Dear Berkeley Journalism Community,
I write to you as we prepare to commemorate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which we mark on the second Monday in October as a time to reflect upon our country’s history of systemic displacement and genocide of its native peoples. And to honor the resilience, rich cultural legacy and ongoing contributions they have made in every aspect of American society.
In 1992, Berkeley became the first city in the country to replace Columbus Day with “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” in protest of colonialism and the myth of America’s “discovery.”
The land on which North Gate Hall stands was once the territory of xučyun (Huichin), the ancestral home of the Ohlone people.
As a journalism school founded on land that Native peoples occupied for centuries, it is our responsibility to report on the Native peoples who currently live in Berkeley and the greater Bay-Area community at large. Sadly, Native communities across the country have been rendered invisible to mainstream media for far too long.
In September, we had the honor of a Zoom visit in the Big Issues class from investigative journalist and media critic Jenni Monet. An expert on Indigenous affairs and founder of “Indigenously: Decolonizing Your Newsfeed,” Monet is one of the most powerful Native voices. She is Kawaik’a, a tribal citizen of Laguna Pueblo. In 2019, Betsy Rate had a lively conversation with Monet that you can see here.
Native Americans suffer from chronic misrepresentation and erasure by an established press, which continually fails to acknowledge the Indigenous timeline. This crisis—a word not used enough to describe Native Americans’ efforts against invisibility—is stoked by the stark absence of Indigenous journalists in newsrooms.
–Jenni Monet, “The crisis in covering Indian Country”
Columbia Journalism Review (March 2019)
Recently, the disparity between media coverage of crimes committed against Native American women and those of white women was cast into sharp relief. The violent crime statistics are staggering: on some reservations, women are 10 times as likely to be murdered as the national average, according to the Justice Department. The statistics are so dreadful President Biden recently proclaimed May 5, 2021, as, “National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls.” Certainly, the round-the-clock coverage for weeks about the murder of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old white woman, frustrated many Native people because it contrasted so starkly with their inability to garner media attention to the missing women in their communities.
This only reaffirms my deep belief that taking the lid off who gets to become a journalist matters so that all communities get the coverage they deserve.
Take this day to familiarize yourself with the work of Native alumni, including James Cornsilk (‘16), a video producer at the Washington Post who is a proud member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Terria Smith (‘12), a tribal member of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, is editor of News from Native California, a quarterly magazine devoted to the stories of California’s diverse Indian peoples. And director Tsanavi Spoonhunter (’20), a descendant of the Northern Paiute, Lakota and Northern Arapaho nations, whose thesis documentary, “Crow Country: The Right to Food Sovereignty,” won Best Documentary Short at the 45th Annual American Indian Film Festival.
Other alums have done important reporting on this community. Christopher McLeod’s (‘83) master’s thesis film, “The Four Corners: A National Sacrifice Area?” challenged the policy of locating destructive energy projects in the homeland of the Hopi and Navajo. The film won a Student Academy Award in 1983. And his four-part series, “Standing on Sacred Ground,” written and co-produced by Jessica Abbe (‘85), with Callie Shanafelt-Wong (‘11) serving as editor, aired on public television in 2015.
This introspective video made by Sara Lafleur-Vetter (’15) about her work documenting the historic Standing Rock protests as a non-Native is instructive. She is currently producing a feature-length film The Sacred & The Snake— with Romin Lee Johnson (’16)— about Indigenous activists transformed by their experiences at Standing Rock.
Lastly, Thomas Burke, our continuing lecturer of media law, has two pending FOIA lawsuits in the District of Columbia to force the federal government to report information about the deaths of Native Americans across the nation.
As we salute our alumni and their important work covering Indigenous peoples, let us also commit ourselves to enabling more native storytellers to engage in the vital work of journalism.
In solidarity with our students, whose notes commemorating this day are below in this email,
Banner photo: Director Tsanavi Spoonhunter (’20)
This Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a time to appreciate and educate ourselves about Native peoples and their cultures. Acknowledging past wrongs is not enough, we must continue to reckon with injustices and make amends today.
Our campus continues to benefit from the occupied land of the Muwekma Ohlone people. It should also be acknowledged that UC Berkeley has a poor record in returning remains of Indigenous peoples to their tribes.
There are several more crises inflicting Native peoples: from abused Native children buried in unmarked graves at boarding schools, to the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Our industry is complicit for its silence and lack of attentiveness in such matters. It is our duty to decolonize our newsrooms and our campus. This Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a time of reflection but it’s also a time for action.
Live decolonized. Live free.
Richard Tzul ‘23
We should be mindful that we are all guests in the Muwekma Ohlone land. This is stolen land. There are many communities worldwide whose land is stolen or that face that threat. Deforestation and the exploitation of land have forced migration on Indigenous people. Migration has caused Indigenous people to assimilate. In that process, there is a loss of Native knowledge and traditions. This country’s involvement in globalization is a causation of the modern attacks against Native people.
When we speak on Native People, we do not describe them as “were”. They are in the present and not of the past. They live in cities, are multifaceted, and sit in our classrooms. They do not just exist once a year.
Understand that words carry weight. It can change the significance and depth of what we are saying. Historically, Indigenous people have been regarded as primitive by governments and corporations. Native nations were and continue to be sophisticated societies. The practice of growing organic food, acknowledging the value and existence of two-spirited people, using vegetation as medicine, and being eco-friendly are all ancient Native traditions.
Indigenous people throughout the world have been subject to genocide, are pillaged, and oppressed. We become complicit in the systems that permit the historical abuse of these people when we do not report on their communities. We are complicit when we fail to include them in discussions and ignore them. We become allies when we accept that we are ignorant. Accept that we have more ground to cover when it comes to equity in our industry. It will take a collective effort to reach equity and it is not an impossible goal.
Happy Indigenous People Day every day!
María Fernanda Bernal ‘23
November 23, 2020
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