We still don't know sh*t about indigenous peoples

Indigenous journalist Nick Martin reflects on the media's lack of in-depth native coverage.

Welcome to HEATED, a newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis.

It’s officially Indigenous Peoples Day in Washington, D.C.—and I mean officially.

Mayor Muriel Bowser signed emergency legislation on Friday to rename Columbus Day in honor of Native Americans. So today, along with hundreds of other U.S. cities, my city will recognize the people Christopher Columbus helped enslave and decimate while “discovering” America, instead of Columbus himself.

Today’s newsletter will do the same.

Who’s telling native climate stories?

To kick off a week of indigenous climate coverage, I spoke with Nick Martin.

Martin is a member of the Sappony tribe of North Carolina, and a staff writer at my alma mater, The New Republic. I wanted to talk to him for two reasons.

  1. He tells native climate stories. So far, Martin’s reporting for TNR has shed light on several tribal-led battles to stave off oil pipeline projects across the country; the novel legal strategies tribes are using to protect natural places; and—my personal favorite—“America’s lengthy history of codifying and recodifying laws to steal and profit off Native land and the natural resources above and below it.”

  2. He’s one of the only mainstream journalists who regularly does that. There aren’t many reporters devoted solely to covering Native Americans—and even fewer with full-time positions at national news outlets. Martin’s job as a staff writer covering indigenous issues at a legacy magazine therefore makes him fairly unique.

With those reasons in mind, I asked Martin:

Are America’s journalism institutions doing right by the country’s 5.2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives?

And what might that mean for the climate if they’re not?

Spoiler alert: we’re screwing up

“There are a lot of really good journalists out there who are doing great work and centering indigenous voices,” Martin said. “But the fact is, every national publication should have somebody covering tribal affairs: The New York Times; The Washington Post; The Wall Street Journal; The Atlantic.”

On the whole, Martin said, mainstream media institutions only devote significant resources to stories about indigenous issues when something crazy is happening—something like the protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline by the Standing Rock Sioux in 2016. When things like that happen, big publications will hire out freelancers to write lengthy feature stories about the crisis, and splatter those big stories across their front pages.

Those big front page stories are great, Martin said. But because they happen so infrequently, and contain so much information, they’re not adequate to create a public that is consistently informed about Native issues.

“I find that in so much of my writing, I have to explain very basic principles of Indian Country law—like how treaties work, and why they're still valid and a hundred and fifty years later,” he said. “And I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing, but man, we should be so far past this point.”

It also sucks that Native communities have to wait until something terrible happens to them before they receive front-page coverage, Martin said. (To be fair, I said “Doesn’t that suck?” And he said, “Yes”). Such reactive coverage makes justice and accountability a lot harder to achieve.

Finally, newsrooms that do cover indigenous issues rarely have actual indigenous people covering it, which Martin has argued has contributed to public ignorance and misunderstanding of Native culture and politics.

What does this have to do with climate?

Indian Country is on the front lines of the climate crisis currently unfolding in the United States, and has been for some time. Thus, if America’s most influential news institutions are not adequately informing their readers about what’s happening in Indian Country, they’re not adequately informing Americans about the climate crisis.

Beyond that, there are so many opportunities for solutions-focused stories in Native American communities, Martin noted.

”The United Nations recently put out a report reiterating that indigenous people—their understanding of land management, of protecting and nurturing the resources that everybody needs to survive—are crucial to the process of moving forward,” he said. “If we want this planet to survive, we have to lean on the people who know the land best. The people who have fostered the land for thousands of years.”

“That’s not to say anyone else can’t be part of the solution,” Martin continued. “It’s just to say we’ve not centered ourselves around indigenous perspectives of how land and natural resources should be used and taken care of. And I think as an American culture, it’s going to be important for us to adapt to more of that way of thinking.”

HOT ACTION: Follow some journalists!

Right before we got off the phone, I asked Martin if he could quickly suggest some journalists and/or media institutions to follow for quality coverage of indigenous climate issues. He recommended:

Got more suggestions? Send ‘em here: action@heated.world

HOT ACTION PT 2: If you have a moment…

If you’ve been following along, you know I was in Fort Collins, Colorado last week for the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference. It was a really great event, and I learned a lot. It’s crazy how there are so many fantastic reporters in this field, and yet still not nearly enough.

But also, ya’ll… some stuff went DOWN.

If you get a moment, I recommend reading this dispatch from HuffPost’s Chris D’Angelo and Alexander Kaufman. It contains potentially the greatest quote I have ever heard from a public official. Chase Woodruff made said quote the headline of his piece for Denver’s Westword, which was a good call, if you ask me.

Also, all three of those dudes are very good environmental reporters and you should follow them too! But I am biased, because we all went on a hike together, and did middle fingers to false balance, and it was fun.

Thank you all again for your Colorado suggestions, and I’ll see you tomorrow!

That’s all for today—thanks for reading HEATED!

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Questions or comments about today’s issue? E-mail me: emily@heated.world

Suggestions for hot action? E-mail them to: action@heated.world

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Martin as a descendant of the Sappony tribe. He is a member, not a descendant.