Letter to the Editor: Improving reporting about Native, Indigenous individuals

Below is a letter from Northwestern alumna Ninah Divine regarding student reporting on Native American and Indigenous people that was sent to different campus publications last quarter. It is being published in The Daily Northwestern in hopes that it will benefit future student journalists.

I recognize that you are student journalists in a place of learning. The aim of this letter is to help you as you grow in the discipline of journalism and in other facets of your lives where you interact with diverse groups of people.

It is fantastic that there have been so many articles featuring Native/Indigenous individuals and that speak about topics affecting Native/Indigenous people published by Northwestern student journalists in the past couple of years. Unfortunately, numerous Native American and Indigenous students, staff and visitors to Northwestern University have noted inappropriate interactions with reporters, or objections to rhetoric used in stories published.

I hope making you aware of these instances and providing you with guidelines to use in the future will prevent the misidentification of Native people and the reinforcement of a structure of subjugation and paternalistic exclusion of Native people. This structure is often referred to as settler colonialism. I also hope it will promote more respectful interactions with Indigenous people and the rest of the Northwestern and Evanston community. As an alumna of Northwestern University, a former member of the Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance and a current staff member in the Office of the President, I must stress the importance of making these changes. It is crucial that as Northwestern University grows to be more inclusive of Native people, the publications it produces, and the methods used to contribute to them, are decolonized.

Below I give three types of problems encountered in publications. In writing about Native and Indigenous people it is important to:

Share finished articles with interviewees and give an interviewee an idea of what they’re being quoted as saying before an article is published. There is a power imbalance between a student journalist at an elite institution and an interviewee. Taking a person’s words and using them without full disclosure about how they will be used and without giving the interviewee access to the story reinforces that colonial power structure.

Be sensitive about the language you use in your writing. It is generally best to ask your interviewees their personal preference about how to refer to them as Native/Indigenous individuals and use that language in your piece. Words like ‘tribal’, ‘Indian’ and ‘Native American’ offend some individuals but not others.

Do not ask a non-Native person to speak on an issue that would be more appropriately addressed by a Native or Indigenous person. Allow Indigenous people to speak about their own people and on issues that may affect them more than a non-Native person. Include both perspectives in your writing if possible.

If you ever have questions about the experiences of Native and Indigenous people, there are people at Northwestern who can help you answer them. I created a Northwestern site partly with the intention of it being used to fact check and answer questions about Native history, programming and inclusion at NU. I want to help you all better report on the Native/Indigenous community and improve the experiences of the Native/Indigenous people that come through Northwestern University. These opinions are my own, and though I have consulted with other Native people, I do not speak for all Native people or all of NU.

I want to close recognizing that the Northwestern University campus is Native land. This area, as well as much of Chicago, was home to the people of the Council of Three Fires, including the Potawatomi, Ojibwe and Odawa. It was also a site of trade, travel, gathering and healing for more than a dozen other Native nations. The fact that we are not indigenous to this land makes us all settlers and part of a colonial structure that disadvantages Native/Indigenous people. Because of this, it is within Northwestern University’s responsibility to disseminate knowledge about Native peoples and the institution’s history with them. It is your responsibility to bring topics that relate to Native people to the attention of your readers as people who benefit from the suffering inflicted upon Indigenous people.

Wado (thank you),

Ninah Divine
Coordinator, Native American and Indigenous Peoples Steering Group
Office of the President
Northwestern University