Freedom of the Press Not Exactly Alive in Indian Country

01/21/2011 01:39 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ray Halbritter, Publisher and CEO of the Indian Country Today weekly newspaper announced last week that the newspaper will become a weekly magazine to be called This Week from Indian Country Today. Let me give you a brief history of Indian Country Today as I know it.

The Oneida Nation has owned Indian Country Today going on 13 years. I founded ICT and owned it for 18 years prior to selling the paper to them. ICT was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1981 as The Lakota Times. As the newspaper grew into a national paper a contest was held within the paper looking for a new name to be more expressive of its now national stature. Lakota Times managing editor Avis Little Eagle won the contest by naming the paper Indian Country Today.

ICT was born and raised in Lakota country. Its founder was Lakota, not Oneida, but on its website you will see that Halbritter has completely erased the history of the great and wonderful years when ICT thrived among the Lakota people.

Indian Country Today has a rich history generated from its humble beginnings in a former beauty parlor on the main street of Pine Ridge Village. My then wife Doris, my lifetime friends Melvin "Dickey" Brewer and his former wife Alma, Scotty a member of the Marist Brothers, and our first typesetter, Mary Irving, made up the team that cleaned up the old beauty parlor, converted the hair washing sinks to layout and design tables, changed an old closet into a darkroom, and set up our brand new Compugraphic Machine and cranked out the first issue of the Lakota Times and took it to the printer in Chadron, Nebraska on July 1, 1981.

We started the newspaper because we wanted a vehicle that would report on the everyday activities of the people of the Pine Ridge Reservation. We wanted a paper that was not afraid to report the truth. And above all, we wanted a paper that did not censor any writer, whether in a letter or in a column, that we did not agree with. And in the 18 years I owned the Lakota Times/Indian Country Today, we followed that golden rule.

In the 13 years Ray Halbritter has owned Indian Country Today, the newspaper has never published a letter, a column or a news report that was critical of him or the newspaper. And that my friend, is known in the newspaper business as censorship.

As a newspaper man, I applaud the direction Indian Country Today is taking. Any kind of growth in this industry is laudable. But the newspaper I founded in 1981 and sold in 1998 to the Oneida Nation had the opportunity, nay the obligation, to continue the tenets held sacred by us of freedom of the press and freedom of expression and they did not.

How do I know this? As the former editor and publisher of Indian Country Today I began to receive letters shortly after I sold it, letters and emails that continue to come to me from Native Americans who were angry that letters and columns they wrote to ICT critical of Halbritter and of the newspaper itself, were never published.

I am recognized as a fair Indian country columnist, but not a single column of mine has ever appeared in Indian Country Today since December of 1998, the month I sold it to ICT. As the former editor of ICT and now the editor of Native Sun News, I had a philosophy: I didn't give a hoot whether I liked or despised a Native columnist or letter writer; if their writing was pertinent to the issues of today, I published it. If I got a letter calling me an S.O.B. and my newspaper a good bottom liner for the birdcage, I published it.

And that is what is important in a newspaper and if ICT is now to become a magazine, Halbritter should initiate a policy of freedom of the press and freedom of expression as a basic part of its new role in the media.

Native American readers are not stupid and they recognize censorship when they don't see it. According to a former ICT employee, Halbritter and staff trashed 18 years of the Lakota Times and the early Indian Country Today rather than keep them as archival referrals. The first 18 years of a truly great Indian newspaper went to the dumpster.

As we move further into the 21st century, perhaps newspapers and even magazines will become irrelevant, but the basic traditions of freedom of the press and freedom of expression should remain as the guidelines of any form of media that may emerge.

I look forward to reading the first edition of This Week from Indian Country, but in the back of my mind I will always wonder how many Native writers were censored before the magazine went to press.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the editor and publisher of Native Sun News. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the first Native American ever inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com

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