October 22, 2020

At 10, Pauly Denetclaw found an article in Time Magazine that she’d keep, and read again and again, for years. It was about girls going through puberty at a young age, which she was.

In her Gallup, New Mexico, home, her parents always each bought and brought home a copy of the newspaper. But Denetclaw didn’t see journalism as an option until she was 14 or 15 and discovered the “Gilmore Girls.”

“I truly believe the ‘Gilmore Girls’ created an entire generation of female journalists,” she said.

It was the first time she’d seen women working as journalists, and the first time she saw a real woman who was a journalist thanks to a guest appearance by Christiane Amanpour.

Now, Denetclaw’s own career as a journalist is devoted to making sure Indigenous people are seen and heard. For years, that was through media outlets that served Native communities.

“When I went into journalism, I went in with the intention to report on Indigenous communities because I think there are so many racist narratives that are pervasive through nonnative media outlets,” said Denetclaw, who is a citizen of the Navajo Nation.

But in September, she took that approach to The Texas Observer, where she’s the first reporter on its new Indigenous Affairs desk.

“Indigenous communities and stories represent the most underserved by journalists in Texas. In fact, for the last 50 years, the only stories major Texas newsrooms have bothered to look into primarily revolve around casinos and powwows. There has been almost no reporting done on the impact of COVID-19, on law enforcement relationships, climate change impacts, voting access, health care systems, politics, art, sex, or treaty rights to name a few,” publisher Mike Kanin wrote in a press release about the news. “For whatever reason, news organizations in Texas don’t report on Indigenous communities. The Texas Observer intends to be different.”

Denetclaw previously worked for the Navajo Times. Her editors have always been Indigenous and people of color. And they all supported the kind of reporting she wanted to do — embedded in anti-racism and Indigeneity.

She had no intention of working for a nonnative media outlet, she said, until she learned about the job at The Texas Observer and saw they’d hired editor Tristan Ahtone, who is a member of the Kiowa Tribe.

In September, the Observer published “The Anti-Indigenous Handbook,” which “reveals some of the most common attacks Indigenous communities face today.”

The Observer does fearless investigative reporting, said Denetclaw, and she was ready to move from breaking news to more long-form reporting with them. She’s already started, with a project looking into the deaths of two Navajo soldiers at Fort Hood. That piece published online this week.

Denetclaw thinks bringing her work to a bigger audience offers them the opportunity to learn about the issues that matter in Indian Country and beyond.

There’s an opportunity for non-native journalists, too, to make sure the Native American voices in their communities are heard year-round and not just at Thanksgiving and on Indigenous People’s Day, she said.

“I think that we are so forgotten that it perpetuates this narrative that Native people don’t exist anymore.”

You can see how wrong that narrative is by following some other reporters Denetclaw recommends, including Shondiin Silversmith at The Arizona Republic, Nick Martin at The New Republic and Graham Lee Brewer at High Country News. Navajo Times and Indian Country Today also do amazing work, she said, on a daily basis.

Denetclaw also recommends turning to resources from the Native American Journalists Association, which has primers on how to cover the Violence Against Women’s Act, the Indian Child Welfare Act and recommended terminology. There’s also a BINGO card that, if marked, “may signal cliched storytelling.”

“If you get a BINGO,” Denetclaw said, “you need to rewrite your article.”

Image via NAJA


This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists. Kristen Hare covers the business and people of local news for Poynter.org and is the editor of Locally. You can subscribe to her weekly newsletter here. Kristen can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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