people read Harjo’s essay on their cell phones, or on Facebook (and even most of them were on cell phones) or linking from other web pages.

Readers spent 8 minutes and 12 seconds reading  “If you don’t know sovereignty, you don’t know history.”

I also think it’s worth noting another anniversary. In 2023, we can mark the 50th anniversary of Indian Country Today with Harriet Skye, Standing Rock. This TV show was broadcast in North Dakota and is an example of how you change the story. 

As  Jodi Rave wrote for Buffalo’s Fire: “Skye started hosting ‘Indian Country Today’ in 1973. For more than a decade, she filmed some 250 episodes, most of which were recorded on 2-inch, reel-to-reel videotape. Producers used the same tape for each show, so only a few of the final episodes survived to be archived at the North Dakota State Historical Society.”

And she added that Skye “made it seem natural for an Indian woman to report and broadcast the news.”

Rave wrote after Skye’s death in 2018 that “I can’t think of a single Native person on TV today who hosts a talk show about contemporary Native news.”

I love the phrase “a spacious channel” first used by Cherokee journalist Elias Boudinot in 1827. And expanding that spacious channel remains our goal.

Karen Michel is IndiJ Public Media’s chief executive officer and president and has the last word here.

“I would say ICT definitely has come a long way in 40 years,” Michel said on the Friday newscast. “So we've really covered a lot of ground over the decades. There's many people along the way who have contributed … I'd say we have a really strong reputation as a premier news source covering Native communities. And we do things, cover stories that the mainstream media does not, and those stories are written and produced by Indigenous journalists for an Indigenous audience. And so I think that's really why we matter. “ 

*Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today. On Twitter:  @TrahantReports. Trahant is based in Phoenix.