10 tips for covering Indigenous peoples' realities

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  • October 6, 2022

*By Kirvin Larios. This article was originally published by Fundación Gabo.

The ways of portraying Indigenous peoples are changing and journalism cannot live outside this reality. For years, the existence of Indigenous communities has been seen in the Latin American region as a problem. According to journalist Edilma Prada, founder of Agenda Propia, there are more than 800 Indigenous groups in the continent, each with a particular worldview and a way of narrating themselves, of living their culture, their own language and ways of relating to the world. Moreover, their strong sense of community has much to say to the "individualism" of the West, but also to the conception and development of journalistic work.

Indigenous communities have been stigmatized by academia, institutions and the media. How can journalists tell and inform about their own people? What forms of participation do experts propose to break with the paradigms that perpetuate stereotypes? What practices should be taken into account when covering these topics? And why is it necessary to involve Indigenous peoples in journalistic and even editorial work?

These and other questions were addressed during the webinar 'The Indigenous word: A conquest of dignity, memory and life.' This was the third in the series of webinars 'Possible scenarios for a diverse and inclusive journalism,' organized by the Gabo Foundation and the EUNIC Colombia cluster (European Union National Institutes for Culture), within the framework of the EULAT 4 Culture initiative. In addition to Edilma Prada, Mexican Juan Manuel Jiménez Ocaña, an expert in interculturalism and Indigenous education, participated in the discussion.

Tips for telling the story of Indigenous peoples’ realities

1. Ending victimization and criminalization

"Journalistic stories about Indigenous peoples are generally told by portraying them or their community as victims," Edilma Prada said. From this perspective, they are seen as the "poor little ones," or the "excluded." This is a recurrent representation in headlines and press articles throughout Latin America.

Additionally, the narrative of "official sources" has chosen to criminalize legitimate acts by Indigenous groups, such as protests or meetings in which they demand that their rights be respected. "During the height of the armed conflict in Colombia, they were often accused of being guerrillas or of belonging to illegal armed groups," Prada said. In addition, there’s a narrative that has sought to portray them as drug traffickers, without taking into account cultural aspects such as the planting of coca leaves, considered sacred to many Indigenous peoples.

2. Moving away from the Western ‘frame of reference’

There is "a representation of the Indigenous person as someone who must be civilized, made cultured and taught Spanish so they can be incorporated, integrated and move forward," Jiménez Ocaña said. This approach has prevented us from showing the Indigenous communities with their own ways of interpreting and naming the world. Thus we have imposed our own "reference framework," in addition to a "messianic" posture and "a shell of Eurocentrism" from which we assume that we can give them what they "need."

Faced with this, Jiménez Ocaña considers that another way is to "give them a voice," not in terms of condescension or "good will" but out of respect. We must that there are other thoughts, voices and views beyond those predominant in academia and institutions. "It is important to see that there are other epistemological and linguistic possibilities that are not just objects of study, but that can help us grow together," he said.

3. Do not confuse their ways of life with ‘poverty’

Understanding that for all Indigenous peoples there must be a guarantee of human rights (among them the right to clean air, drinking water, sufficient food, health, security, etc.), their ways of life should not be confused with "poverty" or with what we usually associate with that concept. Such is the case with certain media and journalists who visit Indigenous communities in the jungles. Although it is true that some of them live in conditions of "complicated precariousness," Prada said, it must be taken into account that some of those conditions are due to ways of life - such as living in malocas [large communal dwellings] - or to the spiritual knowledge of the community. Oftentimes they have an abundance of food. Urgent calls communities make to governments and journalists point to the climate crisis, armed conflicts, migrations, and a respectful portrayal of their problems.

4. Knowing and valuing them

Discrimination suffered by Indigenous peoples today continues to be structural. "Many times it comes from the government institutions of the State, either by omission or by stressing the impossibility of accessing fundamental rights," Jiménez Ocaña said. He believes the interculturality of native peoples should be understood not only as a theoretical or academic issue, but also as a "philosophy of life." For this reason, he recommends relating to others with respect and also valuing them. Trying to leave behind our "ignorance" on these issues, since "we cannot value what we do not know."

5. Let Indigenous persons be their own narrators

For Jiménez Ocaña, it is important to understand that the diversity of Indigenous peoples contains views that need to be incorporated into the stories, "and if possible, let them be their own narrators," he said.

Prada said that in Agenda Propia they have talked about the need to "decolonize journalism" and question the "structure established" by traditional models for writing stories and reporting. "It is a rigid structure, of course important, but we live in a moment where there is flexibility and respect for different narratives."

6. Acknowledge that they are an ‘official source’

Usually, official sources to talk about Indigenous issues are governments or the experts of the day, the police or an institutional voice. However, Indigenous peoples do not have their own space for participation when viewed by others. "We must value Indigenous peoples as an official source," Prada said. She explained that journalism must always be rigorous, contrast sources and investigate thoroughly, but it must also be open to the diversity of Indigenous voices and abandon the traditional framework that has failed to include them. "When we do stories about these peoples, it is extremely important to include Indigenous voices," she said.

7. Link them to the editorial process

It is not only a matter of naming or quoting Indigenous voices, but also of making them part of the editorial process. Prada suggests creating an editorial agenda with the participation of Indigenous peoples' voices, sitting down "the leaders and the communities in newsrooms so that they can say what is going on," in order to stop creating editorial agendas from the editor's or journalist's point of view alone.

In this sense, she says, there is a lack of "intercultural editors" with the sensitivity to edit stories narrated by Indigenous journalists. In the case of Agenda Propia, they use editorial advisors, mostly women, to include the knowledge of Indigenous wise women with experience in communication. This editorial process would help to deepen the issues, pointing out when a work is misinformed or a community is misrepresented, or if an issue is not sufficiently understood or a voice is missing.

8. Let them tell their own stories

Given the existence of Indigenous journalists, coverage of Indigenous issues should consider their own forms of communication and storytelling. Indigenous peoples have "their own genres related to their culture, language, music, and listening to the land." It is necessary to "respect that perspective" when writing stories.

Some works elaborated with Indigenous journalists or storytellers in Agenda Propia:

9. Understanding the importance of languages

The native languages of Indigenous peoples are at risk of disappearing. Of the 25 million Mexicans who self-identify as Indigenous, seven million are speakers of a native language, according to Jiménez Ocaña. "Losing a language is like losing a culture, and that is terrible," he said. To stop this from happening, it is necessary to go beyond mere translations and stop believing that the Indigenous language can be understood based on the parameters of Spanish. Intercultural and bilingual academic curricula in universities, designed from an Indigenous perspective, their culture, landscapes, ways of life and, of course, language and dialect variants, play an important role in this.

10. Learning from their sense of community

Parallel to the practices and tips mentioned here, it is important to delve into the sense of community that nestles in Indigenous peoples, their ways of receiving knowledge and relating to nature, so different from those promoted by Western culture and capitalism. "We have grown up under an individualistic gaze. Indigenous people have a deep sense of the collective, of the community. They do not exist without their community and their community does not exist without them," Jiménez Ocaña said. In other words, journalism to narrate and inform about Indigenous peoples cannot exist without their voice and participation in every step of the process.

(Header image: Indigenous women from the Kanamari people in the Vale do Javari Indigenous Land in Amazonas, Brazil, in 2018. Photo by Bruno Kelly/Amazônia Real)