Framing Red Power: Newspapers and the Trail of Broken Treaties

Commentators, participants, and historians have suggested connections between the media and the political movements of the 1960s and their interactions that allowed activists to communicate their agendas. By utilizing media coverage of the Trail of Broken Treaties and ensuing occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1972 by the American Indian Movement, Indian activists secured a medium in which to voice their goals. The study of the relationship between mass media and the protest movements is important, historian Julia Bond has argued, because “until historians unravel the complex links between the southern freedom struggle and the mass media, their understanding of how the Movement functioned, why it succeeded, and when and where it failed, will be incomplete.” Bond’s declaration can be extended to other movements of the 1960s and 1970s that utilized mass media to their advantage.

The American Indian Movement forcefully inserted their agenda into public discourse and used the print medium to insert their voice into public policy debates. What sort of things were activists talking to the media about? What was the media reporting? Omitting? What was AIM’s message? Did the media report the demonstrator’s goals or was the message lost in the sensationalism of the occupation? Was the occupation of the BIA a successful strategy for disseminating their agenda? Framing Red Power analyzes the ways newspapers covered the American Indian Movement by bringing together digital technologies and traditional historiographical methodologies, allowing historians to pose new questions about the interaction between media sources and political actors.

My first decision in the planning process of the project was an editorial constraint: what sort of print sources would I include in the digital scholarship? I made the decision to focus on major newspapers at the national (New York Times and Washington Post), regional (Minneapolis Tribune and Chicago Tribune), and local (Argus Leader and Rapid City Journal) level. I began compiling my sources by searching online digital repositories like ProQuest and hunting down microfilm sources for anything not digitized. Once the primary sources were located, I began the process of transcription and “mark up” with eXtensible Markup Language (XML), a method of encoding documents with specific information.

With a corpus of digitized newspaper articles, next came the process of integrating digital tools that assist historians in analyzing material. Digital technologies are not an end in and of themselves but rather a method for querying and analyzing material in new ways. Since my purpose was to analyze text and language, I turned to textual analysis tools like Wordle (though I hope in the near future to integrate TokenX, a powerful textual analysis tool developed by Brian Pytlik-Zillig at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, into my project to provide more penetrating and interactive analysis of the articles). With Wordle, I developed visual representations of the newspaper articles that allowed me to spot recurring themes in the text.

Collectively, the newspaper articles appear to focus on Indians, the BIA building, and the federal government far more than they focus on what the activists have to say or why they are in Washington demonstrating. The issues that AIM wanted to call attention to during the demonstration, such as treaty rights or tribal government, are lost in a narrative more interested in the federal response. To prevent skewed results in the word cloud, certain phrases have been strung together. For example, the “Indian” in American Indian Movement is not read by the program as an individual word but rather as part of a phrase. The same is true for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Trail of Broken Treaties, and several other phrases.

The ability to analyze sources with digital technologies allows historians to ask new questions of historical events. Tools like word clouds help to highlight the frequency of language in text, a process impossible (or nearly so) to achieve in print, and reveal ways we can visualize narratives and analyze their significance.

[Cross-posted at Doing Digital History]