Remembering Gary Fife: Blazing trails for Native journalism

Gary Fife
Gary Fife hosted “Voice of Mvskoke,” an interview program carried on the radio and online. (Courtesy Mvskoke Media)

When Gary Fife worked as an Anchorage radio and TV reporter in the 1990s, he stood out with his long, flowing dark hair, but his presence made history. He was the first to host “National Native News,” a program that was launched in Alaska in the late 1980s.

Fife was still hosting radio shows and writing a weekly column when he died Sunday in Oklahoma at the age of 73, after he was hospitalized for respiratory problems.

He devoted the last years of his life to his tribe’s online news publication, MvskokeMedia, capping off more than a half century of efforts to change the way journalists cover Indigenous peoples.

Across Oklahoma, Gary Fife was known as the Voice of Mvskoke, a voice familiar to Indian Country, in large part due to his work on National Native News.

Back then, Diane Kaplan ran the Alaska Public Radio Network. She said when Native leaders first approached her about producing a national show from Alaska, it sounded like a good idea. New satellite technology made it very doable, but financial support was a huge barrier to overcome.

Initially, there was not even enough funding for a whole year, which meant the show often survived on a month-to-month basis. There was also a struggle to find a Native American to host, produce and edit a daily newscast.

That search led Kaplan to Minneapolis and Fife, a Muscogee (Creek) Indian from Oklahoma, who believed the media was a modern extension of traditional storytelling and could be used to uplift what was then an invisible minority.

“So, I recruited Gary. And there wasn’t a second person to recruit at that time that I was aware of,” Kaplan said. “He was literally like the only person I could identify that had the skills to do that, and fortunately he said yes.”

Kaplan says Fife brought what was, at the time, a rare combination of skills – a Native American who not only had experience in reporting and broadcasting but also a deep knowledge of Native history, politics and the issues of the day, as well as lots of contacts around the nation.

Kaplan also liked Fife’s passion for the show’s mission and his belief that both Native Americans and non-Natives were hungry for meaningful stories about Indian Country.

Even so, Kaplan says it was also difficult to convince station managers that there was an audience for Native news. The program, she says, started out with fewer than 50 stations, and today there are hundreds, validating Fife’s belief that there is an appetite for serious Native news coverage.

Kaplan says Fife sacrificed a lot for the job. The move to Alaska took him far from home. The pay was lousy, and it fell mostly on Fife’s shoulders to build a network of reporters out of a pool of mostly non-Natives, because there were very few Native journalists to tap.

In a recent interview with Jarred Moore from Mvskoge Media, Fife talked about how he used his platform on “National Native News” to educate journalists.

“Native America is like Europe. Italians are as different from the Russians as the Apaches are from the Senecas,” Fife said. “And so, we don’t speak the same language. We don’t all ride horses and chase buffalo.”

Fife said it was a challenge to educate reporters, who may have been well-intended but were often blind to their shortcomings, so Fife used his storytelling skills to open their eyes.

“I think we gained a measure of success in doing that,” he said.

Gary Fife
Gary Fife represented National Native News at a national conference on minority journalism in Atlanta in 1994. CSPAN carried coverage of the discussion, giving Fife’s message about how to properly cover Native American stories a wider platform. (From C-SPAN)

Thirty years ago in Atlanta, Fife was in the spotlight at a national minority journalism conference, moderated by ABC’s Carole Simpson, one of the first Black women to anchor a network newscast. It was there that Fife challenged journalists to do a better job of covering Indian Country and confronted them about how they perpetuate stereotypes.

“One of my pet peeves used to be — is — that every new story we ever saw or heard opened up with a flute,” Fife told the 1994 gathering. “A lot of tribes don’t even use flutes, for God’s sake. I mean, would you use a polka every time you did a story on a German?”

In his early days, Fife was known for his gruff personality and sharp elbows.

“Gary was probably decades ahead of his time,” said Angel Ellis, director of Mvskoge Media.

Ellis said she was lucky to have Fife as a colleague, because he was both a seasoned storyteller and a teacher, who mentored many Natives journalists like herself throughout his career.

“He was the ultimate ambassador, whether it’s talking with non-Native or Natives, or even people from anywhere else,” Ellis said. “Gary was at his core a person who loved people and their stories.”

Fife has won many awards for his work. In 2022 he received the Oklahoma Society of Professional Journalism’s lifetime achievement award. Last year, the Mvskoke Nation recognized him as a living legend for his pioneering work in Native journalism.

In one of his last interviews, Fife was hopeful about the future of Native journalism.

“There is a growing cadre of young Native people joining this field, and they’re good,” he said. “And I’m glad to be able to say that I’m seeing these changes during my lifetime.”

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