Indian Country Today’s new editor Mark Trahant on the future of Native journalism

Mark Trahant (left) and videographer Jacqueline Cleveland (right) reporting for FNX on the Dental Health Aide Therapist program housed at Yuut Elitnaurviat in Bethel. May 3, 2018. (Christine Trudeau / KYUK)

Last week KYUK got a visit from Indian Country Today’s new managing editor, Mark Trahant.

No stranger to reporting in Alaska, Trahant, a longtime independent journalist, has been coming to the state for decades, serving for two years as the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Atwood Chair of Journalism. Trahant is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Idaho, and first reported in Alaska during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 while working for the Arizona Republic. Since then, he has returned every few years. 2011 found Trahant reporting for PBS’s “Frontline” on childhood sexual abuse by Catholic priests in St. Michael, in an episode titled “The Silence”. Trahant is back in the Y-K Delta for a new show coming to First Nations Experience, or FNX TV, called “Wassaja.”

“Wassaja is a really storied name in Native journalism. It was originally a newspaper by Carlos Montezuma in the 1920s, and later again became a national newspaper in the 1970s published in San Francisco,” Trahant said.

The name was chosen to bring the indigenous journalistic legacy to the forefront; a 10 episode season is slated to premiere on May 31. The first episode, titled “She Represents,” focuses on Native American women running for public office.

“This year could be the big year. Since 1790, the first year there was a congress, there are just over 11,000 men and women who have been elected to Congress. It’s interesting, one third of all the women who’ve ever been elected to Congress serve now,” Trahant said. “And of course in that time there has never ever been a Native American woman; we’re still talking about the first.”

But the story Trahant came to Bethel for is not about Alaska Native women running for Congress, something both Georgianna Lincoln and Diane Benson have done in past years. This year, Trahant’s Y-K Delta story will focus on the success of the Dental Health Aide Therapist program. It will be episode seven.

Trahant has also now taken on the role of editor for Indian Country Today, formerly Indian Country Today Media, and once the Lakota Times. Trahant will re-launch the national online news site under the ownership of the National Congress of American Indians, or NCAI.

“This is really exciting, I think,” Trahant said. “Because it’s a chance to take a legacy, a name of Indian Country Today, and say ‘how can we do journalism different and do it for the 21st century?’”

Trahant says that using the name will tap an enormous built-in following of Indigenous peoples across North America.

Videographer Jacqueline Cleveland (left) filming the Kuskokwim river with Mark Trahant (right) as they report on the Dental Health Aide Therapist Program in Bethel on May 3, 2018.
(Christine Trudeau / KYUK)

“It’s funny, it’s one of those names that we probably would not use if we were starting up from scratch, but it’s such a strong brand name that we can’t mess around with it. But in the subhead of the new logo we’ve created, it talks about digital indigenous news, and they really are the three things that we’re going to concentrate on,” Trahant said.

With a team of two that will soon expand to four, Trahant will begin producing daily online reports on Indian Country news, including, of course, Alaska.

Trahant says that the workforce of Native American journalists has changed throughout the years. At one time, he saw Alaska in the forefront.

“When I first started coming up here, kinda the network of Howard Rock was still alive. There was people who worked at the Daily News, there was a member at the editorial board at the Daily News,” Trahant said. “There were Native[s] on television, there were Natives in radio across the state, not just in pockets.”

But with the decline of newspapers, Native journalism in Alaska fragmented, Trahant says. Now, though, he sees a national groundswell from the younger generation.

“What’s different from, perhaps, my generation is when I was president of NAJA, the Native American Journalists Association, many, many years ago, is most of the people coming up wanted to work for mainstream media and to actually get the big paychecks and to do the stuff in the limelight,” Trahant said. “Now people want to serve Native communities and they want to figure out ways to have a career, do good journalism and serve Native readers and listeners and I think that’s really cool.”

But it could be that many of the biggest stories emerging for Indian Country will actually be taking place on a national stage as a conservative administration and Congress seek to cut back funding for social programs without always recognizing that Native Americans are not just another racial minority in this country.

“Whether it’s the Indian Health Service, or Medicaid, or them working together, or the Veterans Administration, all of that is the United States fulfilling its treaty obligation,” Trahant said. “And I think that’s one thing that we as journalists can do is to hold accountable, that is, ‘the United States promises, what are you doing about it?’”


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