Freedom of the press is a right many Americans are familiar with. It’s number one in the Bill of Rights.
Congress didn’t grant citizenship to Native Americans until 1924, extending that First Amendment guarantee and all other rights to them thereafter.
While American citizens, Native Americans are also citizens of their own sovereign nations. And not one of those nations has freedom of the press as a constitutional guarantee.
But that could change this September, when Muscogee Nation citizens take to the polls to vote whether to amend their constitution.
“It's one of the times when the actual people of this government get to decide on the rules and the spectrum of operation of the government,” Mvskoke Media Director Angel Ellis said. “And I'm like, what more jazzed could you be about democracy than that? Because that doesn't happen every day.”
Mvskoke Media became a tribal-owned free press outlet in 2015, one of few in the United States. The protection of the organization’s right to report the news without tribal interference or bias was granted by the Muscogee Nation National Council through the Independent Media Act.
Ellis has been fighting for free press long before that.
The fight for free press
Ellis told VNN her career with Mvskoke Media began several years ago, and that she was fired after publishing a controversial story. After that she worked for Henryetta Freelance, then switched over to a city job for better benefits.
Seven years later, there was an opening at Mvskoke Media. Ellis applied.
She returned to Mvskoke Media in August 2018. That November, council members called an emergency session to repeal the Independent Press Act and move them back under executive oversight.
“The next day, the secretary of the nation, who works directly under the chief, was telling us to pull things off the front page of our newspaper that was getting ready to go out,” Ellis said. “They censored us within 24 hours of repealing our law. They did not like the coverage we were doing.”
At the time, McGirt v. Oklahoma was coming up through the Supreme Court, and one of Mvskoke Media’s stories was actually used in an argument against the tribe.
Councilors opposed to free press also said there wasn’t enough positive news, and there needed to be more budget oversight.
“Which was crazy because our budget is reviewed in the rest of the nation's budget,” Ellis said. “Like, this is fully funded by the tribal government. None of our expenditures get to happen without government oversight.”
Mvskoke Media would not regain editorial independence until nearly two years later, knowing it could be repealed again at any time.
“We started pushing back for something even stronger than just the code on the books,” Ellis said.
The importance of free press
Ellis told VNN having an independent and free press is a critical pillar of democracy. And she isn’t the only one who thinks so.
In 2019, the Muscogee Nation invited the Carter Center, a non‐partisan non-profit dedicated to helping preserve human rights, to observe the tribe’s primary and general elections in 2019.
In their final report, the Carter Center recommended the Muscogee Nation enact constitutional guarantees for the freedom of expression, and that law “provide sufficient safeguards to ensure the political independence of state-owned media.”
The Muscogee Nation’s journey to free press has been so epic, it’s even getting its own documentary.
Rebecca Landsberry-Baker is the executive director of the Native American Journalists Association. She also serves on the Mvskoke Media Editorial Board.
Landsberry-Baker tells us free press in Indian Country supports tribal sovereignty by empowering an informed citizenship, and she has been directing a documentary on the nation’s free press journey since 2019.
“We are the folks who document, archive, communicate and show the citizens exactly what their government is doing to, for and with them,” Ellis said.
Ellis said coverage, like that of the tribe’s contentious 2019 election, fulfills the press’s obligation to be a watchdog of people in power.
“As people talk, you see a big production video camera and you're like, what's going on, and so it kind of had some sway,” Ellis said.
Taking to the polls
Over everything else, Ellis said, just the opportunity for citizens to have this vote is a win in her book.
“Whether they vote for it or against it, our citizens have a direct hand in forming the rules from which their government is going to operate, and I think that's truly amazing,” Ellis said. “It's a real sign of the progress that we've made as a nation in fully embracing our inherent sovereignty.”
The Muscogee Nation is the fourth largest tribe in the United States, with 86,100 citizens. Of those citizens, only about 20 percent are registered to vote. Muscogee citizens we talked to said they didn’t realize they weren’t automatically registered.
Muscogee Nation citizens can download a voter registration form here. Make sure you sign and date the bottom to prevent any delays in the registration process.
Muscogee Nation Election Board Manager Nelson Harjo told VNN Muscogee citizens who live outside of Reservation boundaries may find it more convenient to vote by absentee ballot. In order to do that, voters will need to complete an absentee ballot request form as well, and submit to the Election Office via mail (Muscogee Nation Election Board, PO Box 580 Okmulgee, OK 74447), email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or fax (918-938-0799) no later than 5 p.m. CST on August 25.
Here is the full list of deadlines and details to keep in mind if you are interested in voting on the Free Press constitutional amendment:
Harjo said anyone with further questions should give the Election Office a call at 918-732-7631 or email them at email@example.com.
This story is part of the Oklahoma Media Center’s Promised Land collaborative effort, which shows how the landmark McGirt v. Oklahoma decision will affect both tribal and non-Indigenous residents in the state.
It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Inasmuch Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Democracy Fund. The print, digital and broadcast media partners include: CNHI Oklahoma, Cherokee Phoenix, Curbside Chronicle, The Frontier, Gaylord News, Griffin Communications, KFOR, KGOU, KOSU, The Lawton Constitution, Moore Monthly, Mvskoke Media, the Native American Journalists Association, NonDoc, The O’Colly, Oklahoma City Free Press, The Oklahoma Eagle, Oklahoma Gazette, The Oklahoman, Oklahoma Watch, Osage News, StateImpact Oklahoma, Tulsa World, Telemundo Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma Student Media and Verified News Network.