NAJA Journalists Miss The Mark With Disenrollment Bingo


The Native American Journalists Association (NAJA), "in partnership with High Country News," has published "Bingo: Reporting in Indian Country Edition." 

The stated name of the game:

  • "to catch overused and hackneyed ideas employed by newsrooms."
  • "to bring attention to clichés and stereotypes that often appear in stories focused on tribal affairs in the United States."
  • "to draw attention to stereotypes and cultural bias reporters employ when framing their stories."
  • "to combat cliches in order to ensure that information is accurate, fair and thorough."

While 23 (or 22) of the 24 topics do seem cliché/stereotypical/overused/hackneyed Indian news subjects, one is certainly not: Disenrollment. (Sexual assault, as a Twitter follower observed, also seems out of place as "hackneyed." See "The Native Harvey Weinsteins.")

If anything, the stories of the 10,000 Indians who have had their indigenous human right of tribal belonging violated by their own relatives, has not been sufficiently covered by newsrooms. 

That is because the subject, which has swept Indian Country for the last couple decades, was generally taboo in tribal circles until only the last couple years.  That which is taboo (definition: "prohibited or excluded from use or practice") is hardly cliché or overused. Quite the opposite.

Hushed is exactly how several thought-leaders in Indian Country preferred disenrollment.  (Consider this archived news report: "Carole Goldberg, chair of the UCLA Native Nations Law & Policy Center, called complaints over disenrollment overblown. 'Some of the human drama is being amplified,' she said. 'The tribes concede their sovereign authority if they talk to the non-Indian world, so they don't say much, which just leaves opponents to do much of the talking.'") My and others' initial reaction to the card was to think that NAJA was urging further silence.

In a healthy Twitter exchange, bingo board co-creator Graham Lee Brewer, Editor of High Country News, assuaged that particular concern.  He explained: "The bingo card is to help people from piling stereotypes on top of each other." 

Disenrollment, however, is simply not a stereotype (definition: "a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing").

The Cleveland Wahoo, Pocahontas, Iron Eyes Cody and tribal casinos are Indian stereotypes.  Each can be, and have been, piled upon with the other news subjects on the bingo card. 

But there's no stereotype of a disenrolled Indian, a disenrolling tribe, or disenrollment itself. 

Try to imagine a disenrollment stereotype. 

You might think of a disenrolled relative or friend. Or a particular tribe that has gotten rid of its kin, or even posthumously disenrolled its Ancestors (mark my card). 

But there's no widely held, fixed image of disenrollment. That's in part because insufficient public and media attention has been given to both disenrollment protagonists and antagonists. 

Tribal "leader"-protagonists are generally not brought into focus by newsrooms.  Why not?  Why are those politicians not named and exposed like other overlords who violate human rights? (That's a disenrollment-related subject worthy of NAJA's accurate and fair coverage.) 

Meanwhile disenrollee-antagonists are generally covered en masse. A disenrollment of only a few Indians may not even make news. While a targeted tribal family (like the Nooksack 306) or sector (like Elem's entire on-Colony population) may have a spokesperson, they're rarely given a face.  To the extent there is a disenrollee poster child, they and their family are soon forgotten once the disenrollment controversy subsides.  Where are they now? Homeless. Impoverished. Addicted. Suicidal (three more marks for my card). Dead. (There's a non-cliche story for NAJA writers.)

Including disenrollment on a bingo card is as troubling as the clichéd storytelling NAJA assails. Those 10,000 disenrollees certainly don't deserve the tongue-in-cheek.  NAJA missed the mark.  

Gabriel S. Galanda is the managing lawyer of Galanda Broadman, PLLC, in Seattle. Gabe is a descendant of the Nomlaki and Concow Tribes, belonging to the Round Valley Indian Tribes of Northern California.