I hoped to capture video interviews of Native veterans or Native people visiting four memorial sites in Washington or Arlington, Virginia. It was a simple assignment.
But as any news organization knows, the story can come out differently from what was planned.
This is now a story about the National Park Service and the First Amendment.
I was visiting four memorial sites: The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial (also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial), the World World II Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
The first stop was the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington.
I had a backpack, a small tripod and a small audio booster. An iPhone and a wired lapel mic was also part of my video equipment. Compared to film crews, this equipment was light and wasn’t meant to stop people in their tracks.
I started to set up my tripod when I realized I left the iPhone mount adapter in my vehicle. I walked back to my car and returned.
However the second time I set up under the tree about 40 to 50 feet away from Dean A. Derosa, a National Park Ranger on duty. He looked me over at me a few times in between talking to tourists and other memorial visitors. After about 20 or 30 minutes he walks over and asks, while pointing at my equipment, “What’s all this?”
I told him about my reporting assignment and even had my press badge on. Journalists are always to identify themselves for transparency.
"Well, I'll let you be here this time but you're supposed to get a permit," he said.
I tell him that Indian Country Today is news and not commercial, and I’m just waiting to get interviews from Native people who visit the monument. I also said I am recording everything on my phone. It’s not a big equipment setup.
I asked him what makes me different from the tourists who are taking pictures and filming from their phones. I was doing the same but for news.
I was also standing in an area where the public could stand.
He says again that I need a filming permit but I can stay. Next time I will need one. I tell him okay.
For the next 45 minutes to an hour, I wait.
From under the tree, I capture footage of the monument, tourists walking back and forth and taking photos.
I also tweet out a selfie saying I’ll be at the site for two hours. On Instagram, I tell viewers what I’m doing and where I’m at. Both an effort that someone will say they have family, friends or relatives visiting, which helps the assignment.
A few more tourists groups arrive so I decided to get a closer shots of them and the monument.
I move around the monument, close and far, with my equipment not bothering anyone, but looking out for any hint of Native people.
How do I know if someone is Indigenous? Earrings are a huge tell. Beaded, quill, turquoise, wampum. Activism related shirts. Native veteran hats or shirts.
Native people also carry themselves differently. It’s in the walk and their mannerisms. Not necessarily by the color of their skin, too. Native people come in all shapes and sizes.
Some Native people point out that your intuition just heightens. I call it “my Spidey senses” because I just know when someone is Indigenous.
As I walk away from the monument after taking close-ups of it, the ranger calls me, “Miss! Miss! Excuse me, Miss!”
I turn around and he says, “You can’t be filming here.” He double-checked with his superintendent. I needed to stop and leave.
“If NBC News came, they would need a permit, too,” he said. But I told him I'm not commercial, I'm news and we're a nonprofit. We don't make money off of this.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. He held and looked at white paper while telling me I needed a permit. He said because the monument is part of the George-Washington Memorial Parkway that I needed a permit.
Remember, not too long ago he said I could stay this time. I didn’t point that out like I should’ve because I was upset.
I asked for his supervisor’s name and number. Cuveiluer is the superintendent, but Derosa says he doesn’t know if the superintendent can help me and suggests talking with the receptionist if I called.
As he is getting the number and correct spelling of a French name, I take a deep breath.
While waiting I look at his name plate and badge and type his name into my phone. A National Park Service patch rests on his left arm and his right hand is holding his phone.
The National Park Service is under the umbrella of the Department of Interior. What else is housed under the Interior along with wildlife? Indians. Me. The people I report for.
I tell him this. This part of the conversation I can’t remember what order it went in.
But I told him how we, Natives, fall under the Interior with the park service with animals. So the country sees us as animals, too.
He doesn’t make eye contact and says, “I’m sorry.”
I told him we’re doing this story about Native veterans for Native people.
“Did you know Native people are the highest-serving ethnic group to serve in the U.S. military more than any other ethnic group?” I said. I can’t remember if he responded or not.
I get the number and name. And tell him this isn’t the first time the National Park Service has upset me.
Before leaving I finally tell him, “Do you know whose land your standing on? You are visitors here” and this is Indigenous people’s land.
He says he understands but I can’t film. I bid farewell and leave infuriated.
Derosa was doing his job (at least as how he thought) but I was the one who got kicked out. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was wrong.
National memorials and monuments fall under the national park system which are “public lands,” along with historic sites, national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges, conversation areas, and more.
The National Park Service website states a permit is needed for “all commercial filming activities.”
“‘Commercial filming’ means the film, electronic, magnetic, digital, or other recording of a moving image by a person, business, or other entity for a market audience with the intent of generating income,” as stated on the website.
The park service suggests a permit to but it’s not required.
“Non-commercial filming may require a permit if a permit is necessary to manage the activity to protect park resources and values while minimizing conflict between user groups or to ensure public safety. Examples of non-commercial filming include, but are not limited to, filming for tourism bureaus, convention and visitor bureaus, and student filming. In most cases, a permit is not necessary for visitors engaging in casual, non-commercial filming.”
Nothing about the news media.
Attorney Kevin Kemper who works with the legal hotline for the Native American Journalists Association said such regulations were created for Hollywood.
For example, if a western movie wanted to film in Utah, they would need a filming permit so they don’t damage the park.
“But [the National Park Service] use it arbitrarily against news media,” he said.
Kemper used to teach media law. He always told his students that if you’re a journalist and see what the public sees and stands where the public is standing, you’re okay. Journalists have a right to do that publicly.
But you can’t do that on private property.
“The public has the right and journalists have a right to videotape what occurs at a national monument,” he said. “I have no reason to believe otherwise.”
Matthew Kelley is an attorney,who also helps with the legal hotline is based in Washington.
He was informed of the incident and called the park service. He said they made a mistake but did suggest calling the public information officer before filming at national parks. But parks can’t make news media obtain a permit legally.
Kelley did point out that the incident violated the First Amendment, which journalists are protected by.
“Everyone has a First Amendment right to take photos and record audio and video in national parks and other public places,” he said. “While the National Park Service requires permits for commercial filming such as for advertisements, movies and television shows, those permits are not required for journalists or other members of the public who are recording for non-commercial purposes.”
Adam Sarvana of the House Natural Resources Committee Democrats was reached for a comment but Indian Country Today hasn’t received a comment. Sarvana, who was surprised by the situation, and said he would reach out to the park service.
This story was supposed to be about Native veterans on Independence Day. But it turned out that the day American celebrates its birthday, America also continues to push out the original people of this land, especially reporters.