Reservations need a strong, free pressSo many at-risk children on the Spirit Lake Reservation are abused, and tribal officials have done so little, that the federal government should declare a state of emergency, a regional official of the U.S. government wrote last month.
By: Grand Forks Herald, The Jamestown Sun
So many at-risk children on the Spirit Lake Reservation are abused, and tribal officials have done so little, that the federal government should declare a state of emergency, a regional official of the U.S. government wrote last month.
“The children of the Spirit Lake Reservation are being subjected to actual abuse or the threat of such abuse due to the actions and inactions of adults who have responsibility to protect them from such abuse,” wrote Thomas Sullivan, Denver region administrator for the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, in an email reported on by Forum Communications.
But here’s a prediction: Even if the U.S. government declares a state of emergency, and even if that results — as Sullivan hopes — in qualified professionals being appointed to run programs, scandals and corruption on the reservation soon will surface once again.
And this has nothing specifically to do with Spirit Lake. Scandal and corruption stories dog many reservations, as tribal members know. Reforms come and reforms go, but the scandals continue, so the odds are they will continue for decades more.
Clearly, something more fundamental has to change in order to break the pattern and boost “good government’s” odds. But what?
Here’s our suggestion: The tribes, the Congress and the great philanthropic foundations of America should cooperate to give the tribes the watchdog they need: a free press.
That’s the “change from within” that promises to do the most good. And it has proven its worth time and again across the history of the world.
Americans on and off the reservation need no schooling on the value of a free press. Suffice it to say that it’s one of our “first freedoms,” enshrined in the First Amendment and providing a check on government power since America’s founding; and that suppressing the press is a common thread linking tyrannies around the globe.
On Indian reservations, there are two big complications. One is the law. In 2001, Minnesota Public Radio carried a series whose theme was captured by its title: “Broken trust: Civil rights in Indian Country.”
How can it be, asked MPR’s Dan Gunderson, that tribal councils can close their meetings, deny open-records requests and even order aggressive reporters to be arrested?
The answer is that “the First Amendment rights on Indian reservations are not protected under the U.S. Constitution,” Gunderson reported.
“Free speech protections are guaranteed under the Indian Civil Rights Act, but the Supreme Court has ruled that any alleged violation of free speech on the reservation should be resolved in tribal court. In many cases, that essentially means the tribal government is asked to sanction itself, since it appoints the judges and owns the media outlets.”
Until Congress and the tribes pour a more solid foundation under the press, any repair to the structure of tribal government is likely to be a temporary fix at best.
And there’s another problem, one that would remain even after free press rights are in place: money.
Most news operations in America are private, which means they need to sell ads in order to survive. But many reservations rank among the poorest areas in America. That might change if a free press helps bring about clean and responsive government; but until then, an independent tribal press likely would have a tough time paying a full-time reporting staff.
That’s where the foundations could come in. The Gates Foundation, for example, does tremendous work in helping American Indians get scholarships and other forms of individual assistance. Now, here’s a way to promote a change for the better in the very nature of tribal government: Help endow a network of independent tribal newspapers.
At Spirit Lake, a new set of administrators may very well take over the tribe’s child-welfare operation. But will there be reporters on the ground to monitor the change — professional skeptics who’ll have access to records and can write about the results?
When that happens, then North Dakotans — including the people of Spirit Lake — will know that the changes have taken root.