Mainstream media’s uninformed infatuation with the Indigenous

I first tuned in to the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada when the Native Women’s Association of Canada (or “NWAC”) shared their ‘faceless dolls’ craftivism project in an undergraduate class I took on feminist activism.

As the years have passed, I’ve been fortunate enough to find myself working in Indigenous advocacy for several non-profit organizations; including NWAC. Coincidentally around the same time I began my contract at NWAC as their communications lead prior to the National Inquiry being announced, I discovered my own Anishinaabeg (Indigenous/First Nation) heritage that flows through my maternal bloodline.

I did not grow up on a reserve or with any connection to Indigenous cultures on Turtle Island. All my life until that point, I knew absolutely nothing of my First Nation heritage until an aunt informed me late into my twenties.

The majority of my blood is of European/Caucasian descent, but by a twist of genetic fate my cheekbones grew high and my hair long and straight – which I’m regularly told makes me “look Native” (which is weird and racist and doesn’t makes me any more or less Indigenous, for the record).

In journalism, media and communications, there has always been a fine line to be drawn between raising public awareness on an important issue, and capitalizing on a story because it feels opportunistic and profitable to do so.

Having worked both in media relations and as a writer with a specific focus on Indigenous affairs (the plight of Indigenous women and girls being of particular interest to me) I’ve been fortunate enough to learn a great deal about the problematic nature of how media relates to Indigenous peoples.

Often, I have found reporters to be adversarial, probing, and even exploitive in their association with Indigenous peoples. Countless times I have had to explain to reporters and producers why it is inappropriate for me to provide them direct contact information to a family member or to a community whose beloved daughter, sister, mother, auntie or grandmother has gone missing or been murdered.

Those of us who did not grow up on an isolated reserve lacking drinkable tap water, nutritious food or secure housing to live in, and those of us who were never been born under the paternalistic and patriarchal laws and policies stemming from the Indian Act (First Nations are still to this day considered “property” of the Government of Canada by the way), cannot possibly comprehend their reality.

And what I’ve learned is that without that lived experience, without that pain and intergenerational trauma, you simply cannot tell the Indigenous story to the full extent it warrants. It’s just impossible.

What we can do as media professionals is immerse ourselves and educate ourselves; striving each day to empathize and understand the weight of injustice facing Indigenous peoples. We can build relationships with communities who give us the permission to do so. We can ask respectfully and professionally, and at appropriate times and in appropriate places, for community members to share with us.

What we cannot do is show up unannounced. We cannot demand someone bare their soul because an editor pressures us to. Especially when so many of these communities are suffering and especially when so many families are utterly desperate for someone to hear them out. That’s called taking advantage.

The horrific reality surrounding missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is a perfect example of what happens when a story gets hot, media are drawn in, but very few reporters have the knowledge or sensitivity to approach the issue or give it justice. Some of the best positioned people to cover Indigenous affairs are, quite obviously, Indigenous peoples working in media themselves – like Connie Walker, Sheila North Wilson, Waub Rice, or Angela Sterritt, to name a few.

When they aren’t being ignored by government and media, families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (and two-spirit peoples) have been bastardized, politicized, and traumatized by politicians and journalists alike. This is unacceptable.

On the day the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls began, my heart sank when I read some of the columns and stories and photographs that surfaced from the day’s events. I question how many of those media took the time to meet with any of the families and really learn what they’re going through.

Indigenous peoples are not property, or one-dimensional social collateral to be photographed or fawned over or exposed without consent. Their stories and identities are sacred, and they are theirs and theirs alone.

Indigenous peoples are the traditional rights and title holders of this land we now call Canada. Treaty rights, inherent rights and international human rights as set by the United Nations dictate this – even if our public schools taught us different. These are the facts. We need to learn them.

It is incumbent on every reporter and every news organization who seeks to cover Indigenous affairs (particularly the most sensitive ones, where precious lives are in the balance like right now during the National Inquiry) to have the courage and respect to unlearn colonial histories and relearn Indigenous realities. Only then can these stories be told respectfully.

We owe this to ourselves and to each other – and someday, we’ll all be better for it.

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