Even though her radio news program — National Native News — has featured countless stories on news related to indigenous people in South Dakota, anchor and producer Antonia Gonzales had never been to the Rushmore State prior to this week.
Gonzales, whose voice is familiar to anyone who listens to South Dakota Public Radio stations on weekday afternoons, was in Rapid City to serve as the featured speaker in the latest installment of the Morning Fill Up series held at The Garage meeting space Thursday morning.
But she arrived a few days early to take in the sights, meet and talk with local Native and non-Native residents, and tour common coverage areas that include the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and Bear Butte State Park.
During her discussion at The Garage, Gonzales described herself as a lifelong learner who visited Wind Cave National Park and was quickly taught a lesson about South Dakota wildlife: don't mess with the bison.
Gonzales was in her car and saw some buffalo nearby, and was about to have a closer look. Suddenly, she heard a grunting sound, and decided to stay still. Just then, Gonzales peered around a sign and saw a huge buffalo rubbing its horns just a few feet away.
"I'm glad I didn't get out of the car," Gonzales said with a chuckle.
Smiles and laughter come easily for Gonzales, 38, a member of the Navajo Nation who is a prominent member of the small but committed contingent of Native American journalists in the U.S. and Canada. The National Native News program features a five-minute daily segment of radio stories told mainly by freelance journalists from across the world. It airs on 15 South Dakota Public Radio stations each weekday just prior to 3:45 p.m. Mountain Time.
While proud of her Native American heritage and culture, Gonzales told the audience of about 75 people that she considers herself a journalist first when on the job, and approaches each news event or story with the same ethical, objective mindset required of any journalist, Native or otherwise.
And yet, Gonzales said she and other Native journalists bring a unique perspective and understanding that allows a deeper look into both the triumphs and tragedies that become news on reservations and within indigenous populations.
"I want to give indigenous people a voice and tell stories about what's really going on, the challenges being overcome," said Gonzales, a married mother of two boys who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. "I see a need for Native journalists to tell their stories, at all levels, not just in Native communities."
She offered one example of how Native journalists, or those non-Native journalists who string for her network, saw a different side to a major news event. After the federal Environmental Protection Agency mistakenly released 3 million gallons of orange wastewater from the Gold King Mine into the Animas River in Colorado in August 2015, most of the mainstream media coverage focused on the ecological damage to the river and EPA's culpability, Gonzales said.
But Gonzales took a different angle, instead focusing on how the fouled water had hampered the ability of Navajo Nation residents to provide clean water for their families and corn crops.
"People had no alternative to using that water," she said, noting that the suffering of those Native people was missed by most of the media. "I saw how much it hurt people because corn is so important to the Navajo culture."
Gonzales said the mainstream media has a long way to go to understand Native culture and Native peoples in order to develop solid source relationships and to tell stories that go beyond statistics and impressions that can, at times, seem dire.
"We know our people, we know our communities and we have a different perspective," she said.
Gonzales has recently taken up the cause of "solution journalism," in which the reporting tends to seek out ways in which people found success tackling systemic issues, and then offers that way forward as a model for other individuals and communities.
She said she often finds that Native youth are where positive change and forward-looking ideas germinate, which gives her hope for a bright future for indigenous people.
As one who was mentored in her craft and now takes on a mentoring role herself with students, Gonzales is hopeful that Native young people will go to school, learn a profession or craft, and then return to their reservations or hometowns to perpetuate the lessons they learned and the skills they have mastered.
She said journalists should not just cover Native issues when there is controversy or crisis, but rather should focus on the many positive things taking place in indigenous communities.
In order to foster future positive relationships between Native and non-Native populations and communities, Gonzales urged both journalists and non-journalists alike to remain curious and kind, and respectfully ask their neighbors about their culture, their language, their identity, their challenges and their hopes and dreams.
"Be a human, go into a community," Gonzales urged those present. "These are your neighbors, so visit them and learn about them."