Two weeks ago, I flew out to Phoenix, Ariz. to attend the annual Native Media Conference, hosted by the Native American Journalist’s Association and Native Public Media. In large part, this was made possible by 13 generous donors who helped me raise enough money to pay for my hotel and airfare after a sponsor backed out at the last minute. If you were one of the contributors, expect your thank you notes this week!
Partially out of accountability to those contributors and partially out of a need to personally reflect, I wanted to write something about my time at the conference, but I don’t want to cover the sessions and workshops I attended or what I learned about FOIA requests, VAWA and social media policy, even though I learned quite a bit about all those things and am excited about taking these ideas and tips back to all the many organizations I work for and with. And I don’t want to spend a lot of time gushing about how I never feel more safe, comfortable and supported — positively buoyed — than I do when I’m in a room full of In’dins.
What I want to share is what was truly the best conference session I have attended during my (admittedly young) career — “Applying Native American Values in Leadership,” led by Karen Lincoln Michel, executive editor of the Daily Advertiser in Lafayette, La., Tom Arviso, publisher of the Navajo Times and Margaret Holt, standards editor at the Chicago Tribune.
Initially, Michel, Arviso and Holt led a panel-type discussion going over personal experiences and why and how Native values are uniquely positioned to result in good leadership and good journalism. They then opened up to questions and discussion with the session participants.
Everything that was discussed was incredibly relevant, true and useful. Arviso made a good point in saying that “as a community voice, you are automatically a leader,” and that really stuck with me — as a voice, you must take responsibility for what you say. This is could be just another way of saying be credible, but Arviso’s version says a little bit more to me — namely that you must be honorable in the way you speak or write. You must keep those leadership values of self-awareness, self-direction, vision, ability to motivate and social awareness in mind when you are reporting and writing.
More importantly, however, as people with Native values, we are respectful, we are inherently storytellers and we are taught to have kindness for all. Michel shared a Plains Indian proverb that spoke well of this idea: “Give me knowledge so that I may have kindness for all.” We know that the goal of obtaining knowledge is not to gain power, but to gain understanding, and therefore kindness.
Another point that Michel touched upon, and I was so happy that she did, was taking care of yourself, in whatever ways you need. Not just dressing professionally or eating well, but she mentioned spiritual well-being as well. This is an area that many dismiss or forget about, but it is so important in dealing with the stress that leadership (and journalism, and journalistic leadership) will bring. Particularly, I think of the many ethical questions that can arise in these areas, and the importance of knowing yourself and being confident in your ability to navigate through the difficult situations that will arise.
More than anything, I want to share one little sentence that will undoubtedly stick with me for the rest of my life. During the discussion, we touched upon the difficulty of being an Indigenous person in a leadership position at a mainstream organization. A woman (whose name I most unfortunately cannot remember) sitting behind me said something that floored me:
“Your identity is sacred.“
At first, being young and being an eternal fighter, I wanted to argue “You shouldn’t have to hide who you are, you should tell everyone to deal with it, etc!” But the more I thought about it, the more I understood (and therefore also learned some much-needed humility, in addition to everything that follows). That wasn’t what she meant at all.
By no means do I think that I parade my identity around, but more often than not it does come up. That’s partially because of what I do — when you work on ethnically-specific issues and/or for ethnically-specific organizations and causes, you will inevitably be asked about your identity or be required to offer it as an explanation of sorts. I’ve also had the unique privilege (note my sarcasm) of being a token for men I’ve dated, even for some “friends.” On the flip side, I’ve had people ask “Did you just discover this or something? It’s all you ever talk about.” There are deep, complex issues at hand in both cases, too much for me to get into now, but my point is that for the most part, I feel that I place pretty solidly in between the two extremes.
Because of this, I’ve never questioned whether the way I chose to express my identity might be contributing to my own problems. This is incredibly difficult for me to explain, and I’m afraid it’s going to come off as shame. That is absolutely not what I am proposing, quite the opposite actually. In other words, I have such pride and passion for who I am that I will chose not to express it with reckless abandon, but rather with keen and deliberate care. To put it bluntly, and to make a metaphor that is hopefully illustrative — it is the same reason we do not allow photographs of ceremonies.
Ironically enough for a journalism conference, all of this reflection has taught me one very important thing: be quiet. Listen. Most importantly, listen to our elders. Listen to the community. Listen so well that you can feel it. It should hurt, it should be enormous, it should be dense and heavy. As a journalist, you are a story-teller. People are telling you their stories, giving you their identities, and entrusting you with those precious experiences. To be honorable in what you do with them, you must listen first and speak second.
For me, what all of this means is, in short, relief. I have spent much of the past few years worrying that I am not exploring and writing about every little issue that arises in Indian country. I constantly feel as if I am not doing enough, and certainly not doing it fast enough, and not knowing enough to do anything anyway. But now I feel comforted in understanding that telling the full story, the real story, could take a long time, and that’s okay. (In reality, it could take forever. But I can’t handle that sort of pressure.)
This all has reiterated my belief in the importance of long form journalism and in my own personal need to focus. I have a terrible habit of saying yes to everything, of wanting to do it all. I love helping people and I love chaos, and that all too often leads to me crashing and burning every couple of months. So with a renewed spirit, I am content to sit, listen and watch, to take notes and learn, and to work diligently and constantly, with my head down, my heart full and my eyes bright. And because of this, I can say with confidence that you can expect great things from me.
“We take extra time, but we are not slow,” said Arviso at the end of the session. As a perpetual late-bloomer, someone who is always at least three steps behind, this was one of the most comforting and uplifting things I have ever heard.