Newseum's past, its future and a pair of glasses

Mark Trahant with is glasses and press passes. (Photo by Jaynie Parrish)

A history that includes all of our stories, a celebration of dissent, and the importance of journalism to a democratic society

The Newseum is not an Indigenous institution. Yet it did represent. A practice that’s too often missing from most museums.

But I had better not bury the lede. The Newseum is closing at the end of the year. This is the last call.

The Newseum may come back in another form. And I certainly hope so because a building is just a building. The ideas are what matter: A history that includes all of our stories, a celebration of dissent, and the importance of journalism to a democratic society.

My involvement in the Newseum goes back to the 1990s. 

The Freedom Forum brought several of us to the Pacific Coast Center in Oakland’s Jack London Square in 1996 to hear about this new museum that would be devoted to the history of news. Sketches  for the Newseum were posted on the wall along with planned exhibits. We started to think about what was possible.

I remember a conversation with Félix Gutiérrez, who was then running the Pacific Coast Center, about the opportunity to get that news history right. Indigenous people had a system of discourse, even news, that predated the colonial invasion. And even the first printing press was not in New England but in Mexico City in 1539. This was a chance to shift the story to a more inclusive truth.

We were not always successful in that regard.

One of the first misses, at least my view, was the memorial to slain journalists.

I made the case that Elias Boudinot, editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, should be on that memorial wall. Boudinot was assassinated in 1839 after he resigned as editor. But the reason for his murder was over the political divide in the Cherokee Nation and how that nation would navigate the policies of extermination or removal. Boudinot wrote: “I do conscientiously believe it to be the duty of every citizen to reflect upon the dangers with which we are surrounded; to view the darkness which seems to lie before our people— our prospects, and the evils with which we are threatened; to talk over all these matters, and, if possible, come to some definite and satisfactory conclusion.”

Boudinot’s name was not there. It was decided that his death was a political act, not a journalistic one.

We had another idea that we wanted in the Newseum, an expression of the discourse present in the Americas long before the coming of the Europeans. 

To make that so we created an iconic “talking circle” represented by stones, boulders really, from across North America. Ann Farrington and I worked with Native journalists, shipping companies, and I learned a great deal about museum protocol. All to collect rocks. (My grandmother thought that was so funny.) I called on Patty Talahongva, Paul DeMain, and so many others to get these stones shipped to Washington to represent tribes from coast to coast.

When the Newseum opened in Arlington, Virginia, in April 1997, the Talking Circle was an outside exhibit.

The Talking Circle did not make the move to the new Newseum in Washington. But I became a museum piece. I was asked to send a few things and one of the requests was for a pair of eyeglasses (I have worn the same frame of round glasses for many, many years.) I sent those. A press pass from the Navajo Times, a couple from the Arizona Republic, and collected other items. I also sent in a picture from my monograph on press history, “Pictures of Our Nobler Selves,” with the story of Hattie Kauffman, then at CBS News.

Josh Trujillo took a picture of me at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer captioned “Editorial Speaking.” I was then the editorial page editor of the P-I.

Boudinot’s story was included in that display as well.

That became the diversity gallery and the great headline: “Too long have others spoken for us.”

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Inside the News History Gallery. (Indian Country Today photo)

It’s worth noting here that there is an error in that display that has bugged me for a dozen years. The picture of Kauffman is credited to me and the Moscow-Pullman Daily News but in my book, and in actuality, the photograph was Kauffman’s publicity still. I did not take the picture. I tried to correct it when the Newseum opened, but the display was never changed.

Kauffman, Nez Perce, was the first Native person to report a story on the nightly news, covering a plane accident in Hawaii for ABC News in 1987. (She went to a career where reporting, and even anchoring, a national program was routine.)

Of course the Internet did not exist when the Newseum was planned and the stories about digital Natives did not get told the way they should have. Then those who know me … know I would have started that story with “how the pueblos invented the Internet.” More than a thousand years ago ancient pueblos communicated village to village with a system of lights. Light on, light off, or in the language of code, one comma zero. That is the Internet.

I should also mention something about governance. Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, the Newseum, and the Freedom Forum, was a champion of making sure that newsrooms and news organizations reflected the country. That included boards of directors. At one point there were three Native Americans on boards affiliated with the Newseum and the work they voted to support was extraordinary, training more Native journalists in South Dakota, Nashville, and across the country, than any other program. These initiatives built Native careers.

Wilma Mankiller was already a trustee when I was invited to join the board in 2001. I took the seat of the late Carl Rowan, the Washington Post columnist, and had been prepared by serving on advisory boards and helping with special projects. It was daunting. I had spoken to board members over the years and there had been a funny protocol. “You have ten minutes.” Then that morning I’d be told to cut my words in half, “five minutes tops.” Then the board would ask questions and the conversation would go way longer than planned.

At one of those board meetings I had decided to leave the news business — and said why. (I had an interesting offer at the time.) Low and behold a few weeks later I was encouraged to apply for a fellowship. I applied for one at Columbia University and then I got a call from John Seigenthaler who told me I would not be going to New York City … because he wanted me to come to Vanderbilt University. That’s where I went and wrote “Pictures of Our Nobler Selves.” That Nashville fellowship was fantastic for so many reasons, but my favorite moments were visiting with Seigenthaler or with the then chief executive, Charles Overby, in their offices.

One day Seigenthaler took me to Andrew Jackson’s home, the Hermitage, for a lecture by the legendary scholar Robert Remini. Remini went on about Jackson as the first American president (those before wore wigs, and were almost European by comparison) and the broad political coalition that was remarkable for its time. But he glossed over Jackson’s Indian policies — and I called him out. We argued for about a half an hour.

A few years later Remini published a complete book on Jackson’s Indian policies. I will always know when the seeds of that idea where planted.

Another colleague from what is now the Seigenthaler Center at Vanderbilt is Charles Haynes. He created a First Amendment framework for education and discussion about religion. I loved the fact that Charles was always interested in including Native religion and thought in his work. After that fellowship, Haynes expanded his messages and scholarships to the Newseum. That work will now be carried out by others continues in new forms.

Jefferson Keel, Deb Haaland share inspirational words at State of Indian Nations
Former NCAI President Jefferson Keel and Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, at the 2019 State of Indian Nations. (Photo by Vincent Schilling, Indian Country Today.)

The Newseum was also the host of the annual State of the Indian Nations report. Every year the leadership of the National Congress of American Indians used that stage to reflect on federal policy, the Congress, and, basically, the state of Indian nations.

Last year, Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, said words that could be about the Newseum itself. “We have an opportunity to change our narrative, to weave ourselves a story moving forward in the fabric of America with our own art and tools,” she said. “Stories that have been authored by those outside of our communities—often without our consent—that have been inadvertently absorbed as the truth about who we are as people; what we should believe about ourselves; and false depictions of our heritage and history, no longer have to be read.”

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Howard Rock's typewriter and desk plate at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. (Photo by Mark Trahant, Indian Country Today)

Indeed, there are so many stories yet to tell from Indian Country. Perhaps another museum can pick up that thread. Some of it already exists. At the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center there is a showcase of Howard Rock’s typewriter. Rock, an Inupiaq from Point Hope, Alaska, was the brilliant editor of the Tundra Times. He was an inspiration for so many of us in journalism today.

Then again perhaps a museum is the wrong space. We, Native journalists, have so much yet to do. The other day I was looking at my exhibit for the last time and thinking about how odd the materials were. Covering the space shuttle was a blast. I loved being an editorial page editor. And pretty much every job I have had reflecting a career defined by luck.

But the thing is: The most important thing I have ever done is right now. I am reaching younger readers with new ventures. This is that moment and it’s one that no museum can keep up with. Where’s my glasses?

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Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports

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