For almost two decades in the mid-1900s, the federal government worked to dissolve the nation’s Native tribes, pushing them into cities to “assimilate” them and promising services it never delivered.
Seattle-area Native Americans, their objections ignored, mounted a protest one day in 1970, occupying the 1,000-acre grounds of Fort Lawton in the Magnolia neighborhood, 6 miles from downtown. They were staking a claim to surplus military property in accord with existing treaties. The move followed many months of built-up anger and political conflict, and yet The Seattle Times failed to capture the seriousness or stakes of the event.
Instead, we ran a short piece low on the front page about Jane Fonda showing up, with a quippy sidebar recapping reactions from around the world (“Do you have an Indian problem out there?”). Neither story included a single Native voice.
The only serious news story that day about the event ran on Page 11 and never fully explained the context for the protest. That would have included the forced removal of the nation’s original residents from land that had been their home for countless generations, and more recently the unfulfilled promises to assist Native people if they moved off reservations and into cities.
Instead of examining the recent and historic abuse and betrayal perpetrated on the tribes, The Times described that day’s occupation of the Army post at Fort Lawton as “only a demonstration with a tepee set up on a pleasant, sleepy military reservation.”
Today, the staff of The Seattle Times examines our coverage of that event, annotating three stories to point out where we used dismissive or demeaning language, perpetuated stereotypes and made serious errors of omission. Reporter Brendan Kiley interviewed Native American activists for a story about the harm done not only by the government’s actions but by the media’s treatment of the issue. And columnist Naomi Ishisaka writes about a current “Land Back” movement and how tribes are reclaiming their ancestral homelands.
As in March, when we critiqued our coverage of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, we undertook this project to recognize that media, including The Seattle Times, are part of the United States’ legacy of institutional racism.
“If we don’t acknowledge that, then we’re part of continuing it,” project editor Crystal Paul said when we published the first installment of “A1 Revisited.” Today’s project is the second installment looking back on past coverage, some of which appeared on the front page, or “A1.” We plan more installments and welcome your suggestions.
In the case of the Fort Lawton occupation, we underplayed the news of the event and almost entirely missed the context surrounding it along with its significance. The protest ultimately led to the opening of the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center at Discovery Park, on the former Fort Lawton site, but that took years of wrangling, compromise and fundraising.
Kiley reviewed our coverage in the years leading up to the protest and found very few substantive stories about federal policies or actions toward tribes.
“There was no sense of the larger phenomenon … of a growing, dispossessed … population that had been pretty much left behind by everyone,” he said.
The activists he spoke with about our reporting said serious media coverage could have helped them gain more support, better housing, health care and job training, and possibly more land. They felt our missteps in reporting, including a description of the protest that played off “cowboys-and-Indians” tropes, helped perpetuate racism.
What’s more, some believe we haven’t learned our lesson, and they pointed to general media coverage of the 2016-2017 Standing Rock protests.
“Too often non-Natives are comfortable looking at Native history only from the safety of the past,” said UW professor Joshua Reid, a Snohomish tribal member. “They get uncomfortable when Natives confront them with contemporary demands for rights and self-determination.”
“The sense is that the community is still not taken as seriously as they deserve to be — that they’re seen as whiners that always have their hands out and want something,” Kiley told me. “Whereas they feel that the federal government has not fulfilled the promises they made,” not only in the “grand historical sense” but in everyday failures to deliver promised services or even basic respect.
Summing up his interviews with Native American leaders, some of whom took part in the 1970 protest, Kiley said they seem to agree “that they keep getting screwed, and that people don’t take that seriously because media don’t take it seriously — or as seriously as they should.”
As we reflect on our past actions, we do so with the present and future in mind. We regret the harm we’ve caused, including our reporting that further marginalized entire populations.
We commit to doing better. That includes hiring a staff that better represents the communities we cover. It includes building trust within all those communities by respecting them and reflecting their lives fully in our stories. It includes understanding historical context and bringing that into our present-day reporting, as we’ve tried to do with stories about the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement, for example.
It also includes acknowledging that even as we strive to do better, we know we have far to go. Our goal is to learn from our past mistakes so we don’t repeat them.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.