On Indigenous voices and diverse sources in journalism

And how urgency undermines our work

This week I wrote about a new paper on human footprints found in White Sands National Park, which possibly date to as far back as 23,000 years ago. This is a big deal in U.S. archaeology, because current scientific thinking holds that people first arrived in the Americas sometime around 16,000 years ago. Back then, Russia and Alaska were connected by land, but ice sheets blocked the way south through Canada, so most archaeologists who study this stuff think the earliest people to arrive south of the glaciers came along the coast by boat. The new findings—if they hold up to the inevitable scrutiny—suggest that people had made it well into what’s now the lower 48 before the ice sheets formed. For archaeologists, that opens many new possibilities about timing, routes, migration patterns, ancient climates, how people interacted with extinct species like mammoths and for how long, and on and on and on. This is an exciting, and kind of scary, place to be as a scientist! It’s my job to cover not only the findings themselves, but the implications for archaeology and archaeologists.

Of course, when it comes to human history in the Americas, archaeologists and their opinions are the not the only ones who matter. They don’t even matter the most. The perspectives of Indigenous people are also vitally important. They know more and different things about their ancestors and how long they’ve lived in their homelands than archaeologists do. Sometimes these ways of knowing complement each other, and sometimes they contradict each other. But they both exist, and they both have interesting things to say about the history of the Americas, from the Paleolithic to today.

Many of the news stories about this paper focused only on the voices of archaeologists and didn’t include Indigenous sources. This is typical—I’ve done it, many times!—but that doesn’t make it right. For my story, I interviewed and quoted Kim Charlie, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Acoma and a member of her tribe’s historic preservation board, who has a deep relationship to these and other footprints in White Sands. On Friday, I published a Twitter thread about the process of finding and including her in my piece. I don’t do anything just for Twitter anymore, so I’m also sharing it here. I’ve lightly edited it and made a few additions, and I link to other perspectives by Indigenous writers and scientists at the end (instead of linking to my own newsletter, as I did in the thread—hello new subscribers!). I’m turning each tweet into a short paragraph, to preserve the original form and also because I don’t feel like rewriting it 🙃 Enjoy!

I’m seeing (important) critiques on archaeology Twitter about news stories on the ancient footprints in New Mexico that don't include Indigenous voices. My story includes an Indigenous source, and I thought it might be helpful to talk about my process. 

First of all, I’ll be honest and say that at first I wasn't sure if/how I would include Indigenous sources in this piece. I’ve talked to Indigenous people (some of them scientists) who can't stand the obsession with peopling of the Americas stories. They don’t need Western science to tell them how long they’ve been here, or legitimize their ancestral relationship to their homelands.

I never want to demand that people comment on things they don’t care about just because of their identities. I want people to comment because they have a connection to and knowledge about the site(s) in question.

Science journalists’ secret weapon for finding scientist commenters is the paper’s own reference list, especially if you don’t already know a lot of people in whatever niche you’re writing about this time.

Possible Indigenous sources (who may or may not also be scientists) don’t tend to be there. Sometimes they’re in the author list, or the acknowledgments. Usually not.

In the case of this paper, my first question was IF there were Indigenous sources who knew a lot about the site already and would also be open to talking to me. The second question was how to get in touch with them.

(Another option would have been talking to an Indigenous archaeologist who didn’t necessarily have an ancestral connection to New Mexico or White Sands. That would have been better than no Indigenous sources, but not my first choice.)

So for this story, I followed the breadcrumb trail of scientist sources to confirm that YES there were tribal members involved with the site, and to figure out the best way to get in touch with them. That usually involves someone agreeing to make an introduction.

In all, I interviewed three authors of the paper, with a fourth talking to me by email. This is...a lot. Usually best practice is to talk to one author, maaaaybe two, because you also need time and room for independent commenters. (I also talked to six of those.)

All these interviews led me to the author who was most involved with tribal consultations (David Bustos, the park’s resource manager), and he was generous enough to introduce me to Kim Charlie, of the Pueblo of Acoma.

Kim has visited many of the footprints in White Sands (there are a lot more than just the ones in this paper!) and even uncovered some of them herself. She’s also a member of her tribe’s historic preservation board.

I’m so grateful she agreed to do an interview. Her comments were wonderful and included some evocative specifics about her ancestors’ history and lifeways, like their words for the megafauna species represented by tracks in the park.

(It should go without saying that I trust and support Kim’s assertion that the people who walked by the lake are her ancestors, and I quote her on it. There is NO evidence in this paper to the contrary. Plus, white people don’t get to tell Indigenous people who their ancestors are, ever.)

From my very first interview to talking to Kim, it took a week. I talked to Kim hours before my story had to be finalized. I'm lucky to have an editor who understood why we needed to hold time and space for her voice.

Now here’s a potentially uncomfortable reality—I had a week+ to do this story because it was a Science paper, and I write for Science. Most journalists had 3-3.5 days, from embargoed press release to publication. My story was finished on the day other reporters got started.

I’ve worked under that compressed timeline many times, and it’s really hard to think outside the box about finding sources or do “extra” interviews when you’re under a deadline like that. I’m not sure I could have found Kim in three days, even making my best effort. 

Remember the three days also involves all the writing and editing, not just the interviews! For me/Science that’s AT LEAST three drafts going through two editors.

My intention in talking about these logistics is NOT to let any journalist, including me, off the hook for not including Indigenous sources in stories where their voices are important. Racism, conscious or unconscious, can and does play a part in those decisions. It’s not all about not having the time.

But I really want to show how prioritizing inclusion can be in tension with the toxic (and often false) urgency that governs journalism. Inclusion shouldn’t be considered “extra” work, but under the urgency paradigm, that’s how it’s treated, always and inevitably.

If we all uncritically bow down to the demands of urgency, inclusion WILL be sacrificed. If we prioritize inclusion, we need to also prioritize the time and space it takes to live up to our values. **cough cough I am talking to editors now!**

It’s partly for this reason that I rarely accept super-fast-turnaround assignments anymore. I simply can’t do the kind of work I want to do if I don’t have the time to do it. (The other reason is that I'm writing a book and am busy.)

If you’ve been reading my newsletter (hi!) you won't be surprised by the anti-urgency turn in this thread lol. Urgency is ableism by another name, and it’s a weapon of the status quo. It depletes you so you don’t have the energy to build a better world. 

For more, please check out this piece in High Country News by Nick Martin, a journalist and member of the Sappony Tribe of North Carolina. He raises the possibility that just including an Indigenous voice or two in a story that’s still built around the Western scientific peopling-of-the-Americas paradigm isn’t and will never be good enough. (I think about that a lot, and what it means for how/if I write these kinds of stories in the future.)

Why is it so hard for an Indigenous truth to become an American fact? The White Sands discovery’s biggest accomplishment lies less in its scientific merits than in the way the fallout to the news highlights the lengths to which colonialist institutions — the academy, the scientific journal, the mainstream newspaper — will go to avoid conceding that their grand discovery is merely a physical acknowledgement of something Indigenous people have been saying all along.

And this thread by archaeologist Kisha Supernant, who is Métis, from which this quote comes: 

Gaps in scientific knowledge (from archaeology, genetics, or related fields) of these early times remain large, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There are many things scientists do not know about the past; this site allows for more questions to be asked.

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