Credit: urbanrez.ca

Welcome to Teachings, a place to share the collective wisdom of journalists about reporting in Indigenous communities. You’ll find tips on what to do, and what not to do, from reporters who have been there and done that.

Is there something about Indigenous peoples you wish someone had taught you before you dashed out the newsroom door? Have you learned any tricks to navigating an Indigenous story through newsroom politics?

Share your advice here, along with a link to the story that inspired it. (The story need not be an award-winner. Sometimes, stories that don’t work out teach us the most important lessons.)

Your teaching can help make our journalism better.

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  • David Wiwchar

    Do your research and be humble.
    If you’re going to a First Nations community, know a little about who they are: what do they call themselves? who is their chief councillor? hereditary chief?
    Don’t be afraid to say: “I hope this isn’t culturally inapproriate, I don’t want to offend, but … ”
    Many First Nations have a negative view about reporters, but they also want reporters to understand First Nations better, so if you show a willingness to learn, it will be acknowledged. There is a gold mine of stories waiting for the reporter that earns a relationship with a First Nation.

  • Jesse Ferreras

    Required reading before you start covering a First Nation community: the Indian Act; any judicial decisions relating to “aboriginal rights and title”: Delgamuukw, Haida vs. British Columbia, etc.; the Royal Proclamation of 1763.

    When you cover a First Nation, you’ll often hear conversations and proclamations that will confuse you without knowing the context. You’ll hear people talk about “extermination” or “assimilation” and think that they’re being overdramatic. Many say these things within the context of legislation like the Indian Act, a law that has essentially legislated aboriginals as wards of the state.

    The law, lambasted and dismissed as it is, must still be read and understood in order for journalists to comprehend the contexts in which conversations and negotiations are happening.

    Understanding “aboriginal rights and title” is also essential for covering First Nations. “Aboriginal rights and title,” in a very basic sense, is the recognition by Canadian law that aboriginals have rights to their traditional territory that require entities hoping to use aboriginal land to consult with them and ensure they do not infringe upon their right to use their land for traditional purposes such as hunting and fishing.

    “Aboriginal rights and title” is affirmed in the Delgamuukw case and expanded upon in Haida vs. British Columbia and many other decisions.

    Meanwhile, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 was issued by King George III after the British acquired French territory in North America. Prior to Canada introducing the Indian Act, the Royal Proclamation provided a basis for a relationship between colonizers and indigenous peoples. It established a boundary between British-occupied lands and American Indian lands, forbidding colonizers from settling on native lands and outlawing private purchase of such lands. It gave the Crown a monopoly on all purchases of native lands. Many see the document as an early recognition of aboriginal rights.

  • Terry Glavin

    Rule 1: Don’t make any assumptions at all about what “aboriginal culture” is. It might help to forget just about every television show or movie you’ve ever seen that has “Indians” in it. Native cultures vary dramatically from one part of the country to another – sometimes from one end of a valley to another. A present of tobacco might be the thing to do in some Plains communities, but if you think you’re being nice by presenting a bag of Players looseleaf to a Sto:lo hereditary chief you happen to be meeting for an interview at an IHOP in Chilliwack, the chances are good he won’t know what the heck is wrong with you (I have actually seen this occur, to uproariously funny effect). The overall cultural diversity of First Nations in Canada is at least as varied as Europe. Don’t be overly “sensitive” about any cultural issues – be curious, be respectful, by open, honest and discreet – but there’s no need be mewling or profess your guilt for being pale-skinned or to tiptoe around anything at all. Calm down.

    Rule 2. Aboriginal people are not specimens of some alien species. Neither are aboriginal people merely functions of their tribal identities. They are individual human beings. Some are heroes. Some are jerks. They are cops, loggers, hockey fans, mums, and (perish the thought) journalists. It all depends on the kind of story you’re working on, of course, but it is always good manners to at least pop into the band office and say hello. But don’t expect that everyone in the community will tell a story the same way, or that there are always “official” spokespeople for everything, or authority figures whose views are always representative of the community.

    Rule 3. Forget all that stuff about “Indian legends.” Some aboriginal people still use the term (I wish that would stop). Get your head out of the notion of precious little folktales with dainty moral instructions always embedded within them, listen to the old people talk, and you may find yourself hearing epic literature on the scale of the Ramayana or Beowulf. Or you might hear an absolutely sidesplitting punchline at the end of it. Just pay attention when you’re spoken to, and everything will be fine.

    Rule 4. The worst and most grave errors journalists commit occur in the coverage of “aboriginal rights” issues. The most common error involves mistaking the very meaning of the term “rights,” and when that happens, the story goes sideways and you will never be able to stand it back up again. In conventional usage, our civil “rights” (“our” includes aboriginal people here) arise from liberties and entitlements enshrined in common law, case law and constitutional law. “Aboriginal rights” are different. But they are most certainly not “special” rights granted to anyone by virtue of their race or ethnicity (as if aboriginal rights law would be any different if aboriginal peoples were green, orange, purple or combinations of such colours). Aboriginal rights arise either from treaty (usually deriving from pre-treaty rights) or otherwise from the “customs, traditions and practices” of the particular aboriginal community in question. A Haisla halibut fisherman possesses absolutely no aboriginal right to hunt deer in Chilcotin country. Being “Indian” according to some statute counts for nothing in these matters. Unless lawfully extinguished or surrendered, aboriginal rights persist, which is to say that an aboriginal community’s members are lawfully entitled to persist in that community’s “customs, traditions and practices.” That’s all. There is no sinister affirmative-action by stealth going on here. Yes, the circumstances of co-existence between aboriginal and settler cultures can get dodgy in these ways, but the lawful recognition and enforceability of aboriginal rights is simply the way civilized people behave towards one another in these situations.

    Rule 5. Keep a sense of humour about yourself, for mercy’s sake. Everybody makes mistakes based on the assumptions they carry around with them. The point of journalism is to attempt truth-telling in ways that shed subjectivity and unexamined assumption. But you (and your aboriginal interlocutors) will routinely make wrong-headed assumptions going into a story. So what? Laugh at yourself. Encourage your aboriginal interview subjects to laugh at you. It’s healthy.

    Rule 6. Relax. Nobody is going to bite you.

  • When writing a piece about child poverty in this province, I called a prominent member of the First Nations community to ask about why so many Aboriginal children were living in poverty in British Columbia. I had done my research into child and family poverty, and into some of the First Nations groups in the community I was focusing on, but I didn’t think to read into the treaty history of the province. When he mentioned the Delgamuukw court case and I said “what’s that?” he called me out for my lack of knowledge on First Nations issues in B.C. I wanted to say “I’m just a grad student!” or “I’m not even from B.C.,” but I knew that wouldn’t cut it. Humbled, I looked it up after our interview was done.

    My interactions with this man have since been pleasant, but it was a harsh lesson that research into First Nations or Aboriginal issues should go above and beyond just the scope of your story.

  • If an elder grants you an interview, approach your discussion with the utmost respect. Too often in our line of work – especially broadcast journalism, where shorter soundbites rule – we feel the pressure to rush in and out of interviews once we have what we need for our stories. In all Aboriginal cultures, elders are held in the highest regard because of their wisdom and life experience. Often they prefer to take extra time to tell you a story and to share their insights. I’ve heard of instances where journalists became frustrated with an elder when an interview didn’t unfold to their liking. As a result, the elders were deeply hurt and lost trust in the media as a whole. It’s important to remember that even if some elders may not speak in clips, having them in any of our stories is a huge honour, and we have to treat our time with them as such.

  • Maurice Switzer

    Nobody should be able to graduate high school in Canada without understanding the concepts of treaty rights, the basis of the relationship by which First Nations agreed to share the use of Canada’s land base with newcomers. Lack of understanding and appreciation for the treaty relationship is at the root of all ignorance, misunderstanding, and racism regarding First Peoples. Treaties are not “historic grievances” — they are living agreements on whose just resolution depends the “honour of the Crown”. They are entrenched in the Constitution of Canada and, together with “inherent rights”, are fundamental to grasping the rightful place of First Peoples in Canada.

  • Carol Vanvalkenburg

    For 20 years I’ve taught journalism students in Montana in a course in which they research an issue, then after about two months of research, travel to one of the state’s seven reservations to report a story. A few things they’ve learned:
    –You don’t always have time in a breaking news situation to do a lot of research, so make the time before news breaks to understand who the people are who live on the various reservations. They are distinct tribes, with distinct treaties.
    –Keep in touch once you’re covering tribes as part of your community. Know the issues and know the players. Don’t expect cooperation if the only time you pay attention is when news breaks.
    –Look for what’s working as well as what isn’t.
    –Understand and respect cultural differences. If that includes bringing with you small gifts for those who have helped you (our students like chocolate in the shape of a grizzly claw), then do so. It’s not something you’d do in reporting on the mayor, and you wouldn’t do it in every case when reporting from the rez, but if it’s an accepted gesture of respect, it’s fine.
    –Don’t use your experiences to judge the propriety of the experiences of others. Ask sources why they chose the course they did and then really listen to their answers. Don’t make assumptions.
    –When you have to ask tough questions, ask them.
    –Don’t go into the story thinking tribal members are mystical, Earth-loving, or any other cliche that’s the flip side of thinking they are all poverty-stricken or alcoholics. They’re people, with their own stories.
    –Gain trust by doing honest and in-depth stories. They won’t always be positive, but people will respect them if they’re truthful. Our students’ experience has been that they get frank and full answers to tough questions to a degree they’ve not typically found off the reservations.
    –Always send sources copies of stories, whether the source ends up in the story or was used for background or clarification.
    The latest series from our students can be found here: http://nativenews.jour.umt.edu/
    Archived editions are also available on that site.

    Carol Van Valkenburg
    School of Jounalism
    University of Montana
    Missoula, Mont.

  • Drew Hayden Taylor

    One thing I would suggest is not to believe everything you read in the papers or on Television as gospel, even though you might work for them. One particular incident comes to mind. I was going into the big CBC building in Toronto to lecture about native issues with many of the radio and televison news department heads. It was part of some program to get the staff heads more in touch with grass roots issues. The day before, there were articles in various papers about the poor quality of water in 16 Ontario First Nations communities, including mine – Curve Lake. I talked with our Band Manager about this and she had no idea what this was about. They/we regularily test the water and she knew nothing of this revelation. So that morning, as I was getting ready to drive into Toronto, I had a big glass of Curve Lake water to see if anything interesting would happen at the meeting a couple hours later. As expected,. I was fine. Always be suspicious.

  • Anonymous

    In my experience reporting in Northern Ontario, I’ve found that a good translator can be a real asset. Sometimes people who seem to speak perfect English are much more comfortable talking about complex or emotional subjects in their own language (Cree, Ojibway or Oji-Cree in this part of the world) and a translator can help you get a much deeper understanding of a story.

  • Patricia Pearson

    Based on my experience reporting in remote Ontario communities:
    1. People don’t prioritize media encounters. You can’t expect to grab an interview and run. Be prepared to hang out for a few days and befriend people. If they’re comfortable with you, then they’ll talk.
    2. Young people, in particular, want to tell positive stories. They resent being depicted entirely in the light of tragedy and crisis. Make an effort to respect that. It doesn’t *have* to bleed to lede.

  • Tim Weekes, CBC

    A few years ago, I saw a documentary on residential schools that still sticks out in my mind. Most news items or features on that subject tend to take a very similar approach; archival footage of a residential school, some narration about the history, then an interview with a former resident of the school. As the former resident gets upset or tearful, the camera zooms in to “capture the emotion” of the moment, and we see an extreme close-up of a tear-stained face. However, I was watching a documentary done by a first nations crew from the Yukon. During one of the interviews, a man started to get emotional as he detailed his experiences in residential school and when it was clear he was getting choked up, the camera quickly pulled back, and while the camera zoomed out the reporter put his hand on the shoulder of the interview subject and walked him out of frame. It was a small moment that also struck me as very profound.

  • Jody Porter

    I’d be interested in feedback on how I handled this story about remains of missing residential school students. I have a feeling there will be a lot more of these types of stories across the country as the healing from the residential school legacy continues. The tension between science and traditional knowledge in this story was challenging to deal with in a respectful manner.

  • Jessica R, PolicyMic.com

    I just published an article on PolicyMic.com about development policy for indigenous peoples, called “International Day of World Indigenous Peoples: How We Can Solve Our Biggest Global Crises.”

    PolicyMic.com is a news website created to engage young people in conversation about national and international policy.

    The full link is: http://www.policymic.com/articles/12471/international-day-of-world-indigenous-peoples-how-we-can-solve-our-biggest-global-crises/188725

  • This website is a fantastic resource.

    I’m not a journalist, but I suggest that the article that Terry Glavin wrote for the Ottawa Citizen, “Idle No More? Let’s get serious,” is an example of what not to do. The Idle No More movement is a significant movement made up of thousands of Aboriginal people and Glavin managed to utterly dismiss it, calling it “creepy” and a “conniption.” He used language that was too strong and too sweeping.

    I guess my suggestion here, is to demonstrate humility and curiousity about the issues you choose to write about. Don’t just seek out voices that affirm your own personal beliefs. Also, avoid presenting the interests and arguments of those that you criticize in the least generous light. And, finally, avoid language that is too strong and too sweeping.

    Also, Glavin employs a lot of sarcasm and snark in the article. I don’t think that is super professional given the complexities of reporting on First Nations issues, and given that his article is overwhelmingly critical of a widespread movement of Aboriginal people.

  • Sarah Petrescu

    I had an interesting experience writing an obituary recently which taught me a lot about protocols around death in different Indigenous communities. The artist’s sister approached me to write the story as she knew many people who loved him and knew her brother’s art might not have known he’d died and that his wife would have been touched by their memories and condolences (especially for their many friends off-reserve). When I arrived at the family home I expected to meet the sister and wife but there were about 20 people there waiting to talk to me. I had a feeling this might happen so I gave myself the whole afternoon to spend with them just in case. I also brought cookies as a gift, on instinct to break the ice and also because I’ve found the best way to approach regular folk on-reserve is to treat them as if they were my neighbours. This is inspired by aboriginal people themselves, who often ask me where I’m from before an interview — which is unusual for me as a reporter but entirely homey for me as a small town girl. Anyway, during the interviews one of the elder sisters expressed concern that a photo of her brother not be used in the newspaper. She noted that it was part of their Tsartlip culture to not show photos of someone who died for several years and pointed out that her brother’s photos had been taken down all over the house — though a small one was used at his funeral. The family agreed as they all wanted very much to respect culture. We brainstormed ideas for a visual for the story and settled on a picture of his art and nephews. As I was setting up the photo and writing the story over the next few days, I called the elder sister to ask her why photos of the passed were put away. She referred me to the family’s eldest brother. He said this was part of his mother’s tradition but not his father’s (Nez Perce) and as such there should be a photo of his brother with the obituary so that people might recognize him. With this new input, I carefully went back to the sisters and wife (who did want a photo but was very respectful to her husband’s siblings) and it was decided the elder brother’s decision would be taken. They sent us a lovely photo and here’s the story: http://www.timescolonist.com/obituary-john-sampson-champion-of-tsartlip-culture-1.976462

    Lesson learned: When you have the rare opportunity to take the time on a story, use it as a teaching tool. I observed the loving and respectful way this big family made decisions together and was influenced by their process. I’m not sure everyone was happy in the end but I think that in following a process they were satisfied (I hope).