Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

December 8, 2020

Silenced by the Machine: Remembering good words along the way

Photos: Louise Benally of Big Mountain, Buffy Sainte Marie at Dine' College, and Yaqui Ceremonial Leader Jose Matus with Zapatistas in the mountains of Chiapas. Photos by Brenda Norrell.

By Brenda Norrell

Censored News

It has been over 39 years since the Navajo Times gave me the chance to be a journalist and trained me as a news reporter.

During the 1980s and 1990s, I lived in the Chuska Mountains on the Navajo Nation. From my log cabin, I drove out each day, down the mountain to Window Rock, or out to Kayenta or Big Mountain.

On special days, when I was a stringer for USA Today, I visited with legends, like Annie Wauneka at her home place.

On a regular grand day, I would sit with Howard McKinley and listen to his stories, down near the old hospital in Tse Ho Tso, and hear about wild potatoes and how he walked everywhere, sleeping in the trees to avoid coyotes when walking to Albuquerque. He even had a story to tell about traveling with Annie Wauneka.

Down the road, medicine woman Nellie Terry always welcomed me with a smile at her hogan. My friend for 40 years, Bessie Taylor, was always there for me in Crystal.

Now, thinking back over the years, I remember so many good words.

There was generosity. When I interviewed Casper, of Hopi reggae fame, he said to let him know if I ever needed anything. It was a powerful gesture of generosity that I never forgot. When I wrote about Casper and his music, I realized what was meant by the  "take no prisoners" style.

When I interviewed Navajo Attorney General Claudeen Bates Arthur, I asked her who had the most impact on her life. She said it was her mother.

Among the most profound words, those that changed the direction of my news reporting were the words of Louise Benally at Big Mountain. When asked about Peabody Coal's claim that it was not draining the aquifer on Black Mesa, Louise said, "Those big corporations lie."

And they do.

Earl Tulley of Blue Gap told me about multi-national corporations. Earl and Leroy Jackson led the fight to save the old-growth yellow pines in the Chuska and Tsaile mountains from logging before Leroy was found dead after being threatened.

In the years that followed, I journeyed out from my home in the Chuska Mountains and was able to travel with the Zapatistas.

There are many that I owe gratitude to, including Duane Beyal, my editor and writing mentor at Navajo Times, and Tim Giago, who gave me the opportunity to work for his Lakota newspapers and the new Indian Country Today. The Associated Press, though grueling with instant deadlines, taught me to write with accuracy and far too fast. 

After Indian Country Today was sold to new owners, I was censored, terminated, and blacklisted. In 2006, after working as a  journalist for 24 years, my income as a news reporter ended, beginning a decade of hardship.

But along the way, there was a great gift, the gift of traveling, from Canada and Mexico to Bolivia and the South Pacific.

The greater gift was hearing the voices, listening to the stories, and sharing those truths, from the Badlands on Pine Ridge and O'odham homeland in Sonora, to the home of Carrie Dann on Western Shoshone and from coast to coast with incredible Native youths on the Longest Walk. From the Pueblos and Supai to San Carlos and Yankton.

There was Debra White Plume, Lakota, giving the Lewis and Clark pretenders a symbolic blanket of smallpox in South Dakota. Tony Black Feather, on the Stronghold, described the American flag as a symbol of racism, imperialism, and greed.

Because I was censored, ironically, I was able to share the voices of those silenced by the machine -- the machine of capitalism, lies, greed, and deceit.

The machine tried to silence Buffy Sainte Marie. At Dine' College, with John Trudell, in the 1990s, Buffy exposed U.S. Presidents Johnson and Reagan who blacklisted her for her stance against the Vietnam War.

Now, isolating from the virus, and typing on my phone, I thank you all. 


1 comment:

Unknown said...

I had wondered about your background as a writer and I recalled the name from an article some time ago. Thank you for sharing your incredible story of meeting some incredible people, some who have sadly passed on, but continue their legacies just by mentioning their names. I am intrigued by your journeys to Zapatista Mexico since there I truly believe are the warriors Native Americans should aspire to be. The story of Zapata and the indigenous struggle and uprising should have occured here in America (and still can). Their constitution and declaration under the leadership of Subcommadante Insurgente Marcos seems to have lasting effect because since then, they have enjoyed recognition by the Mexican government, to the extent that it can. Here in America, such an uprising would be seen as dissension and liable to blacklisting or worse. That tactic is engrained and accepted as normal which it is not. Thank you for trying to express your love for humanity and many, many prayers goes out to you and all those who feel that kinship. From Western Navajo, may all beings, especially those who are of First Nations, enjoy profound brilliance.