Storytakers

The clash of media and Aboriginal cultures – operating on such different timelines, values and worldviews – creates endless potential for miscommunication, misunderstanding, and mistrust.
–    Melissa Sweet

Journalists sometimes encounter frustrated, angry people who don’t want us around. After all, we often arrive on the scene during times of conflict and crisis, poking around, asking tough questions. It’s never easy to cope with the wrath of a grieving relative or someone who feels their privacy has been violated. But, we tell ourselves, it’s the nature of the beast.

Still, you may find a different kind of frustration when you head out to report on Indian Country. You may run into the kind of Indian who unleashes on you an anger that bursts forth from a deep, dark, ugly place.

Call it “500-Years-of-Anger” — and how you deal with it may make-or-break a story.

Credit: Union of BC Indian Chiefs

Perhaps it happens unintentionally. Determined to act with respect, you brought tobacco and familiarized yourself with local tribal customs.

Or, maybe you’re acting like an ignoramus.

No matter your intentions. All you’ve done is made a simple request. You’re just asking for an interview. You want to tell someone’s story. That’s when it happens. Some Aboriginal person explodes — their anger directed at YOU.

“You $%@# reporter, take your *%$ing microphone off this rez, back to the $%#&$ city, and never come back.”

Suddenly, you represent every colonizing, raping, pillaging outsider who has ever stolen children, land, or sacred artifacts away. You are the living embodiment of Christopher Columbus, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and the Pope.

You are a Story Taker.

Before you respond, take a deep breath, and remember a few things:

–    Some Aboriginal people you interview may have attended residential schools, where they experienced abuse and trauma. Therefore, it’s not surprising they have feelings of bitterness or rage toward authority figures. In a news reporting scenario, you may represent a person of authority

–    Unless you’re offering your interview subjects the power to veto or edit your final story (and that’s unlikely, isn’t it?), then you are, IN FACT, a story taker — and this Indian has probably got a lot of experience with people who keep looking to tell Aboriginal “stories,” whether it’s the missionaries and anthropologists of old, or more recently, a steady barrage of administrators and bureaucrats looking for statistics, data or “consultation”

–    The mainstream media really has done a pretty poor job of representing Aboriginal peoples over the years – you’ve got your colleagues and predecessors to thank for your current chilly reception

–    Not all Indians are angry.

Good. Now that you’ve remembered all that, it’s time for a response.

Credit: urbanrez.ca

You may conclude you’re not likely to make much headway with a person who views you as a Story Taker. Or, in a dignified way, you may try to clarify their concerns and explain your objectives.

What you do NOT want to do is respond with anger. Why not? Because you may say something you regret. And that statement will, quite surely, make its way around Indian Country very quickly — which could ruin any chance you have at this story, or any other.

Don’t fear. 500-Years-Of-Anger won’t be directed at you often, if you conduct yourself with respect. Still, recognize that it does — and will — happen. Don’t beat yourself up about it, and move on. Just as there are other fish in the sea (at least there used to be), there are plenty of Indians to interview.

[Better yet, try not to be a Story Taker by practicing the Indigenous custom of reciprocity, which I discuss in the ACCOUNTABILITY, RECIPROCITY AND CRITICISM section]