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As part of Mainstreet Radio series "Broken Trust: Civil Rights in Indian Country,” MPR’s Dan Gunderson reports on free speech within the Indian reservation.

Press freedom is a constitutional guarantee for most American journalists. But many who work on Indian reservations do not enjoy the same freedom, because the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not apply to them. Their protection comes from the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, which guarantees free speech. But it leaves the enforcement to tribal governments that own most reservation media outlets.

Today, many American Indians live in two worlds. Off the reservation they are guaranteed all the rights of a U.S. citizen. On the reservation, those federal rights disappear, replaced by the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, enforced by tribal governments. Many Indian people in Minnesota and the Dakotas say they've come to expect injustice both on and off the reservation.

This is part eight of eight-part series "Broken Trust: Civil Rights in Indian Country."

Click links below for other parts of series:

part 1:

part 2:

part 3:

part 4:

part 5:

part 6:

part 7:


2001 NBNA Eric Sevareid Award, first place in Radio - Large Market - Continuing Coverage category

2001 Minnesota AP Award, Best in Show - Radio Class III category

2001 PRNDI Award, second place in Division A - Series category

2002 RTNDA Murrow Award, Radio - Large Market, Region 4 / News Series category


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DAN GUNDERSON: Louise Mengelkoch remembers the excitement of stumbling upon what would turn out to be an important story. As a young reporter for the Red Lake Times in the late 1980s, she discovered the area's economic engine, the Red Lake walleye population was in serious decline, the reason, commercial over-fishing. She recalls being shocked at what happened after the story was published.

LOUISE MENGELKOCH: I was fired for printing that story because it was a truth that people didn't want to hear.

DAN GUNDERSON: Mengelkoch says, because the newspaper was funded by tribal government, those in power at the time wanted to control what was printed. She says it was impossible to function as a journalist under such conditions.

LOUISE MENGELKOCH: You couldn't possibly imagine The Washington Post being published by the US Congress. And yet on reservations, we don't think a whole lot, or people haven't thought through the ramifications of a tribal government paying for a newspaper.

DAN GUNDERSON: It's been nearly 15 years since the Red Lake Times fired Louise Mengelkoch. But things are much the same today on most reservations. Nearly all newspapers and radio stations on reservations in the US are owned by tribal government. Mengelkoch says she's not convinced the relationship between media and government on reservations is all that much different from what happens in many small towns, it's just more visible.

Numerous journalists working for tribal newspapers or radio stations declined to be interviewed for this story, saying they fear economic reprisal. Media maverick, Bill Lawrence, isn't surprised.

BILL LAWRENCE: On a reservation, the tribal government controls the courts in almost every aspect of life. So unless you get along with them and write what they want you to write, you don't have long to exist on reservations.

DAN GUNDERSON: Lawrence is a veteran of legal skirmishes with tribal government. He publishes the independent Ojibwe News. He says it's the only truly independent newspaper in the state that focuses on tribal issues. He survives mostly on the ads bought by businesses in towns near reservations. He's currently involved in a lawsuit over the arrest of a reporter sent to cover a regular meeting of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe executive committee.

BILL LAWRENCE: And he was removed from the meeting, normally an open meeting, and arrested, and hauled 30 miles away to the jail in Mille Lacs County Jail and charged with trespass.

DAN GUNDERSON: Minnesota Chippewa executive committee officials did not respond to interview requests. Bill Lawrence says his paper has been banned in many Minnesota tribal owned casinos. And businesses who advertise in his paper have been pressured by the Red Lake tribal government.

BILL LAWRENCE: Advertisers in the Bemidji area were told if they advertise anymore in our paper that they wouldn't be able to deliver their products to the reservation. The reservation wouldn't buy their products. And that's going on right today.

DAN GUNDERSON: Red Lake Tribal Chairman, Bobby Whitefeather, says he does not ban any legitimate publication on the reservation.

BOBBY WHITEFEATHER: We don't even recognize that publication as a newspaper.

DAN GUNDERSON: And why is that?

BOBBY WHITEFEATHER: Because it's not objective.

DAN GUNDERSON: First Amendment rights on Indian reservations are not protected under the US Constitution. Free speech protections are guaranteed in the Indian Civil Rights Act. But the Supreme Court has ruled that any alleged violation of free speech on the reservation should be resolved in tribal court. In many cases, that essentially means the tribal government is asked to sanction itself, since it appoints the judges and owns the media outlets.

Dorreen Yellow Bird says journalists who work on reservation have little recourse when their rights are violated. She published a newspaper and ran a radio station on the Turtle Mountain, North Dakota Reservation in the 1980s. When she decided to start broadcasting tribal council meetings, contrary to the wishes of the tribal chairman, she lost her job. Despite her experience, Dorreen Yellow Bird does not lay all the blame at the feet of tribal government. She says reservation journalists are poorly paid, often poorly trained, and without proper supervision. The reporting is sometimes more opinion than fact.

DORREEN YELLOW BIRD: So to say that they should have free access to everything that comes out of the tribe and be able to interpret that for the tribal people on the reservation, I think would be as harmful as the tribe not providing that information.

DAN GUNDERSON: Many Minnesota tribes fund publications that are distributed on the reservation. Most are called newsletters, and are unabashedly pro tribal government. Some tribal leaders say they're concerned tribal members are not well informed. Mille Lacs tribal executive Melanie Benjamin says she's working on an editorial policy that will allow divergent opinions to be published in the tribal newsletter. Red Lake Tribal Chairman, Bobby Whitefeather, says the newsletter is a good tool for tribal government, but can't replace a newspaper.

BOBBY WHITEFEATHER: A newsletter, you put what you want in there, not necessarily what should be in there. It doesn't maybe tell-- not necessarily the full story. Because there are some things around here that should be told, but it's almost like you don't want to talk about the bad things.

DAN GUNDERSON: Whitefeather says he believes tribal members would benefit from objective reporting of tribal issues. But until tribal economies improve, he doubts an independent newspaper would be economically viable. Whitefeather says with unemployment above 50% on most reservations, fostering an independent media is a low priority for most tribal governments. Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public radio, Moorhead.


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