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August 13 2012

14:00

How National Geographic Used Cowbird Storytelling Tool to Tell a Reservation's Whole Story

Sometimes, it takes more than one storyteller to get a story right -- especially when the subjects of the story are members of a community that often feels misrepresented by media.

Thanks to multimedia storytelling tool Cowbird, photographer Aaron Huey and National Geographic were able to collaborate with the people of the Pine Ridge Reservation to jointly tell their story to the world. The result: the Pine Ridge Community Storytelling Project, a companion to the August 2012 cover story in National Geographic magazine.

The Roots of a New Storytelling Approach

After working with the Oglala Lakota people for seven years, Huey felt their stories couldn't adequately be conveyed in the pages of a magazine.

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"To make a really great narrative [in print] often means only telling the story of a couple of people, and trying to use those stories to tell the larger story of the community and where it's going," Huey said. "That's often confusing for the community itself. People always asked me why I couldn't fit in something about the all-star basketball team, or the scholars going on to college. Everyone wanted something specific and claimed that I was missing the entire story because I didn't have those things. They felt like they were misrepresented. They felt like for decades in the media, they'd been misrepresented."

While on a John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University, Huey reflected on this storytelling dilemma. He tried to build a multimedia platform himself that could be used by National Geographic, but he realized quickly that he didn't have "the money or the expertise" for the job. But when he discovered Cowbird, an online storytelling tool developed by Jonathan Harris, Huey knew it was just right for the stories he wanted to tell.

"It was obvious that it was the perfect collaboration. I didn't need to reinvent the wheel," he said.

Telling the Whole Story, Unfiltered

Cowbird allows people to tell stories with photos, audio, timelines, maps, and other media. Working together, Huey, Harris and the National Geographic team crafted a Cowbird story interface and embedded it into the magazine's website.

Each block on the page tells a different story, from bits of tribal history to an account of one boy's encounter with racism. One photo, titled "Rez joke #2," shows Lakota men in line at a convenience store with the caption, "Pine Ridge traffic jam."

Submissions continue to roll in. Huey screens each story to ensure that it connects to Pine Ridge or the Oglala Lakota in some way; stories are otherwise unedited.

"National Geographic was incredibly brave to run this unedited content and to trust me to do this right," Huey said.

Inspiring New Approaches

The magazine's editor-in-chief, Chris Johns, said Cowbird and the "unfiltered voice" of the Pine Ridge storytellers were a natural fit for National Geographic. "This is a future that we're terribly excited about and fully embracing. This just suits our DNA perfectly."

For a magazine whose goal is representing often new, distant and unfamiliar places and cultures, this partnership has inspired thinking about new storytelling possibilities.

"I believe in the importance of letting people have their voice," Johns said. "We want to hear the voices of others, the voices of those who were photographed, to hear what they feel about the work we are doing."

Huey said this style of storytelling will continue in his own work, and he hopes it's something more journalists will embrace.

"We can't just put stories out there that are filtered through one or two people's vision anymore," he said. He noted that tools like Cowbird that enable multifaceted storytelling are especially useful for telling stories about a community likely to feel misrepresented by media.

"It's the right tool whenever there is a possibility for people to feel misrepresented -- when we as journalists are talking in big brush strokes about whole peoples or ways of thinking," he said.

Huey hopes that the Pine Ridge project will contain more than 500 stories by the end of 2012.

"We found a way to make the story infinitely expanding," he said. "The only limitation is apathy."

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Linfield College. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.

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May 12 2011

18:15

Massive Digital Divide for Native Americans is 'A Travesty'

Perhaps nowhere in the United States does the digital divide cut as wide as in Indian Country. More than 90 percent of tribal populations lack high-speed Internet access, and usage rates are as low as 5 percent in some areas, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

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Sascha Meinrath, director of New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative calls it "a travesty."

"You have a community that perhaps treasures media and cultural production more than almost any other constituency in the country, and you have an entire dearth of access to new media production and dissemination technology," Meinrath said.

Since 2009, New America Foundation has worked with Native Public Media, which supports and advocates for Native American media outlets, to help tribal communities take advantage of new media platforms. In January, the organizations formalized their partnership, and this fall, they plan to launch a media literacy pilot project that will train Native radio broadcasters in at least four communities to tell stories using digital tools.


"It's a very proactive way to address the digital divide, apart from the hardware," said Loris Ann Taylor, president of Native Public Media.

Tribal Digital Village

The organizations plan to work with both digital experts and tribal groups that have pioneered technology adoption. An oft-cited example is the Tribal Digital Village in Southern California, which brought Internet access to libraries, schools and other community buildings across 13 reservations, with grants from Hewlett-Packard and others.

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Native Public Media has itself led the way in digital storytelling, partnering with WGBH in 2009 on We Shall Remain, a multi-platform project on Native history. But its primary goal is expanding local production.

Currently, 10 tribal radio stations stream over the Internet, including KGVA 90.1 FM, serving the Fort Belknap reservation in Montana, and WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation in Wisconsin. The Coeur d'Alene tribe in northern Idaho created RezKast, a YouTube-like video and music sharing site. The Navajo Times, Cherokee Phoenix and other Native newspapers publish online.

As innovative as these projects are, without access, they will only reach a fraction of the Native population.

'The Digital Revolution is Stirring'

Native Americans will be savvy users of new media when connectivity arrives, Meinrath said. A 2009 report [PDF file] he co-authored found that when broadband was available, Native Americans did everything from blog to download podcasts at higher rates than national averages. Although the report noted that it was more exploratory than representative, it concluded: "The digital revolution is stirring in tribal communities."

Still, the revolution is far away for most Native Americans. Broadband infrastructure does not exist in most tribal areas, and where it does, charges are marked up radically, compared with urban centers -- by 13,000 percent, in some cases, Meinrath said. Regulatory frameworks have also contributed to under-servicing, he said.


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Lately, advocacy by Native Public Media and others for government action seems to be paying off. The FCC's National Broadband Plan, unveiled in March 2010, included the goal of increasing broadband access on tribal lands, with involvement from local leaders. The Plan recommended that Congress consider creating a Tribal Broadband Fund. Last August, the FCC established an Office of Native Affairs and Policy to work with the 565 federally recognized tribes on improving access to communications services. One of its first moves, in March 2011, was to invite tribal representatives to a Native Nations Day, where the FCC expanded a "tribal priority" to promote licensing of radio stations serving Native communities.

Recent federal action is a leap forward in focusing attention on a long-ignored issue and producing empirical data for reform, Meinrath said.

Yet, he noted that progress has largely remained rhetorical. "We've run into an FCC and an Obama administration that has not, as a whole, prioritized this issue," he said.

Challenges and Opportunities

When it comes to expanding access, the challenges are steep. Many tribal areas are geographically remote, which can make provision difficult and expensive, according to the National Broadband Plan. Service is unaffordable for many Native Americans, a quarter of whom live at or below the poverty line. At the same time, funding for public media and telecommunications facilities is at risk.

But, physical remoteness and high costs are a familiar excuse for failure to serve Indian Country among decision-makers focused on majority constituents, Meinrath said.

"This is not a technical problem -- this is a remarkable lack of leadership," he said.

The challenge is not only addressing a digital divide, but also a pattern of historical exclusion from media and communication services, Taylor said. Some tribal populations still lack emergency and postal services, and almost a third lack basic telephone service. The rapid pace of technology risks leaving Native populations even further behind.

Despite the challenges, the potential for technology to improve media capacity in tribal areas is tremendous, Taylor said. New media tools will help Native Americans cover issues that are ignored or misrepresented in mainstream media. They can fill extreme gaps in information access and enable cultural preservation. They allow local news and cultural programming to reach tribal members who have left reservations for jobs or military service.

Leaping the Divide

Critically, technology offers a chance to "leap over" the traditional media divide, especially as many tribal newspapers have shut down in the economic downturn, and radio stations, the traditional medium of choice for Native communities, are not feasible in all areas, Taylor said.

Most of all, Taylor's vision is about enabling Native Americans to have a voice on vital issues, from the housing market to the energy crisis.

"In this country, if we leave people out from having access or ownership or control of the technology, then we're really denying them something even larger -- to have participation in a democratic society," she said. "It's really about self-determination at the end of the day."

Katia Savchuk works as an investigator and writes for Ethical Traveler and Polis, a collaborative urbanism blog she co-founded. She previously spent a year and a half documenting the work of slum-dweller federations in India. Her writing has appeared in Let's Go travel guides, Environment & Urbanization and the Palo Alto Weekly.

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