Can the language of journalism reflect Indigenous people?

It’s not the language that fails Indigenous people; it’s the reporters and editors who wield it.

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A recent story in the international news source Al Jazeera prompted me to think about my experience as a journalist who is Indigenous.

In the story, producer Amira Abujbara, whose father is from Qatar, reflects on making a documentary in the remote Alaskan Indigenous village of Iliamna, where her Indigenous mother is from.

Abujbara documented the challenges and hardships villagers face preserving their culture and connection to the land while living in a beautiful place. But she also talks about navigating the complexities of doing your job professionally while covering people you know and are both a part of, yet also removed from.

I may not write for Al Jazeera, but I understand what she is talking about. It’s something I’ve always been aware of in the 12 years I’ve worked as a journalist.

In the past, I’ve covered news involving my First Nation, the neighbouring First Nation, as well as the larger group of nations belonging to the tribal council we are members of. The stories ranged from land, title and rights issues to education, culture, sports and resources.

In many instances, I dealt with people I knew or grew up with. I was aware of this going in. But just as basketball referees or baseball umpires may officiate games in which they know participants, you put your game face on and you do your job. Period.

Being Indigenous affords me less difficulty with access to stories. And I bring a deeper context and understanding to Indigenous issues than other reporters may have. But once I’m in the door, I’m there as a journalist, and I’m obligated to ask difficult questions about sometimes difficult issues First Nations are involved with.

Over the years, I’ve written three stories some First Nations weren’t happy with. One felt it was an internal issue. Another felt my story about them missed part of the issue. And another wished it was never written. None, however, criticized my stories for being unfair, inaccurate or unbalanced.

The one issue I take with Abujbara is her comment that: “Journalists have rarely done justice to indigenous communities because the language of journalism has rarely done justice to indigenous peoples.”

“The language that media uses today does not heed silence and self-interpretation,” she writes. “It does not respect the power of conjured stories. It does not favour the collective over the individual. And this does not fit with indigenous perspectives.”

I disagree to a point. Historically, I don’t think it’s the language of journalism that fails Indigenous people. I think some reporters and editors fail Indigenous people because they decide what language is used and how it’s used to write a story.

I’m convinced the language can work because I’ve made it work. It boils down to caring. How much does a non-Indigenous reporter, editor or producer care about telling an Indigenous story?

Of course they should, especially since it falls to them most often to tell these stories, since there are so few Indigenous reporters in Canada’s newsrooms. 

They shouldn’t shy away from telling Indigenous stories just because they’re not Indigenous. This is something I hear quite often and it troubles me because what are non-Indigenous reporters, editors and producers learning about reconciliation and Indigenous people unless they are doing these stories? I don’t shy away from doing stories about non-Indigenous issues because I’m Indigenous.

If you care about a story’s truth and the people at the heart of it, you’ll find a way to tell it well, with soul, life and depth, like Amira Abujbara’s story.

What you love

Raven John is a two-spirit artist who has lived in Vancouver for about a decade.

“A lot of them have a really great sense of humour,” says two-spirit artist Raven John, when asked what she loves about the urban Indigenous community of the Lower Mainland.

“They’re very strong people who’ve been through a lot and they know how to make each other laugh, and to heal themselves through laughter, too,” says Raven, who identifies as Coast Salish and Stó:lo, and has lived in Vancouver for about 10 years.

That sense of humour can be especially important when coping with the isolation that sometimes comes with living far from home.

“A lot of the people that have lived and grown up on reserve, they generally don’t have a means — a consistent or legal means — of traveling from their home to health resources, education, jobs, advancement of any kind,” Raven points out. “In that way, it’s very difficult for communities to develop, people in them to develop their careers, to develop in healthy ways, to get access to resources that they need.”

“I think one of the biggest ways that we can help Indigenous communities is simply providing a safe means of transportation,” she continues. “A lot of indigenous people are willing to work, or are willing to go out and access health care systems outside of just the small towns that they live in, but are unable to get to those places.”

With Greyhound’s recent decision to cut its routes in Western Canada, Raven says it’s that much more important to support Indigenous communities with safe transportation. “That said, even with the Greyhound, a lot of people are hitchhiking because the Greyhounds obviously don’t stop on reserve and there aren’t any buses that run to and from reserves to the small towns that are throughout B.C.,” she adds.

People are talking about

  • Repatriating city land for reconciliation is one of 10 issues that need action by the new Vancouver city council, the The Tyee writes in this opinion piece.

  • A story in the Vancouver Courier chronicles parents protesting the closure of an Indigenous-operated daycare.

  • In a personal reflection, CBC journalist Duncan McCue says by wearing a beaded poppy he showed respect for Indigenous veterans on Remembrance Day.

Culture connections 

Michelle Windsor wants her children to live healthy lives free from the spiral of alcohol and addiction.

Michelle Windsor says she was lucky to grow up with a sober mother who always prioritized her kids going to school.

“My mother was an alcoholic and she lost us as kids and then she got us back, and she’s been sober for 30 years,” Michelle says. She hopes other Indigenous families can break the chain of alcoholism too.  

“I’m one of the lucky ones where the chain broke, but there are some that are very unfortunate, who couldn’t break that chain and still continue on that path of a twisted spiral of destruction,” she says.

“I’d like to see the chain broken where we can stop the alcohol, better ourselves as individuals and as people.”

“I don’t want to see another generation of kids throwing their lives away to alcohol and drugs,” she says. “They still have so much access to it. It’s scary.”

Let’s gather 

  • Nov. 15: Take in some poetry at the Aboriginal Gathering Place at Douglas College in New Westminster. From 7 to 9 p.m., Aboriginal Voices will feature Tawahum Justin Bige, Brandi Bird, Michael Calvert and Christie Charles. This free evening of poetry and prose is open to the community and is being hosted by Event magazine and Douglas College’s Aboriginal Student Services.

  • Nov. 15 to 18: Heading to East Vancouver for the Eastside Culture Crawl? Swing by Raven’s Eye Studio to see works by Cree artist Jerry Whitehead and Haisla Collins, a woman of “mostly Tsimshian and Celtic ancestry.”

  • Nov. 23: Gather with others advocating for change in B.C.’s child-welfare system at the Creekside Community Centre from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. At this Learning Day hosted by First Call, folks will discuss gaps in the system for youth leaving care and opportunities for advocacy. Learn more and reserve your spot here.  

  • Dec. 11: RavenSPEAK: Amplified aims to “elevate the compelling voices, vital messages, and remarkable profiles of Indigenous peoples.” Their next showcase will feature talks from Laurie Sterrit, Mary Point, Alexander Dirksen, Racelle Kooy, Autumn Walkem and more from 6 to 9 p.m. at The Annex. Learn more about the speakers and get your tickets here.

If you know about an event that you think should be included in this newsletter next week, send me an email.

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