Volume 10 Number 3
Writing for Seven Generations Hence
01 June 1997

Native American journalist Gordon Regguinti believes the media has an important role to play in community relations.

'Freedom of the press is a dangerous thing.' The words trembled from the lips of a middle-aged First Nations man as he addressed a room full of Native journalists near the close of a recent communications conference in Kamloops, British Columbia. He chose those words to underscore the significance of an eagle feather he was presenting to his relative, Agnes Jack. Agnes was instrumental in organizing this first ever Native American Journalists Association conference in Canada. She was also the editor of the newspaper that served the Kamloops band of the Shuswap Nation.

You could see the man's anguish and pain as he went on to express his deep disappointment with the press. He spoke of the power that words have to both heal and destroy. He spoke of the sacredness of words, and the responsibilities each of us has in choosing our words carefully. Without divulging details, he described how misguided and insensitive reporters had brought harm to Native individuals, families and communities in the area.

But you could also hear hope in his voice. I think it sprang from knowing that Agnes understood her people's history and connection to the land. But above all, he knew the good in Agnes's heart, that she had compassion for the people. I believe he held the hope that each of us were like her.

Although he had given the feather to Agnes, he had unknowingly given each of us a gift that day. It wasn't that his words or ideas were new to us Native journalists, it was in the tone of his voice and the strength of his convictions. It was in the courage he displayed in addressing a conference of journalists with some unflattering commentary.

Somehow he touched that place in my soul from where I draw my meaning, and sense of mission, as a communicator.

One of the great tenets of American journalism is the idea of a free and open press. A press where all segments of a society meet openly and equally in the marketplace of ideas. We Native people know this is a fallacy. We clearly understand that freedom of the press belongs to those who own it.

Perhaps an even greater fallacy is the idea of an objective press. This is a cruel hoax, launched from the minds of people who are afraid of their convictions. I don't mean to belittle the many good reporters, editors and photographers whom I've met through the years. It's just that as an institution journalism wears the idea of objectivity as its badge of honour-and for the most part the public buys it. As they say, if it's in print, it must be true.

To me there's no such thing as objective journalism. Even with the journalistic rules of fair and accurate reporting, clear, concise, complete and timely writing, all you really find is a myriad of subjective decisions. Whom we choose to interview is a subjective decision. Just as important, whom we don't interview. What becomes the lead paragraph in a story is subjective. What photographs are used. Someone has to make a decision as to what makes a news story in the first place.

As I said, I have met many people in journalism who have good hearts, are well intentioned and dedicated to their craft. To me, they are not so much journalists as truth-seekers. I think they understand that what they are really putting forth is a proposition of the truth.

Personally, I don't fool myself into believing that I'm unbiassed or objective. In fact I would say that I have both a specific and an altruistic agenda. Specifically, I choose to be a communicator in the hope of countering the many negative portrayals of Native people by the media. Altruistically, I want to save humankind from self-inflicted destruction.

I'm not the only Native journalist with an agenda. It seems that most of the Native writers, editors and photographers I've conversed with are motivated not just by the ideals espoused by mainstream journalism-truth, fairness, guardians of the fourth estate, the watchdogs of government-but also by a sense of justice and mission. Perhaps journalism is a means to heal the pain of Native people by showing the world the richness of our lives. But even this doesn't adequately explain our reasons for becoming communicators. At times it seems to border on the metaphysical, a call from our ancestors, a call from spirit.

If you look at the names of Native publications you get a sense of the significance that communications have played in our history. These names tell of drums, runners, smoke signals, camp criers, messengers, scouts, chieftains, guides, talking leaves, circles, echoes, trails, feathers, arrows and whispering winds. These names show that to Native people the nature of communication is broad and the essence sacred. These names also give a sense of the importance of the individual to the communication process-that the individual who chose to be a camp crier, runner or scout was crucial to the wellbeing of their community. The relationship between the crier and the community was one of intimacy, of genuine care. The crier was not so much a watchdog as a guide and confidante, a subject of the village.

Perhaps that's what is missing in communications today. It's become so massive and impersonal that the communicators are no longer connected to community. The crier is no longer subject. The community is now an object.

This relates to my altruistic reason for being a communicator: to help save humankind from self-inflicted destruction by viewing media in a different way, where we take greater responsibility for the messages we write. I was especially helped in this when I thought deeply about our people's value of thinking seven generations ahead. When people look at what consequences their actions, or words, will have seven generations into the future, they can discover a very different perspective in this age of instantaneous global communication.

Gordon Regguinti is the President of Native News and Entertainment Television.

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