Two of Oklahoma’s largest tribes, Osage Nation and Muscogee (Creek) Nation, are moving in opposite directions when it comes to freedom of the press.
Osage Nation strengthened press protections Oct. 2 through a series of amendments to its Independent Press Act. The changes include prohibiting the tribe from de-funding its newspaper, Osage News, and protecting journalists from disclosing their sources.
“I feel that this was a huge victory for the Osage News and journalism in Indian country, especially when like tribal councils like the Muscogee (Creek) Nation are taking away press freedoms,” said Shannon Shaw Duty, the editor of Osage News.
A few days before Osage Nation’s move, Muscogee (Creek) Nation voted down a measure that would have allowed its citizens to vote on whether to add press protections to their constitution. The nation’s news outlet, Mvskoke Media, lost its independence last November, after the nation’s Council dissolved its independent editorial board, bringing it under the direct control of the tribe’s executive branch.
“There just needs to be more positive coverage,” said Muscogee District Rep. Pete Beaver following the November vote.
Press protections for tribally-funded media outlets are rare. According to Shaw Duty, Osage Nation is one of just three tribes out of 573 federally-recognized and 73 state-recognized Indian Nations in the United States with press protections for the news outlets they fund. The other two are Oklahoma’s Cherokee Nation and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde in Oregon.
Shaw Duty says she experienced resistance from her community when Osage News began operating independently in 2008.
“I got lectured a lot by my elders because journalism isn't really something that was done as a cultural tradition,” Shaw Duty explained. “These communities are so close knit. Everyone knows each other, and so I think that's where a lot of people get the resistance because you're embarrassing people sometimes.”
Shaw Duty is not the only one concerned about press protections for Native journalists. In a 2018 survey of its members, the Native American Journalist Association found that 76 percent of respondents said tribal media content is sometimes, frequently or always determined of government officials or other political interests. 83 percent said tribal government affairs go unreported due to censorship.