OUR OPINION: Real reform on reservations starts with a free press
President Barack Obama clearly is trying to improve conditions on American Indian reservations. And some of the efforts he described Friday during his visit to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota probably will help.
But six years into the Obama administration, this stark set of statistics from a Bismarck Tribune story stands out:
“According to Standing Rock officials, the unemployment rate on the reservation is approximately 60 percent, while the poverty rate is hovering around 40 percent,” the newspaper reported.
“The North Dakota unemployment rate in April was 2.6 percent; nationally, it was 6.3 percent.”
Americans of all ethnicities have seen federal programs come and federal programs go, and they’ve also seen how tragically few of the programs seem to lower unemployment, reduce teen suicides or solve the other grave problems that plague so many reservations.
Isn’t it time for federal and state governments, in partnership with Indian tribes, to try something dramatically different?
Here’s one idea, which has been offered in this space before:
Take steps to guarantee the freedom of the press on Indian reservations.
For in order to solve their problems of governance, a free people need a free and independent press. And it’s just as simple as that.
Americans recognize this truth because it’s reflected in societies and hard-won experience around the world. It might be coincidence that free countries tend to guarantee and enforce press freedom, while tyrants everywhere make controlling the press one of their first priorities.
But probably not. For press freedom has a way of promoting political freedom, as the tyrants know. It does this by exposing corruption and pointing out other serious flaws — a force for the better in free societies, where elections then empower people to make change; but a force that runs counter to dictators’ interests, because even the strongest oligarch can’t suppress the rage of a fully informed people.
The First Amendment guarantees press freedom in the United States, of course. But on many Indian reservations, tribal officials can close meetings at will, deny access to records and even order reporters to be arrested.
That’s because “the First Amendment rights on Indian reservations are not protected under the U.S. Constitution,” as Minnesota Public Radio reported in 2001.
“Free speech protections are guaranteed under the Indian Civil Rights Act, but the Supreme Court has ruled that any alleged violation of free speech on the reservation should be resolved in tribal court. In many cases, that essentially means the tribal government is asked to sanction itself, since it appoints the judges and owns the media outlets.”
A great many American Indian leaders recognize this problem and want to solve it. For they, too, see the good that a free and independent press could do.
The Obama administration should capitalize on this goodwill by partnering with Indian tribes to more strongly guarantee press freedoms.
Then, perhaps the Gates Foundation or other wealthy benefactors could endow independent news outlets on select reservations. Doing so would overcome the financial barrier that has kept independent outlets from arising in the first place.
That’s the kind of reform that would bring about dramatic improvements over time on Indian reservations. And that’s the kind of effort the Obama administration and the tribes themselves should support.