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Analysis Diversity American Indians/Indigenous Issues

New book: News Media and Indigenous Fight for Federal Recognition

Interview with Dr. Cristina Azocar

Cristina Azocar with her Book's cover in the background

By Masudul Biswas
Media Diversity Forum

(April 19, 2022) - Dr. Cristina Azocar, professor of journalism at San Francisco State University, has recently published a book, “News Media and Indigenous Fight for Federal Recognition.”

On this occasion, the Media Diversity Forum has interviewed Dr. Azocar about her new book over Zoom. Dr. Azocar also served as Media Diversity Forum’s editor of American Indians and Indigenous issues.

Published by Rowman and Littlefield, a major finding of this book is how news media reinforced "ignorance and stereotypes" about Tribal sovereignty. This 172-page book is now available both in hardback and eBook formats.

Some of the issues covered in this book are: “Who is Indian and Who Decides?”, “Federal recognition, Jim Crow and the News Media,” “Hegemony, Framing and Agenda-setting in Indian Country,” “Indigenous Standpoint Theory and News Coverage,” “Perspectives from Native Journalists and Legal Experts on Covering Federal,” and “Indigenous Standpoint Journalism for Non-Indigenous Journalists.” Find more about Table of Contents on the publisher’s website.

Interview with Dr. Cristina Azocar

Masudul Biswas (MB): Why did you decide to write a book on Indigenous communities’ fight for federal recognition?

Cristina Azocar (CA): I used to be a member of the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe, but once we received federal recognition, I became a citizen of the Tribe. About 15 years ago my uncle Kenny Adams, who was the chief at the time, and I were speaking together on the federal recognition of our Tribe at the National Museum of the American Indian (which hadn't been open very long). We were there with a representative from the Bureau of Indian affairs talking to a group of reporters. The reporters were asking questions about casinos. I thought it was so weird that reporters were asking questions about casinos, and not about federal recognition.

Around the same time, I was watching my uncle testify before an Indian Affairs Committee Senate hearing about our Tribe’s federal recognition. Former Senator John McCain was the chair of the committee at that time. John McCain said, if we give you federal recognition, are you going to have a casino? Here's the casino question again. So, my uncle said, “no, we're Baptists. We're not going to have a casino where we're against gambling. It's not part of what we do.” So, I had this thing in the back of my head for years and years -- what is the main media information that comes out when a Tribe is seeking federal recognition? When a Tribe is federally recognized, then they have a sovereign relationship with the United States government. With that comes the ability to have economic development and to take care of our people for services like housing and education. Tribes that don't have federal recognition do not have that sovereign relationship with the government. So, I was interested in how the how the media covered a process that the general public knows little about.

My Tribe started the process for federal recognition in the seventies and finally got recognized in 2018 through an act of Congress. Many tribes try to use the Federal Acknowledgement Process, and this requires lots of documentation.

I collected as many articles as I could find in available databases. There were only 4,000 articles about any Tribe’s federal recognition in 40 years. These were news articles run by a wide range of news outlets, i.e. magazines, newspapers, and broadcast media.

instead of framing the stories of the Tribes seeking federal recognition, they were framed as stories about casinos. But they shouldn't be conflated.

As I was reading the articles, I noticed that instead of framing the stories of the Tribes seeking federal recognition, they were framed as stories about casinos. But they shouldn't be conflated.

MB: What is your experience of working on this book and how long did it take you to complete this book?

CA: I started thinking about this study in 2017. Then I got a sabbatical to work on it in the spring of 2018. So that was when I really started working on it.

It started out to be a very academic paper, and possibly a monograph based on content analysis of all the articles I could find using the search terms “American Indian,” “Native American” and “federal recognition” or “federal acknowledgement.” Then I cross referenced them with the terms sovereignty and casinos to see how often each came up.

During that time, I was also working with Dr. Victoria LaPoe at Ohio University on another project on Indigenous news media and the COVID-19 pandemic. For that study, Victoria suggested we use Indigenous Standpoint Theory (IST) instead of examining the Indigenous media coverage through a Western perspective, such as agenda-setting or framing. This approach of de-colonization helped me shape my research focus on federal recognition. We [Indigenous people] know how our communities operate and IST can better explain the relevant news coverage. So, in addition to using Western theories such as agenda setting or framing, I was able to expand the academic paper-driven study to an expanded book by using IST. Hence, I have a part of the book that used Western theories and then part of it looked at the indigenous standpoint.

To apply IST, I interviewed Indigenous journalists. I also interviewed two white journalists since their perspectives about Native issues was altered after working with native journalists. Interviews were fascinating since it offered me ideas to reach out to more other sources for information. I received a suggestion from Patty Talahongva, a reporter at Indian Country Today to contact the Native American Rights Fund (NARF). Then I went to the NARF’s website and found out that Dan Lewerenz works there. Dan was the president of the Native American Journalist Association when I first got elected to its board of directors. He is a lawyer now. So, I talked to him and he said, “oh, you should interview this person.” After then I ended up interviewing multiple lawyers who are experienced with Native rights issues. One of them was Arlinda Locklear who was first licensed native woman to try a case before the Supreme Court. Her perspectives were instrumental in writing an entire chapter explaining why federal recognition does not equate to casinos.

This is how the stream of knowledge of Indigenous journalists led me to explore other knowledge among Indigenous communities, and that is what made the book much more interesting. At the end, I interviewed my uncle.

I wanted that picture on the book cover because it symbolizes how knowledge is passed on, and how I came to this point to write a book because of the knowledge and responsibility they gave me. So, I wanted to honor my great grandmother who I never met because she had died before I was born.

The content analysis part of the book can be boring, but the stories or context about that content that I learned through interviews is interesting. At the end, this book project ended up becoming a much more personal and it did not end up becoming a straight academic book. Luckily, the editor at Lexington Books was accepting to my ideas to hopefully make the book more relatable to people in academia and outside. For example, the picture of the turkey feather mantle on the book cover had nothing to do with the book’s content. It is the mantle that my great grandmother made and it is exhibited at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation museum in Virginia. But I wanted that picture on the book cover because it symbolizes how knowledge is passed on, and how I came to this point to write a book because of the knowledge and responsibility they gave me. So, I wanted to honor my great grandmother who I never met because she had died before I was born.

Because of that, the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation will also sell the book in their gift shop. In this way, this book can reach different audiences, not just for use in the classrooms or other research.

MB: Thanks for sharing this context about your book. Now it takes us to the question that you alluded at the end of your last response. How can communication or journalism faculty can utilize your book in their classes?

CA: First of all, there's never been anything, not even a research article in communication, done on federal recognition and the media. When I first began this research process, I looked for articles on federal recognition in academic databases, but only found materials related to law.

People don't know about federal Indian law and people don't know how complicated federal Indian law is when you're teaching communication, when you're teaching journalism, when you're teaching public relations and such. So, people can easily paint Indigenous people as victims and as getting benefits that they were not entitled to.

My hope for this book is when a journalist has to do a topic as complicated as covering Tribes is that they'll pick it up and at least thumb through the tips to covering a Tribe or federal recognition.

There's information such as why Tribes need federal recognition, and why Tribes have to have to go through a process to get federal recognition. I also wrote this book in a non-academic way and kept it shorter as my goal is to not make it appear intimidating to the students. My hope is undergraduates and graduate students can pick up this book as a reference. I tried to make the index really, really robust so that things are easy to find.

The book has also stories in it. As communication researchers, we realize there's stories behind the stories that we are trying to get our students to tell.

MB: What is next? Do you plan to continue to work on this issue of federal recognition and the media more?

CA: So I'm working on a co-edited book proposal on “Decolonizing Media Research”. I just received a grant for this proposed book.

The current practices is how communities of color are portrayed in media are largely based on Western lenses/perspectives. We're looking at the way our people are through a Western lens. It doesn't really work. What I hope to do with this book is to create a framework for media researchers to look at media through our own lenses instead of through a white lens.

The grant money will be used to pay the contributors/authors of chapters in the new book. A part of the decolonizing framework is paying people to do the work. All those writing chapters and all of those we interview and whose knowledge we take for the book will be compensated.

Our knowledge, as people of color is always taken from us. And we are rarely compensated as brown and black people. For our knowledge, we are asked to do many, many things for free.