Ray Halbritter, the representative of the Oneida Nation and the chief executive officer of Oneida Nation Enterprises, served as the publisher of Indian Country Today Media Today Network, which went on an indefinite "hiatus" on September 4, 2017. Photo: Oneida Indian Nation

Doug George-Kanentiio: Indian Country Today failed because it was a business

On the Demise of Indian Country Today

By Doug George-Kanentiio

In September of this year Indian Country Today, a weekly online information entity, announced it was suspending operations after 36 years in business, first on the Lakota territory under the ownership of Tim Giago before being purchased in 1998 by the Oneida Nation of New York, Inc. and moved from South Dakota to New York.

As the former editor of Akwesasne Notes (1986-1992) I have strong opinions as to why ICT failed.

Primarily it was the contrast between a community based news publication such as Akwesasne Notes and one which had its offices Manhattan with a manager who was once employed by Playboy. Ours (Notes) was the primary news source for indigenous people across the continent and was the official publication of the Mohawk Nation with a strong commitment to freedom of the press and outright advocacy for the rights and liberties of Native people everywhere.

ICT was an "enterprise" of the ONNY without a distinct separation from the CEO of that corporate entity and its communications operations which in turn affected its credibility among Native people. Maybe ICT was a little too slick, too mainstream, too hyped.

The problems with ICT can be traced to its decision by the first editors and managers to leave Lakota territory where it had community support and move to offices in central New York and then to an urban environment far removed from the people it was designed to serve. There was no connection between the Oneida people and ICT-it lacked presence and was largely irrelevant to their lives.

Not so Akwesasne Notes which was from its inception in 1968 a voice of the Mohawk people. Notes became the most effective indigenous news publication in history because it had deep roots at Akwesasne.

The Notes staff were almost entirely Mohawk and at one time employed over two dozen local people from manager to editor, typesetters to proofreaders. Notes also played an important role in the Akwesasne economy not only by providing jobs to highly creative Mohawks but it also gave free space to craftspeople who could sell their crafts based on profiles of their work printed in Notes. Basketmakers, carvers, painters, beadworkers used Notes to generate income for their families who in turn saw the newspaper as viable.

Notes and its local edition Indian Time reported on local events alongside stories from across the continent, and later the world. This also served as an anchor for the publication, insuring it never strayed from its identity as the voice of the people of Akwesasne and for all Mohawks. To that end, Notes carried stories, poems and artwork from the Mohawk people giving them an opportunity to show their talents as communicators and illustrators.

Notes also gave voice to thousands of Native people who were incarcerated and to those who were living under harsh political oppression such as the Mayans of Guatemala or the Mapuches of Peru. Notes covered the important issues of its time-its writers were at Alcatraz in 1969, Wounded Knee in 1973 and at the historic gathering of Native people at the United Nations Human Rights conference in Geneva, Switzerland in 1977.

It was the editor of Akwesasne Notes, the late Johnny Mohawk, who wrote the book "Basic Call to Consciousness" which sparked the planetary movements towards the formal recognition of the rights of aboriginal nations which resulted in the 2009 United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

That is what Notes did to effect all of our lives.

But it was something else for those of us who were teenagers when Akwesasne Notes was located in the center of our territory, in a converted private home which became the world wide center for Native news and information. Notes attracted people from everywhere which in turn attracted us. At any given time one could meet Natives from California, Hawaii, Cuba, Saskatchewan and elsewhere.

Many personal relations were made and an entire generation of children came about because of this. Notes meant something to us personally whether we volunteered as mailers, affixing labels to everyone of the 100,000 plus issues or by carrying heavy canvas bags of the finished editions to the post office. We found an immediate welcome at the office which served as a type of community center.

In addition to Akwesasne Notes-Indian Time the Mohawk Nation Council also endorsed the White Roots of Peace, a remarkable touring group composed of Native speakers, organizers, singers and dances who, in its nine years of existence (1968-1977) visited prisons, reservations, colleges and urban centers to press for a rebirth in indigenous sovereignty while providing its audiences with Iroquois style music and dance.

The White Roots excursions also provided Akwesasne Notes with a convenient way to distribute the newspaper and to market the books and posters which Notes produced. There was also the music part of Akwesasne Notes beginning with the issuance of Willie Dunn's first album to selling the records and tapes of artists like Floyd Westerman and A. Paul Ortega, wonderfully creative musicians who might have otherwise never had their voices heard.

ICT could not replicate Akwesasne Notes. It lacked the enthusiasm, the passion, the affection and the support which comes from being of the people, by the people, for the people. ICT was a business, not a movement.

Akwesasne Notes not only covered events it changed the course of those events which is why it enjoyed such support across American. In almost every Native home you could find a poster printed in the center of an Akwesasne Notes edition, usually a photograph, of a Native leader, an elder, a woman. You could also read letters from other Natives or follow the list of upcoming events. It all connected and resonated.

Akwesasne Notes had six editors: Jerry Gambill. Johnny Mohawk, myself, Darren Bonaparte and Salli Benedict. It went into hibernation in 1996, awaiting a time when it may be breathed back to life by a new generation of activist journalists committed to boldly changing the world.

Its local edition, Indian Time, endures, again because it found a way to weave itself into the daily lives of the Mohawk people. It remained a physical presence and Mohawks, like other Natives, love to read. Not all Native people have access to the internet or are at ease with computers but having something real and in your hands is important.

Perhaps it was that decision to go "high tech" which further separated ICT from the people it was supposed to serve.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the vice-president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge. He has served as a Trustee for the National Museum of the American Indian, is a former land claims negotiator for the Mohawk Nation and is the author of numerous books and articles about the Mohawk people. He may be reached via e-mail at: Kanentiio@aol.com or by calling 315-415-7288.

Join the Conversation
More from Doug George-Kanentiio:
Doug George-Kanentiio: Religious doctrines remain at root of 'Indian' law (July 19, 2017)
Doug George-Kanentiio: 'Spirit Game' brings Iroquois lacrosse to life (June 20, 2017)
Doug George-Kanentiio: A Mescalero Apache music legend passes on (May 30, 2017)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Indigenous peoples converge on United Nations for key milestone (May 2, 2017)