Media and the Discourse of Indian Politics

In December 1972 the Senate Subcommittee on Indian Affairs held hearings on the White House’s response to the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Although meant to investigate the Nixon administration's role in resolving the occupation, the hearing highlighted the broader role of the BIA and its relationship with American Indians. Three trends emerged in the media's reporting that demonstrated the activists had successfully utilized media coverage in their protest. First, throughout the seven-day occupation and subsequent fallout the media focused on the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the criticism the activists leveled against it. Second, the media redefined the nature of Indian activism and Red Power. And, the media provide a general reflection on government's purposes in Indian affairs and criticisms of Nixon’s Indian policy. The media, in both news reports and editorials, became forums about Indian politics. Media coverage of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and its relationship with American Indians, Nixon's Indian policy, and the nature of Red Power political activity served as key frameworks for the media to understand and narrate the context surrounding the BIA occupation.

Mass media helped to shape the terms and discussions of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and informing the non-Indian public about the issues surrounding the colonial relationship between the federal government and Native Americans. Reporting on the purpose of the Trail and the Twenty Points paper, the Washington Post remarked that the key significance of the march was the reestablishment of treaty-making with Indian nations. Treaty relations ended in 1871, the paper informed, and Congress "assumed a kind of colonialist supervision over Indian matters." "The treaties amounted to agreements between sovereign Indian nations and the Washington authorities," the paper continued, and "the militants seem bent on establishing that kind of relationship again." The Post captured the core reasoning behind the march on Washington and the underlying reasons for the frustrations that fueled Red Power political ideas, although it made little attempt to connect those ideas to a broader context of American Indian politics.

The public discussions about the BIA were augmented by general criticism from conservative and liberal columnists and newspapers over the government's handling of the events or the policies that they felt led to the occupation. Conservative columnist Nick Thimmesch accused the Nixon administration of "mishandling" the activists and allowing the destruction of federal property "in the name of free speech and assembly, and during a week in which President Nixon spoke firmly of the end of 'an era of permissiveness.'" Despite his criticisms, Thimmesch praised Nixon for surpassing "previous administrations in taking actions on behalf of Indians" and found the occupation a threat to legislation that "lies fallow" in Congress.

The "permissiveness" of the Nixon administration was also the focus of columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak in the Washington Post. The columnists blamed the White House for getting in the way of resolving the conflict, writing that officials in the Interior Department "recognized the top three Indian leaders as violence-prone hoodlums with no claims to legitimacy" and who wanted them evicted immediately from the building. The White House began "protracted legal proceedings," the column continued, which served to thwart any attempts to remove the activists from the building. The column accused the President of political pandering, suggesting that by the White House entering negotiations "he [Nixon] preferred appeasement to firmness the day before the election." The choice of political expediency over direct action tarnished the image of the administration in its dealings with American Indian militants and in general.

Right or wrong, politics played a role in the White House's timid response to the occupation. For example, Vice President Spiro Agnew, in a letter to Nixon, advised the President that he should "not allow the progressive policies of your administration with regard to Indian matters to be submerged by the unlawful activities of a few urban militants who are not representative of the Indian community." Although Agnew wanted to avoid looking "McGovernish"—as being "soft" in their response—he felt that the best response would be a negotiation to the standoff rather than a forceful eviction. Despite the attacks from the political left and right, the administration followed its course to resolve the issue. Nixon remained silent on the issue in the press, never once speaking to a newspaper or television network about the occupation.

Washington lawyer Bobbie Greene Kilberg, who would later serve as associate council to President Gerald Ford and became a liberal Republican representative from Virginia, laid the blame on Congress for the lack of reform in Indian politics. Commenting on the House investigation launched in early December, she asserted that the first question that should be asked is: "Why can a President introduce a new, progressive approach to governmental Indian policy in 1970 and still have a Congress ignoring its most important legislative components in 1972?" Kilberg lambasted Congress for failing to bring self-determination legislation to the House or Senate floor two years after Nixon's speech advocating Indian self-determination. The threat of Congress withholding funds and the slow pace of legislative reform in Indian policy led to the conditions of Indian frustration, argued Kilberg, and the issue would remain unresolved until the members of the House and Senate moved forward with reform legislation.

Richard Shifter, writing in the Washington Post, argued the blame belonged to government as a whole and its misunderstanding of Indian frustration. Schifter found the problem primarily an economic one. "The single most important problem of the Indian country is unemployment," he opined, "all-pervading, debilitating, chronic large-scale unemployment." The solution to the dire problems on the reservations, as he saw it, was not "bureaucratic abstractions" like whether tribal schools were to be operated by the tribe or by federal officials, or whether the Justice or Interior Departments should litigate Indian water rights. What the reservations needed was a New Deal or Great Society work program to combat the extreme poverty on the reservations. His solution, he proposed, would eliminate the "paper-shuffling and sloganeering in the government" and introduce real reforms that would improve lives and, thus, curtail the need for political activism.

Encapsulated in the editorial debates was the struggle over who should address American Indian issues. The responsibility largely belonged to the U.S. government to find a remedy for Indian frustrations, according to the logic of editorial boards. Fearing actual bloodshed that could erupt in subsequent demonstrations, perhaps a reaction to the 1960s and the decade's sometimes violent political protests, editorial writers turned to government for a solution. Only once did an editorial diverge from the prevailing logic and assert that the tribes had the power and ability to reform the livelihood of American Indians if only government paternalism ended and allowed Indian nations to make their own decisions. The solution to the modern-day "Indian problem" belonged in the hands of government rather than the tribes.

Despite the presence of their voice and the elucidation of policy changes, the media's focus remained on other aspects of the protest. In a political age just beginning to be dominated by the sound bite, the media gravitated to the loudest and most visible. Dennis Banks, Vernon Bellecourt, and Russell Means emerged as spokespersons for the occupation. AIM members held press conferences, placing themselves at the front of the Trail of Broken Treaties, despite the involvement of dozens of other organizations. By doing so the press defined AIM as the leading movement in Red Power. "The American Indian Movement," reported the New York Times, "has been at the forefront of Indian groups demanding more aid from the Nixon Administration." While true that AIM had become a significant voice on behalf of American Indians, few attempts were made by the press to connect AIM and the Trail to the larger context of Red Power, and where context did exist the media focused on displays of militant activism. The press frequently referenced the occupation of Alcatraz Island in November 1969 as the starting point for Red Power. Neither print nor television connected AIM's emergence and tactics to the previous decade of Indian activism, which rarely drew upon confrontational tactics that defined AIM's modus operandi. Media narratives about indigenous activism framed "Red Power" around a set of criteria that journalists took to be expressions of the movement. In part, the media’s focus on the American Indian Movement was fueled by AIM claiming leadership in the Trail. But this also reflected media’s view of social movements, which had been conditioned by a decade of political activity in the 1960s.

There were some exceptions to the media's focus on issues beyond the reason for the Trail. A lengthy Washington Post story entitled "Protest by Indians Sought an End to Paternalism" highlighted many of the Native criticisms toward the federal government. The Post reported on the broad spectrum of American Indian opinion regarding government interference in their lives, remarking that opinions ranged from "outright separatism to the more prevailing view that Indians are entitled to a greater voice" in directing federal policy. In one of the few attempts to contextualize Red Power thinking, the story notes "forced assimilation" under Termination policy "haunts [the memory of] the Indians anxious to reconcile their quest for dignity of independence with a continuing reliance on Washington's financial support." By bringing up recent history, the article attempted to examine the origins of political frustrations and the suspicions of government policies. Few other stories go beyond the narrow focus on the occupation, submerging public discourse into a shallow pool of knowledge.

Television had even less success uncovering American Indian political thinking in its Trail of Broken Treaties coverage, which was sparse compared to print journalism. Television journalists often noted that activists were protesting Indian "grievances" without exploring the extent of those demands. Television coverage largely focused on the extent of the damage done to the building rather than the underlying causes of the protest. In other cases television media emphasized the federal response to the occupation, such as whether there would be prosecutions for the occupation or changes in BIA leadership. Very little airtime was given to interviewing participants or capturing the reasons underlying the protest. The images of destruction and the progress of legal investigations captivated television journalists, causing them to miss the purpose and message of the Trail.

News feeds off confrontations. Philosophical divisions among American Indians, what Todd Gitlin called "the drama within the drama," was highlighted by the media. A confrontation between activists and members of the National Tribal Chairmens' Association (NTCA) in the final days of the occupation stirred up heated debates. NTCA accused AIM of engaging in "senseless acts" of destruction. AIM members reacted with equal vigor. Carter Camp, a leader of the Oklahoma City chapter of AIM, accused NTCA of being "part of the establishment You flew here first class, wear $200 suits, live in $20,000 houses and don't give a damn who goes to jail." Nathan Little Soldier, a tribal chairman from North Dakota, observed that the frenzy of AIM's protest was "what the press and TV enjoys. We should work together. We will work together. My door and my hand is open to anyone. We should adjourn rather than make fools of ourselves." The executive directory of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), Charles Trimble, also criticized the "tactics of disruption or destruction" although the organization supported many of the issues AIM raised.