Tribes shut down long-lived paper

2008-02-07T23:00:00Z Tribes shut down long-lived paperKevin Abourezk Lincoln Journal Star The Billings Gazette
February 07, 2008 11:00 pm  • 

The Fort Peck Tribes of Montana operated the Wotanin Wowapi continuously since 1968, making it one of the oldest tribal newspapers in the country.

That was until Jan. 28, when the tribe shut it down, citing the newspaper's inability to become self-sufficient.

Tribal council member Tom Christian said the tribe gave $59,000 to the paper last year to keep it afloat.

But the Wotanin Wowapi couldn't compete with an independently owned paper on the tribe's northeast Montana reservation.

"It was costing the tribe a considerable amount of money," he said of the newspaper. "Nobody was reading it anymore."

The Wotanin Wowapi's former editor, Lisa Perry, could not be reached for comment.

Christian said the newspaper lacked experienced staff. It had become a political tool used by tribal leaders to further their own causes, he said.

By contrast, the independent Fort Peck Journal - started in April 2006 by former Wotanin Wowapi editor Bonnie Red Elk - proved more effective at covering tribal government in a balanced way, he said.

Red Elk said the tribe's members expressed their desire for independent news by declining to buy or advertise in the Wotanin Wowapi. She cited her 30 years of newspaper experience as another reason why tribal members chose to read the Fort Peck Journal instead of the tribe's newspaper.

"Their news wasn't the same as ours," she said. "I'm so used to covering the government."

The issue of tribally owned newspapers is a controversial one nationally, pitting freedom of the press advocates against tribal leaders, who see no problem with operating their own newspapers.

Jeff Harjo, executive director of the Native American Journalists Association, said he worked for 10 years as the editor of tribal papers.

He said he always knew there were things he could write - and things he couldn't.

Harjo said he knew of few independent newspapers among the nearly 400 American Indian newspapers across the country.

"When the tribe is holding the purse strings, you really don't have freedom of the press," he said. "When you're independent, all of that changes. You can write about whatever you want."

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