Indian Country Today editor on future of Native journalism

Indian Country Today editor Mark Trahant, left, and videographer Jacqueline Cleveland reporting for FIrst Nations Experience or FNX TV on the Dental Health Aide Therapist program housed at Yuut Elitnaurviat in Bethel. May 3, 2018. (Photo by Christine Trudeau/KYUK)

Indian Country Today editor Mark Trahant, left, and videographer Jacqueline Cleveland reporting for FIrst Nations Experience or FNX TV on the Dental Health Aide Therapist program housed at Yuut Elitnaurviat in Bethel. May 3, 2018. (Photo by Christine Trudeau/KYUK)

Indian Country Today managing editor Mark Trahant visited KYUK in Bethel last week.

Longtime independent journalist Trahant has been coming to Alaska for decades and served as a college professor at UAA.

No stranger to reporting in Alaska, Mark Trahant served for two years as the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Atwood Chair of Journalism.

A member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Idaho, Trahant first reported in Alaska during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 while working for the Arizona Republic.

He has returned every few years ever since.

Trahant reported for PBS’s “Frontline” on childhood sexual abuse by Catholic priests in St. Michael, in an episode titled “The Silence”.

Trahant is back in the Y-K Delta for a new show coming to First Nations Experience, or FNX TV, called “Wassaja.”

“Wassaja is a really storied name in Native journalism,” Trahant said. “It was originally a newspaper by Carlos Montezuma in the 1920s, and later again became a national newspaper in the 1970s published in San Francisco.”

The name was chosen to bring the indigenous journalistic legacy to the forefront; a 10-episode season is slated to premiere May 31.

The first episode, titled “She Represents,” focuses on Native American women running for public office.

“This year could be the big year. Since 1790, the first year there was a congress, there are just over 11,000 men and women who have been elected to Congress. It’s interesting, one-third of all the women who’ve ever been elected to Congress serve now,” Trahant said. “And of course in that time there has never ever been a Native American woman; we’re still talking about the first.”

But the story Trahant came to Bethel for is not about Alaska Native women running for Congress, something both Georgianna Lincoln and Diane Benson have done in past years.

Trahant’s Y-K Delta story will focus on the success of the Dental Health Aide Therapist program. It will be episode seven.

Trahant also has now taken on the role of editor for Indian Country Today, formerly Indian Country Today Media, and once the Lakota Times.

Trahant will relaunch the national online news site under the ownership of the National Congress of American Indians, or NCAI.

“This is really exciting, I think,” Trahant said, “because it’s a chance to take a legacy, a name of Indian Country Today, and say ‘how can we do journalism different and do it for the 21st century?’”

Trahant says that using the name will tap an enormous built-in following of Indigenous peoples across North America.

Videographer Jacqueline Cleveland, left, films the Kuskokwim River on May 3, 2018, with Mark Trahant as they report on the Dental Health Aide Therapist Program in Bethel. (Photo by Christine Trudeau/KYUK)

Videographer Jacqueline Cleveland, left, films the Kuskokwim River on May 3, 2018, with Mark Trahant as they report on the Dental Health Aide Therapist Program in Bethel. (Photo by Christine Trudeau/KYUK)

“It’s funny, it’s one of those names that we probably would not use if we were starting up from scratch, but it’s such a strong brand name that we can’t mess around with it,” Trahant said. “But in the subhead of the new logo we’ve created, it talks about digital indigenous news, and they really are the three things that we’re going to concentrate on.”

With a team of two that will soon expand to four, Trahant will begin producing daily online reports on Indian Country news, including Alaska.

the workforce of Native American journalists has changed throughout the years, Trahant said. At one time, he saw Alaska in the forefront.

“When I first started coming up here, kinda the network of Howard Rock was still alive. There was people who worked at the Daily News, there was a member at the editorial board at the Daily News,” Trahant said. “There were Native(s) on television, there were Natives in radio across the state, not just in pockets.”

But with the decline of newspapers, Native journalism in Alaska fragmented, he said, though Trahant sees a national groundswell from the younger generation.

“What’s different from, perhaps, my generation is when I was president of NAJA, the Native American Journalists Association, many, many years ago, is most of the people coming up wanted to work for mainstream media and to actually get the big paychecks and to do the stuff in the limelight,” Trahant said. “Now people want to serve Native communities and they want to figure out ways to have a career, do good journalism and serve Native readers and listeners and I think that’s really cool.”

It could be that many of the biggest stories emerging for Indian Country will actually be taking place on a national stage as a conservative administration and Congress seek to cut back funding for social programs without always recognizing that Native Americans are not just another racial minority in this country.

“Whether it’s the Indian Health Service, or Medicaid, or them working together, or the Veterans Administration, all of that is the United States fulfilling its treaty obligation,” Trahant said. “I think that’s one thing that we as journalists can do is to hold accountable, that is, ‘the United States promises, what are you doing about it?’”

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