A journalist’s solo mission to cover native peoples across the globe

By Judith Matloff for the Columbia Journalism Review

TRISTAN AHTONE IS AN AWARD-WINNING JOURNALIST whose pieces have appeared on Frontline, Wyoming Public Radio, NPR, and the Newshour with Jim Lehrer. He is also a member of the Kiowa tribe, and he has often found himself cringing when white journalists parachuted into reservations to write sensationalized stories about crime or poverty.

“Indian Country is often just an afterthought” when it comes to news coverage, he says. He quotes a colleague’s “WD4 rule”: Native Americans only make news as warriors, or when they drum, dance, drink, or die.

In 2013, an Al Jazeera America editor approached Ahtone, whom I first met when he took my class at Columbia’s Journalism School eight years ago. The news organization was creating a vertical called “Indian Country.” For the first time, a major news outlet in the US would cover the 567 federally recognized tribes as a beat. They wanted short-form features, long-form magazine shows, digital content, briefs, and television stories. Would he be interested? Would he ever.

For the next three years, Ahtone produced print and video stories that generated little interest among mainstream editors elsewhere. Given a big budget, he could invest the time to hunt across the country for tales that otherwise went untold. He wrote about Seminole and Navajo tribes as well as Native rodeos, veterans, and gangs. He interviewed World War II code speakers and covered toxic spills on Indian land and neglect by presidential candidates. Colleagues contributed articles about Eskimo sporting events, indigenous comic book artists, and Navajo gay dating. In short, not your ordinary “misery on the rez” pieces.

Read the entire story here.

Tristan Ahtone

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