Sierra Clark


I am an Anishinaabe kwe (woman) from the Kitchiwikwedongsing (Grand Traverse Bay) region of what we now call Michigan.

I struggle to trust journalists, and I’m tired of repeating myself.

In 2017, replicas of ships Christopher Columbus sailed docked in Traverse City, invited by the Maritime Heritage Alliance. The group’s organizers promoted the visit for the ships’ status as a technological marvel in marine navigation.

For me and my community, the educational value of the ships wasn’t worth the pain and trauma they bring. Fancy hull design doesn’t make me want to be up close and personal with symbols of genocide. That’s especially true when history lessons and monuments omit mention of indigenous children Columbus trafficked, or the 400 years of colonization he set in motion.

Many in my community organized a peaceful gathering to meet the ships. I hadn’t planned on participating, but my aunt asked for my help. She said family and friends were doing a ceremony and they needed me there to pray.

So, I put on my ribbon skirt and headed to the Open Space. My community gathered, crying and heartbroken that we were silenced once again, our voices muddled under these “attractions.”

That day, I was photographed by the Traverse City Record-Eagle. When I saw it in the paper the next afternoon, there I was, front and center, fist raised in the air. Angry.

I was angry, but the photo and its caption didn’t give any space for that anger. It didn’t mention that police followed and videotaped us as we protested and prayed peacefully.

That image conveyed a stereotype I refuse to accept.

It did not mention that only when we cried out loud, were we then given space to tell the history of those ships from our perspective, and even then, we were placed away from the “main event.”

I know it was unintentional, but that day I felt dehumanized again, because of all the things that the photo and caption didn’t convey. I say again because such reductions are not new to Indigenous communities.

They were common during Standing Rock — a Dahkota-led resistance against the Keystone XL Pipeline. Journalists poured into North Dakota from all over the globe to cover the protests, but mainstream publications failed to ask who the Dahkota are. The lack of complexity in that coverage, and more like it, is a continued journalistic failure. It leaves room for assumptions and stereotypes — ample and easy to conjure for nonnative readers and viewers.

The mainstream historical image of Indigenous people is one of western movies and romanticized portrayal. There are more than 500 tribes in the United States, with different languages, stories and cultures. Anishinaabe were and are primarily fishers, hunters, and gatherers, so there’s no way I would be riding a horse alongside John Wayne.

In contemporary news coverage, Native Americans are used to being the subject for a story, not the audience. This reduces our communities to a concept or idea rather than strong, resilient people.

Google search Native American news: more than half the first page of results are non-Indigenous journalists who seem to be writing for other non-Indigenous readers.

When our stories are told for us, it can also further perpetuate the idea that Indigenous communities need constant saving. I saw it that day reading the Record Eagle, and I continue to see it in 2020. It’s nothing new, but it’s time to change.

So, that’s why I’m here.

I’m getting a crash-course in journalism because I care so deeply for our community. I want to help contextualize our experiences, and debunk stereotypes. And as a water protector and somebody with a degree in freshwater sciences, I can’t wait to investigate drinking water pollution, an issue that affects many Indigenous households, and hold institutions accountable for it.

I hope to earn the trust of readers both Native and nonnative, and bridge the gap facing the two worlds I walk in everyday by improving the relationship between journalists and Indigenous communities. It is time to hold journalism to a higher standard.

I am tired of the same narrative. I am tired of reporters coming into Indigenous communities with no understanding of our culture or ways of life, and doing their work as cheaply and quickly as possible.

I’m less angry than I am disappointed and concerned. I am fed up with the same shallow version of myself and other Native peoples being reported over and over again.

I want to be clear, I don’t point blame at anyone in particular, it’s a systemic issue.

That’s why I’m here. Helping change the system.

I am hopeful.

But I’m also afraid that I’m repeating myself, only to be unheard, again.

Sierra Clark reports for the Traverse City Record-Eagle on a fellowship through the Mishigamiing Journalism Project, which seeks to improve Indigenous representation in newsrooms in what is now known as Michigan. You can support Sierra's reporting here.

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