Hometown U: Atwood chair aims to develop Native journalists

Kathleen McCoy

Mark Trahant returned to Anchorage this week after a summer stint teaching multimedia at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and trying to spear salmon back home in Fort Hall, Idaho. He’s ready for his second year as UAA’s Atwood chair of journalism. 

A member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe and a former president of the Native American Journalism Association, Trahant has a big goal this academic year: “I want to get more Alaska Native students in my journalism classes.”

When Trahant first visited the state 25 years ago, the abundance of indigenous media voices amazed him: radio’s Nellie Moore, Gary Fife and Sharon McConnell. Print editorial writer Martha Upicksoun and reporter John Tetpon, among others.  Alaska was a leader for incorporating diverse voices into news coverage and opinion of the day.

Now, Trahant said, “The momentum is reversed. Alaska moved from the state of the possible to the state of ‘where is everybody?’” Unfortunately, that decline comes at a time when some of the hottest issues over land, tribal rights and self-government are gathering steam.

In a short speech last spring, Trahant laid out the tension between dueling narratives for the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, signed by President Nixon in 1971. The law was intended to resolve aboriginal land claims and create corporations to develop Alaska economically. Yet unresolved questions remain.

“In the view of the state,” Trahant said, “ANCSA terminated tribal rights. What little powers of self-government that remained were molded into corporations along with the land. And as corporations, not governments, only the state of Alaska is the government with authority,

“In the view of Alaska Natives, it was basically a land settlement. It left intact subsistence traditions of fishing and hunting, village government, law and citizenship, while creating corporations as a model.

“Both those narratives left behind the role of tribal government and the role of managing scarce natural resources, issues coming to a head fast.”

In fact, the Obama administration, through Indian Affairs in the Department of Interior, is removing rules that limit Alaska Native tribes from moving their land into trust so they can re-establish authority over public safety, health, education and environmental resource issues.

And just last weekend, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski signaled her aim to remove from the Violence Against Women Act the “Alaska exception,” a provision she had inserted, exempting more than 200 Alaska Native tribes from the ability to prosecute domestic violence committed by non-Natives and enforce civil protection orders against them.

Murkowski had argued the exception didn’t matter because the law had pertained only to “Indian Country,” and because of ANCSA, Alaska didn’t have any. Public reaction against her move brought forth the reconsideration.

“People were saying, ‘This is crazy,’” Trahant said, “This is the state with the highest numbers in the country. Something has to be different.”

When issues are as hot as these, diverse voices in the media are especially important, Trahant said. He cites the Hutchins Commission of 1947, which claimed a dearth of different voices was a threat to democracy.

“Underrepresented constituent groups are too easily misrepresented ... The country has too many groups partially insulated from one another that need to be interpreted for one another,” the commission report said.

If the press does its job right, Trahant believes, understanding and even collaboration can follow. Another quote Trahant likes comes from Wallace Stegner: “The future of the West is collaboration, not confrontation.”

If he can do his part, Trahant’s students will be some of those new Native voices in Alaska media. Besides two traditional journalism classes this fall, he hopes two innovative spring courses will draw them in -- newsgathering by iPhone and demographics for journalists.

But attracting young people to journalism has another challenge. They have a different definition of news, Trahant said. Humor is much more important; witness the widespread popularity of “The Daily Show.” Don’t fight it, Trahant says. Instead, bring along values like fairness and truth.

And in an age of digital revolution, he preaches mobile: “If you aren’t building an app, you should at least be thinking about building an app.”

Last May he created his own, Trahant Reports, working hard to get it on both Android and iPhones. It’s also featured on Flipboard, a social media news site, the very place where he most prefers to read The New York Times and take in the PBS Newshour.

In fact, scanning the local news media market, Trahant said he was stunned to see Alaska Dispatch News’ commitment to print. He worries that attachment will slow online innovation.

“I grew up in print. My whole career was in print,” he said. “But I think it’s dead.”

Proof? He cited a recent study on millennials and their news sources and habits: Internet was a given; radio and TV were factors. But “print was zero, not even a blip.”

Kathleen McCoy works at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.