CONCHO, Okla. – Dana Attocknie sent out the e-mail with the news on April 10: she had been fired from her job as the editor of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal Tribune.
“The new administration fired me yesterday for publishing information they did not like,” she wrote.
She said she has the executive director of her former department, Eddie Hamilton, on tape confirming this. However, the official reason for her job loss was “reduction in force.”
Lisa Martin, the tribe’s public relations representative, said that Attocknie was removed due to reorganization and that a new job description, pay scale and title was created.
“Also, Ms. Attocknie published false information in the Tribal Tribune regarding a resolution,” Martin said.
Attocknie said the information referred to by Martin was an opinion published in the March 15 issue of the Tribune submitted by Michael Kodaseet, speaker of the tribe’s Third Legislature.
Kodaseet’s submission discusses an oversight hearing to determine whether Resolution No. 021096TC005, adopted in 1996, was enacted in accordance with Tribal Council policies and procedures. He accounts letters written by Gov. Janice Boswell and Ida Hoffman, acting executive director, among the documents and statements reviewed in the hearing.
Kodaseet concluded that the resolution was currently valid and “must be given full effect and enforcement under the Constitution of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Nation.”
He also acknowledged that the Tribal Council was bringing legislation to repeal that resolution.
The repeal was removed from proposed legislation at a special Tribal Council meeting on March 27. Proposed Resolution No. 5 was a “Resolution establishing the Tribes’ policy on gubernatorial confirmations,” which passed with an amendment to remove the last paragraph, that would have repealed No. 021096TC005.
“The opinion the legislature wrote about this 1996 act is what was submitted and what I published,” Attocknie said. “I don’t know how a legislative opinion is false.”
Attocknie, who had been with the tribe for more than two years, said she had butted heads with the new administration since it took office in January.
Hoffman, the new administration’s chief of staff, informed Attocknie in an e-mail on Jan. 4 that the administration would like to review the newspaper before it was printed.
Surprised, Attocknie said she asked if the move was censorship.
“We have a new admin. If it is your intent to call our request for information ‘censorship’ then that is entirely up to you,” Hoffman replied via e-mail.
Attocknie said neither the former governor nor his administration ever reviewed the newspaper. She said to review and approve the newspaper prior to publication was censorship, so she sought advice from Jeff Harjo, the executive director of the Native American Journalists Association. He had no reassuring words.
“Here is the bad news,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Until the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal council approves free press legislation similar to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and Osage tribe, you will have to provide a proof to the administration prior to printing.”
Harjo knows what he is talking about. Prior to his position with NAJA, he said he worked for tribal newspapers, including one where had to show each issue to the administration before it went to press. Another tribe he worked for, he said, wanted to see the first few issues and then he had free rein.
“If the tribe is paying the bills and the administration controls the money, you don’t get to print everything and generally have to report on the positives and not place the administration in a bad light,” Harjo wrote.
He said he agreed with Attocknie’s assessment of censorship.
“I would hope that both sides of an issue receive equal print, but if the administration is overseeing and asking to see each issue before it is printed, I would consider that censorship and not a free press,” he said.
The Cherokee Nation passed its Free Press Act on July 17, 2000.
According to the 2000 Report to the Cherokee people issued by the tribe, “An important aspect of the (Free Press) Act calls for the publication of all the news of the Cherokee Nation without fear of political recriminations. The news staff must still follow standards of conduct and ethics required of all employees of the Cherokee Nation, but they can’t be fired for reporting the news, fairly and evenhandedly.”
The Osage Nation’s Independent Press Act went into effect in 2009.
“I’ve accepted the fact that some times as the leader, I have to make unpopular decisions in the best interest of the Nation. I’ve accepted that when I do, I open myself up to criticism,” Jim Gray, chief of the Osage Nation wrote in response to a column titled “Freedom of the Press and the Osage News” written by Ryan Red Corn on www.votingosage.org.
“I think we are still learning new ways to improve the newspaper and its companion Web site. No tribal nation that I know of (except for the Navajo Times and the Cherokee Phoenix), have produced independent models. The true test of an independent press is when it exercises its right to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted and not get their budget cut,” Gray wrote.
Attocknie said she could have just “bitten the bullet” and toed the line. But that wasn’t in her nature.
“Although the administration did sign my paycheck, I was hired to manage the newspaper. Journalists work for all the people, not for only a handful of people in the administration. It’s our responsibility to relate all pertinent information to the people and to help give the people a voice. The newspaper belongs to the people,” Attocknie said.
For the administration, the Tribune is its avenue of communication.
“We are a sovereign nation and exercise our right to publish positive aspects within the tribe through our tribal newspaper,” said Martin. “Publications are an avenue amongst our tribe and it is imperative that tribal members receive accurate information.”
Attocknie said her job was to be the editor of the newspaper and that there were no traditional public relations duties she was responsible for. She added that all public relations were handled in the executive office. She feels people have a right to know everything about their government, good and bad, she said.
“Despite all the attempts at control, I continued to work without fear and always kept the people in mind. Although, I knew the censorship issue would resurface once we published something the executive branch alone did not like,” Attocknie said. “I have no reason to hang my head down. No one was able to compromise my ethics and I left with my integrity intact. If I allowed the administration to censor the paper I would not be able to look at myself or look at the tribal members knowing their newspaper was filtered. I would no longer be a journalist, but merely a tool.”
Rosemary Stephens, who was the newspaper’s reporter and graphic artist, is now the editor.