Q&A: The Evolution of the Native American Times

Targeted News Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 28 -- The Oklahoma-based Native American Times provides American Indian news to readers in the U.S., and its recent growth has been credited to Lisa Snell, the paper's editor and publisher of the newspaper, and before purchasing the paper.

Since purchasing the paper in 2009, Snell, the paper's former graphic designer, has helped the Native American Times increase its circulation steadily and it continues to maintains a strong web presence. Snell, a Cherokee Nation citizen, has previously described her position as a mixture of roles -- "designer, writer, online publisher, editor and more." 

The following is an interview with Snell: 

TNS: What encouraged your decision to purchase the Native American Times, especially in light of difficulties in the publishing world? 

Snell: I really didn't think about the difficulties in the publishing world at the time I bought the Native Times. I was just thinking it was an opportunity to do something I'd wanted to do for a long time and knew that it was something I could do if given the chance. I didn't think about how it would rule my life, though! 

TNS: How do you think you can most effectively collaborate with tribal leaders? 

Snell: I think to effectively collaborate with tribal leaders, I need an open line of communication. We'll have to know each other and establish a relationship. I'm still relatively new, so most tribal leaders don't know who I am yet. They don't know if they can trust me. I'm still putting in my time and proving myself at this point. 

TNS: How have the stories that you've pursued at the Native American Times been different from stories you've encountered at previous publications, such as the Cherokee Phoenix? 

Snell: The main difference from the Cherokee Phoenix is that I'm not limited to a single tribe. I'm free to pursue interesting stories from every part of our greater tribal community. I also have the latitude to report on anything - the good, the bad and the ugly, so to speak. 

TNS: The profile for a woman called Winnie Guess was recognized in a recent interview, and a moment was highlighted where she performed a hoop dance in the fifties--what attracted you to this story? 

Snell: Winnie herself attracted me to her story. She is a lively and engaging woman and I was attracted to her wonderful energy from the time of our first phone conversation. The part about her dressing in men's regalia and performing men's dances just came out during the course of our interview - which was originally about her being named Oklahoma's Senior Athlete of the Year. 

My interview with Winnie taught me that everyone has an interesting story to tell, often more than one story to tell, and sometimes, the story you mean to tell isn't necessarily the one that will come out on paper. 

TNS: You said that your decision to purchase the paper was inspired by a particularly Cherokee 'can-do' attitude -- could you expand on these Cherokee strength and how it helped you slowly move out of the red? 

Snell: I think the 'can-do' attitude would apply to all of our tribal nations, actually. They are all still here, in spite of it all. Some are still struggling to be identified and haven't given up. That's resilience! Like so many tribes, the Cherokee have a history of adapting to new situations and not only making the best of them, but of thriving. When forced out of our homelands we made our way to Oklahoma and put the pieces back together again. We set up our government, re-established our newspaper, started schools and experienced what is referred to as a "golden age." 

I think my ancestors were not only resilient but practical people. To make their way in the changing world, they had to adapt and accept things they could not change. They also had to change the things that were within their power to change to survive. I can't really compare my early struggle with that! But in a smaller, much more contained sense, my life changed drastically. I no longer could depend on a regular weekly paycheck. I really couldn't depend on anything other than the fact that news would continue happening and that for me to be successful, I'd have to get that news out there, reliably, week after week. I also had to take stock of what I needed to change to be successful. 

What sacrifices would I have to make? What did I need versus what I wanted? The main thing, was that I was, and am, able to do all the jobs necessary to produce this paper myself. That takes up a lot of time and can be really stressful. Plus, I still have to be a good mom and wife. I get overwhelmed, sometimes, but I remember that others have done more with less. 

TNS: Do you see a growing Native American base-- one that might allow for expansion in your paper? Do you see the near future holding the investigative reporting staff that you have said the Native American community needs? 

Snell: I hope to see a growing Native American base! I need independently owned Native businesses that are willing to invest in advertising in the Native Times-- otherwise, I have to rely overmuch on tribal governments and enterprises for my revenue. I'm still rebuilding. I don't foresee being able to afford extra staff for at least six more months, which is unfortunate. 

I get calls every week about issues and events that need investigating and I just can't do it all myself. For now, I am working under the "if I build it, they will come" 'Field of Dreams' analogy! I'm here to stay so it has to work. 

TNS: You've referred to your publication as serving the "greater Indian community," how do you feel your newspaper is contributing to this community and how many tribes are in your distribution network? 

Snell: My paper serves at least 39 tribes here in Oklahoma. I frequently hear from readers that say that even though a story may not be about their tribe in particular, it will be something that could affect their tribe, or it will give them ideas they can use in their tribe, or it is just interesting to read. Also, many tribes don't have their own newspapers - and I am happy to print their news and events so their citizenry can be better connected. Online, everyone can see the Native Times. I post much more online than I can ever fit in the paper. I recently had to move the site because my host was threatening to drop me for getting too much traffic. That was some good news in a bad news kind of way. 

TNS: Your newspaper is one of the few inter-tribal voices--are there stories that your publication has covered that have required this unique perspective? 

Snell: I look for stories that affect all of us - not just one tribe. That's what makes the Native Times inter-tribal: news from the Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Land Management or the environment, among others. 

For example, when Larry EchoHawk came to Pawnee, Oklahoma, I made sure to be there. What he has to say affects all of us. I think outside my tribe now and I have to. The Native Times belongs to all tribes, at least as much as I can make it. 

TNS: You mentioned that your newspaper needs the "support of the community" although sometimes you need to go out and "find it," have you used volunteers in establishing your paper and do you have any future plans for incorporating them? 

Snell: Within a few weeks of buying the paper, I received a phone call from Helen Sacred-Horsesghost. Helen lives in Broken Bow, Okla.-- way down in the southeastern corner of the state. She offered to deliver the Native Times for free. 

They hadn't been getting the paper down there for a while, and she and her friends missed it. Thanks to Helen, I am able to get the paper out in that corner of the Choctaw Nation. I've had others help by submitting stories and photos from their communities. Titus Frenchman sends me news from the Delaware Nation, Vern Courtwright writes and send photos from traditional bow shoots. 

One of my subscribers, William Morrow, frequently submits arts stories that I publish. Yes, I need that help. I need the extra eyes and ears and the kindness I have received from the wonderful people that read and love the Native Times. I have days when I feel frustrated or angry or shackled. 

More frequently than not, I'll have a reader call, or I'll see someone, who tells me how much they appreciate what I'm doing. That never fails to help me shrug it off and go on doing what I do. I think of the newspaper not as being "my" newspaper, but "ours." It belongs to all of us, so I don't really consider "incorporating" volunteers "in the future" since they've been with me from the beginning. I couldn't do what I do without them. 

The Native American Times can be found at http://www.nativetimes.com/. 


Zaher Karp is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis.