Mark Trahant: Media misses the story on Bernie Sanders in Indian Country

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail in South Dakota. Photo by Allison Renville

#NativeVote16 – Bernie Sanders in Indian Country is a story (someone should tell the media)
By Mark Trahant
Trahant Reports

You have to give Bernie Sanders credit for elevating American Indian and Alaska Native issues. He traveled across Montana, South Dakota, and North Dakota, and at every stop (as he has been doing for months now) he called for a new relationship between the federal government and tribes.

At Pine Ridge, Sanders said: “The reason we are here today is to try to understand what is going on in Pine Ridge and other reservations,” Sanders said. “There are a lot of problems here. Poverty is much too high. There are not enough decent jobs in the area. The health care system is inadequate. And we need to fundamentally change the relationship between the U.S. government and the Native American community.” (Previous: Bernie Sanders brings out the crowds, but what about voters?)

Of course just bringing Native American issues to the surface is a good thing because it forces other candidates to talk about the same issues and come up with possible solutions.

Only that’s not what’s happening. Sanders is getting some press on Native issues, but it’s really limited.

A quick Google search tells the story. Search Bernie Sanders and Native Americans and there are some 771,000 hits, including videos of his speeches and a few news clips, mostly from regional newspapers. There has not been a major story from any TV network. In fact if you use a TV network as a filter, such as NBC News, you are just as likely to get a story about a six-year-old who was removed from a temporary foster home and returned to her family. Actually the NBC story goes like this: “6-Year-Old Girl Removed From Foster Home Over Native American Heritage. Because Lexi is 1/64th Choctaw Native American, her case falls under the purview of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978.”

If you Google Native Americans plus Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump there are more results, and the stories being told range from Clinton’s ill-considered “off the reservation” remark to Trump’s attack of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and how her “phony Native American heritage” kept her from running for president.

This is why people hate politics. Instead of having a serious election discussion about Native American policy most of the campaign news stories focus on the headline grabbing stories. Sure, it’s ok to debate the Indian Child Welfare Act, especially if the news media adds historical context about why it’s a law. It’s even worth talking about Sen. Warren, tribal identity, and citizenship. But those debates only make sense if we pull back and look at the big issues, the relationship of tribes and the federal government.

Of course the news media has no way of knowing what’s important to American Indians and Alaska Natives. There are no Native American reporters working at any of the television networks and none on the campaign trail. There’s no one there to say, “this is a story, and here’s why …”

This is a story because no president can improve the relationship between tribes and the federal government. It takes a president, the Congress, the courts, the bureaucracy, and, the media, to help people understand the solemn promises they as Americans have made. It’s a story that requires research and history so that reporters can explain complex ideas. It’s a story because tribes are constitutional governments, not special interests. It’s a story because Native Americans deserve a say over what happens on our lands.

I like numbers so here are three: The number of Native Americans in Congress; 0.37 percent. Number of Native Americans on the federal bench; 0.11 percent. And, Native Americans working in the national media, 0.00 percent.

Note to editors and producers: It’s really bad when even politicians kick your ass.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Join the Conversation
Trending in News
More Headlines