Love of their people motivates tribal journalists' practice of free expression, says UA journalism professor -- August 2010

Tribal journalists practice freedom of expression in the face of significant legal and social pressures because they think that is what is in the best interest of their people, according to a researcher at the University of Arizona.

Kevin R. Kemper, an assistant professor in the UA School of Journalism, examined newspaper articles by tribal journalists that discussed views about freedom of expression to see whether they practice rhetorical sovereignty, which Kemper defines as the right of indigenous peoples to represent themselves.

His findings are published as a monograph in "Who speaks for Native Americans? Tribal journalists, rhetorical sovereignty, and freedom of expression," in the Spring 2010 issue of the peer-reviewed journal, Journalism and Communication Monographs.

"Tribal journalists sometimes come under enormous pressure from tribal authorities and others not to publish items that are perceived as critical or intrusive," said Kemper, an authority on indigenous peoples and their expressive and informational freedoms. "They sometimes are accused of not doing what is best for their tribal group."

Congress, when it passed the Indian Civil Rights Act in 1968, said tribal authorities are supposed to protect the First Amendment rights of Native journalists. But when the U.S. Supreme Court held that tribes as sovereign nations are responsible for enforcing those obligations, the court established an inherent conflict that those responsible for protecting press rights are those who are violating those press rights, said Kemper.

Kemper used a grant from the UA's College of Social and Behavioral Sciences to travel to the Sequoyah Research Center's American Native Press Archives at the University of Arkansas in November 2009 to access writings by tribal journalists. He credited archive director Dan Littlefield and his staff for helping him find a broad sample of thoughts that tribal journalists have expressed about freedoms of the press and information.

Kemper, who also is a non-enrolled Choctaw and Cherokee, used rhetorical analysis to examine whether Native journalists appealed to the best interests of the people or to their nationhood rights as citizens of the United States and their individual tribes. This extends theory developed by several researchers, including Tom Holm (Creek/Cherokee), a retired professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona.

Kemper also looked at historical examples of early-19th century tribal journalists like Elias Boudinot (Cherokee) and tribal advocates like William Apess (Pequot). By comparing the last 30 years with the earliest tribal journalism, the study finds that tribal journalists have long faced censorship and other pressures challenges to freedom of expression, but Kemper said he expects them to continue to practice those free-press rights as much as possible.

"It is essential, as we consider the pressures that tribal journalists endure, to think about how tribal peoples want and deserve as much sovereignty as possible," Kemper said. "I hope that this study will encourage respectful discussion about how indigenous people can protect themselves and their ways of life while respecting the right of people to learn and write about them. The issues of sovereignty have to be decided by the indigenous peoples. Free press won't flourish unless indigenous peoples see it as an idea from within their cultures that can nourish and protect those cultures.

"Those of us who practice or study tribal journalism do what we do because we love our people," Kemper said. "That is what I think is the Native way. We have to ask ourselves if what we do helps or hurts the people. That does not mean we give up our journalistic independence. As journalists, we are watchdogs, not lapdogs. But, doing what is best for the people means we think ethically about how what we do might affect those we serve. It means examining whether we are telling the truth and fulfilling our obligations as journalists in a democracy. How could good journalism not be in the best interests of indigenous peoples who value the truth and storytelling as a means for survival and prosperity."

Kemper, who was the first person to earn both a doctorate in journalism and a law degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, has been studying issues of tribal journalism and press rights for more than a decade. He is faculty adviser for the student chapter of Native American Journalists Association, the second such chapter in the nation to be created. Kemper, with experience as a newspaper reporter and publisher, teaches courses such as Law of the Press, Freedom of Expression and Reporting the News. He also has been an instructor at the American Indian Journalism Institute, which is sponsored by the Freedom Forum at the University of South Dakota.

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