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Pressing the truth

Hard news in Oklahoma’s resurgent Indian Country

Former Mvskoke Media manager, Sterling Cosper

Gary Mason

When Sterling Cosper started looking for a job in journalism about seven years ago, the media landscape was littered with the husks of formerly prestigious publications. The rise of social media and lingering effects of the Great Recession seemed to spell doom for budding journalists. There was, however, one bright spot: the rise of Indigenous media. “The Creek Nation was my big break,” Cosper said.

The influx of revenue from gaming had led some tribes—including the Muscogee (Creek) Nation—to take a risk in establishing independent media outlets to tell in-depth stories from an Indigenous point of view. The move was a political gamble. Press independence from tribal government meant that the media would be accountable to the citizens of a nation and journalistic ethics, not to the government that funded the operation.

There are only five tribes nationwide with legal protections for press freedom, according to the Native American Journalists Association. NAJA executive director Rebecca Landsberry says that a free press represents a major step forward for tribal sovereignty and self-determination. Until recently, Mvskoke Media—the Creek Nation’s outfit of radio, television, and newspaper—looked to be a model for the hundreds of tribes without such freedom of the press protections.

With the passage of a Nov. 8 law reclassifying Mvskoke Media as an entity of the Department of Commerce, however, that model is in serious jeopardy.

When Sterling Cosper first landed at Mvskoke Media in 2012, the idea of a press free from political pressure was still a distant ideal. “You get in there and you realize [the media] is under the administration, but everything is being called ‘news,’” Cosper said.

Cosper bided his time, hoping that the Mvskoke Media could blossom into something more than a PR wing of the Creek Nation. It was a frustrating experience. “Controversies started popping up in the government and people started asking why we weren’t covering the issues in a timely manner, or at all,” Cosper said. Many Creeks “did not even realize we were seated under the Chief.”

A scandal involving former Chief George Tiger pushed the tribe to reconsider how it covered its own affairs. In March 2015, The Tulsa World reported that Tiger signed a secretive deal with the Kialegee Tribal Town to start a casino that would rival the Creek Nation’s casino and hotel. The Creek Nation had invested heavily in transforming what had once been a boxy warehouse housing a bingo parlor on Riverside Drive into a Las Vegas-style resort. Now the Chief was secretly working with another tribe to build a competing casino. The Tulsa World story landed as a bombshell at the Creek National Council, where Tiger’s deal seemed like a betrayal.

In an emergency session following the story, the Council voted 12-0 in a no-confidence resolution. Council wanted Tiger out, but he stayed in office until he lost to current Chief James Floyd in November of the same year.

Back at Mvskoke Media in Okmulgee, Cosper sensed the timing was right to unshackle the media organization from the government. He yearned to report hard news about his nation, and he seemed to get his wish when, in the fallout from the Tiger scandal, the Creek National Council unanimously passed a law guaranteeing a free press by establishing an independent editorial board at arm’s length from political machinations.

Eli Grayson, a longtime activist within the tribe, watched with skepticism. “Anyone with any political sense knew the media was being used as a football in a game between Chief George Tiger and the National Council,” Grayson said.

Mvskoke Media used its newfound freedom to delve into thorny issues about tribal sovereignty, the status of Freedmen (descendants of slaves owned by the Five Tribes who were written out of tribal citizenship), and sexual harassment. The media establishment took notice. In spring 2018, Mvskoke Media garnered five awards from the Oklahoma Society of Professional Journalists Association. Rebecca Landsberry, the NAJA executive director (and a Creek citizen herself), told me that Mvskoke Media was becoming a beacon for an independent media in Indian Country.

With increased visibility outside the tribe, however, came increased scrutiny by powerful people within the tribe. National Council members grumbled about “negative” coverage. In my talks with Creek citizens, a few stories published in Muscogee Nation News stuck out as particularly damning. One involved a charge of sexual harassment against National Council representative Lucien Tiger. Another story reported on a charge of a DUI against Representative Mark Randolph. Other stories involved nepotism at HUD and an unreported deficit in the health department.

Cosper insisted that all this reporting was printed as unbiased news, not as a political takedown. “I hate to call those stories negative, because anything that holds people accountable or makes the public more aware is not, in my opinion, negative.”

In any case, Cosper suspected that there would be blowback for the stories. He thought the National Council might find ways to pressure Mvskoke Media into softening its coverage or force the outlet to run more pieces with a positive spin. But the government took a much more drastic step.

On Nov. 8, the National Council convened an emergency session to repeal the law that had guaranteed press freedom to Mvskoke Media only three years prior. Under the new legislation, the media outfit would now be part of the Department of Commerce, directly underneath the Executive branch. Cosper got the news the same morning that the Council was set to vote on the law. He scrambled to prepare some sort of defense. “I knew that they would come after us, I just didn’t know they would do it all in one day,” Cosper said.

Assembled in its newly-renovated tribal council house in Okmulgee on a brisk, early fall evening, the National Council took up the issue. One council member asked Chief James Floyd why it was necessary to disband the editorial board and reform Mvskoke Media. Chief Floyd responded that the tribe needed to “coordinate the messages we have. We need to be good stewards of tribal money in everything that we do.”

In an email to me, the Secretary of the Nation and Commerce, Elijah McIntosh, emphasized the financial dimension of funding a multiplatform media operation under intense scrutiny. A review of expenditures revealed that
“[m]ultiple departments are performing the same service, thereby unnecessarily increasing government expenditures,” McIntosh said. He said that the reclassification would have no impact on the freedom of the press.

Representative Travis Scott, however, was not convinced. During the emergency session, he said that the proposed move “needs to be a little more thought out and addressed with the editorial board.”

If the issue was negativity, Scott said, then the Creek Nation had a bigger problem. “In my opinion, we see [negativity] everyday when we wake up and watch the news, regardless of whether that’s at the tribal level, the state level, the federal level. I mean, that’s all we see.”

Sterling Cosper took the floor. “I know we’ve printed stuff that some of you may have found alarming,” he said to the National Council. “But at least I can come and account for what I’ve done.”

Votes among representatives resulted in a six-to-six tie. Chief Floyd then cast the tie-breaking vote to reclassify Mvskoke Media as an entity under the Department of Commerce.

That same evening, Sterling Cosper announced his resignation as manager of Mvskoke Media. Despite the blow, Cosper, Landsberry, and other Creeks remain positive about the long-term goal of a free press in Indian Country. Ultimately, they think a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the freedom of the press can be attained. Recent developments inside and outside the tribe may have actually strengthened their cause.

The controversy around press freedom in Indian Country comes at a pivotal moment for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the State of Oklahoma. For over a century, Native American affairs have been covered by the Oklahoma media establishment as matters of secondary importance. This is no accident: The foundation of the State of Oklahoma was inseparable from the dissolution of Native sovereignty.

In the years following 1907, the Five Tribes were forced to wind down all the functions of their governments in an era that historians call early 20th century “bureaucratic imperialism.” Under the Dawes Act, the Tribes’ national lands had been transferred to individual 160-acre lots to be bought and sold—with some important restrictions—on the open market.

The governments of the Five Tribes were on life support until the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act of 1936. From that point until the current day, the Five Tribes have been clawing back sovereignty from the State of Oklahoma. Everything from Indian gaming to tribal licence plates to fights over taxation, mineral rights, and Native American language revitalization are all a part of this bigger picture of the fight for self-determination.

Oklahoma, of course, has not always acquiesced to the Tribes’ demands, and the conflict between the state government and tribal sovereignty came to a head over a 1999 murder by Patrick Dwayne Murphy.

On the surface, there was little to debate. Murphy, a citizen of the Creek Nation, confessed to killing George Jacobs over a dispute involving an ex-girlfriend. The gruesome details of the case—Murphy slit Jacobs’ throat, severed his genitals, and left him to die by the side of rural road—led the State to pursue the death penalty, which Murphy received. Murphy’s defense, such as it was, revolved around his mental deficiencies.

On appeal, however, a new set of lawyers took a different tack. They pointed out that since Murphy was a citizen of the Creek Nation and the murder had actually taken place on Creek land, it was subject to federal, not state jurisdiction. Simply put: Murphy had been tried in the wrong court. The U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, after a long consideration of legal history, found that, indeed, Congress had never disestablished the 1866 boundaries of the Creek Nation. Murphy should have been tried in a federal court.

The case, Murphy v. Royal (now being considered before the Supreme Court as Carpenter v. Murphy), was of tremendous importance to Mvskoke Media. Cosper and Jason Salsman, another editor still with the organization, realized that this trial had the potential to reshape not only their tribe but the entire state of Oklahoma. Indeed, if Murphy’s argument holds up in the U.S. Supreme Court, it is not an exaggeration to say that that the old Indian Territory portion of Oklahoma might at some future day be reclassified as one big reservation.

For activists, journalists, and legal minds, Mvskoke Media became the go-to source for the Murphy case. They covered it from every possible angle, interviewing legal scholars, historians, activists, and politicians. Cosper has appeared in the national media to talk about the implications of the Murphy case, setting the record straight for white media outlets suddenly curious about the blurry boundaries between Indian Country and Oklahoma.

The State of Oklahoma has sounded the alarm about the implications. A ruling in favor of Murphy, in the words of the state’s lawyers, “would immediately trigger a seismic shift in criminal and civil jurisdiction.” News outlets from The Atlantic to The New York Times have suddenly taken an intense interest involving a tribe of around 86,000 citizens, most of whom live in eastern Oklahoma.

The implications for the half of the state formerly known as Indian Territory are existential in nature, raising questions not only about legal jurisdictions, but also about cultural heritage, language, and identity. The media establishment of Oklahoma hasn’t always been up to the task of presenting the full picture of the state’s tumultuous relationship with Native people.

Native American media, then, has served as a vehicle not only for self-representation by tribes, but for others wanting to fill the gap left behind by the white media establishment. That gap may have grown wider since the Creek Nation revoked Mvskoke Media’s independence, but Cosper and others are fighting to see that it does not remain unbridgeable.