Tim Giago: Freedom of the press not really alive in Indian Country

Ray Halbritter, Publisher and CEO of Indian Country Today weekly newspaper announced last week that the newspaper will become a weekly magazine to be called This Week from Indian Country Today. Let me give you a brief history of Indian Country Today as I know it.

The Oneida Nation has owned Indian Country Today going on 13 years. I founded ICT and owned it for 18 years prior to selling the paper to them. ICT was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1981 as The Lakota Times. As the newspaper grew into a national paper a contest was held within the paper looking for a new name to be more expressive of its now national stature. Lakota Times managing editor Avis Little Eagle won the contest by naming the paper Indian Country Today.

ICT was born and raised in Lakota country. Its founder was Lakota, not Oneida, but on its website you will see that Halbritter has completely erased the history of the great and wonderful years when ICT thrived among the Lakota people.

We started the newspaper because we wanted a vehicle that would report on the everyday activities of the people of the Pine Ridge Reservation. We wanted a paper that was not afraid to report the truth. And above all, we wanted a paper that did not censor any writer, whether in a letter or in a column, that we did not agree with. And in the 18 years I owned the Lakota Times/Indian Country Today, we followed that golden rule.

In the 13 years Ray Halbritter has owned Indian Country Today, the newspaper has never published a letter, a column or a news report that was critical of him, the Nation, or the newspaper. And that my friend, is known in the newspaper business as censorship.

As the former editor I began to receive letters shortly after I sold it, letters and emails that continue to come to me even today from Native Americans who were angry that letters and columns they wrote to ICT critical of Halbritter and of the newspaper, were never published.

I am recognized as a fair Indian country columnist, but not a single column of mine has ever appeared in Indian Country Today since December of 1998, the month I sold it to ICT. As the former editor of ICT and now the editor of Native Sun News, I had a philosophy: I didn’t give a hoot whether I liked or despised a Native columnist or letter writer; if their writing was pertinent to the issues of today, I published it. If I got a letter calling me an S.O.B. and my newspaper a good bottom liner for the birdcage, I published it.

Native American readers are not stupid and they recognize censorship when they don’t see it. According to a former ICT employee, Halbritter and staff trashed 18 years of the Lakota Times and the early Indian Country Today rather than keep them as archival referrals. The first 18 years of a truly great Indian newspaper went to the dumpster.