Constructing two cultural realities: Newspaper coverage of two American Indian protest events

Mavis Ione Richardson
School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Minnesota
July, 2005


This dissertation discusses constructions in newspaper coverage of two Native American protests---the occupations of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building in Washington, D.C., in November 1972, and of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, from February through early May 1973. Because constructions reflect culture and Native American and American mainstream cultures differ, constructions in newspapers for Native Americans were expected to differ from those in mainstream newspapers. Coverage was studied to identify frames and larger narratives---including myths---in one mainstream and two Native American newspapers. As expected, constructions in the two Native American newspapers, Akwesasne Notes and Wassaja, clearly reflected Indian culture, while those in the one mainstream newspaper, the New York Times, reflected the dominant white culture. The events in the New York Times were constructed as insignificant and marginal, the protests as ineffective, trivial and weak, Native American as not to be taken seriously, and U.S. government participants as responsible and effective. The events were constructed in the two Native American newspapers as peaceful, spiritual undertakings, the protest as well-organized and purposeful, Native Americans as active and purposeful champions of their race, and non-Native Americans as either simply a presence or embodiment of power or opponent or as trivial and deceitful.
Larger narratives of the events in the mainstream newspaper de-legitimized both events while coverage in both Native American newspapers' coverage told of very serious, solemn quests based on firm resolve and conviction of their rightness. A plot line of war was identified in all three newspapers. A dominant plot line in both Native American newspapers' coverage was of well- organized protest that disintegrated into disorder. Eight myths about Indians identified in the coverage included degraded, destitute Indian; bad Indian; people bereft of civilization; exotic relics of the past; noble savages reborn as prophets or saviors; victims of oppression who rose up against a powerful oppressor; legendary warriors fighting a modern conflict to preserve rights; and heroic and noble warriors trying to hold out against a superior force. These myths underline the cultural differences and reveal perpetuated treatment of Native Americans as 'the other' in American culture.