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Web site facilitates tribal dialogue

From his kitchen table in Minnesota, David Newberger plugs into news and gossip on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation, a distant 1,300 miles to the west.

His laptop brings him daily posts about the tribal council’s performance, speculation over the recent firing of a Coeur d’Alene Casino executive, and a schedule for the Julyamsh Powwow.

Call it new media intercepts the moccasin telegraph.

Last December, Newberger started, an online forum for reservation issues. Even he was surprised when the number of visitors to the site climbed to 7,500 in June.

“I see the CDATimes filling kind of a void,” said Newberger, a 26-year-old member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. “The tribal newspaper comes out about once a month, but it’s a small publication, 10 to 12 pages. … For people like me, who live off reservation, it’s extremely difficult to get news.”

People on the reservation are accessing the site, too. Newberger has traced most of CDATimes’ traffic to the Plummer-Worley area.

Local politics of the 1,900-member tribe is the CDATimes’ mainstay. Readers gossip about the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s prominent families, offer unvarnished views of tribal government, and theorize about behind-the-scenes actions and motives. The posts are made under screen names such as “NDN Advocate,” “Hidden .38” and “White Boy.”

“Some of the stuff is pretty out there,” Newberger conceded.

Over time, however, he hopes to develop CDATimes into a respected news source and watchdog for tribal government.

Newberger grew up in Texas. He visited the Coeur d’Alene reservation as a child but didn’t live there until 2003, when he took a job with the tribe’s technology department. “I have to say that computers always were my passion,” he said.

After two years on the Coeur d’Alene reservation, Newberger and his wife, Christan, moved to Minnesota so they could be close to grandparents when their first child was born.

After the move, Newberger said he was contacted by members of the tribe who were concerned about the result of an audit scrutinizing credit card procedures at the Coeur d’Alene Casino. The CDATimes developed as a forum for people to discuss the report.

“It kept the pressure up on the tribal council,” Newberger said. “It put people on notice that – wow, there are people checking up on us. It’s our own membership.”

The credit card report was the first of several internal controversies on the reservation.

When David Matheson, the casino’s longtime chief executive officer, was fired in late May for undisclosed reasons, the site went into overdrive. Traffic jumped 25 percent from May to June.

The CDATimes, meanwhile, has generated plenty of its own controversy.

“Tribal elders have gone to council members to say how much they hate and despise me,” Newberger said.

One writer took Newberger to task for airing disputes in a forum viewed by people outside the tribe.

The tribal council has pointedly distanced itself from the site. Access to the CDATimes is blocked at the casino and at other computers used by tribal employees.

“I’ve never looked at it,” said Chief Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. “When it first came out, there were some ugly things on there. … The council’s biggest issue is that we don’t want to support hate and hurtful stuff.”

Anonymous criticism also flies in the face of traditional Native values, he said.

“It isn’t the Indian way,” Allan said. “The old way is to go to someone’s house and confront them in person.”

Matheson, who’s frequently discussed in CDATimes’ posts, said he doesn’t follow the site, either.

“Personality conflicts are kind of dominating our tribal scenario right now,” Matheson said. “We’re kind of embarrassed about it.”

Quanah Spencer, the tribal council’s spokesman, said he’s concerned about non-Natives drawing conclusions from what they read on CDATimes.

“If the only insight the non-Indian community has to the Indian community comes from a blog, it may not be accurate,” Spencer said. “It may be perpetuating stereotypes.”

Earlier this month, Newberger started requiring people posting on the site to use screen names. Before, they could comment as “guest.” Screen names will allow readers to track comments over time and make their own judgments about the credibility of the posts, Newberger said.

He also plans to visit the reservation and meet with the council in hopes of getting access to the site restored.

“Lots of people access the Internet at work,” Newberger said. “They could access it on their breaks.”

The use of online forums and blogs in Indian Country intrigues media watchers, who note that reservations receive little coverage from the mainstream media. Those new forms of media are also a perfect tool for reaching niche markets, said B.L. Ochman, a social media strategy consultant in New York.

“Essentially, what it has done is give everyone their own printing press,” she said. “One person with something to say that’s of interest to other people can be heard.”

However, sites such as CDATimes are still fairly rare, according to the Native American Journalists Association. Newberger knows of only two others: an online newsletter produced by members of Western Washington’s Puyallup Tribe and a site he created for the Yakama Indian Nation.

“Blogs may be a way around restrictive tribal newspapers … a way to have the kinds of discussions they can’t have in tribal newspapers,” said Denny McAuliff, an associate journalism professor at the University of Montana who’s also the director of Reznet, a blog run by Native student journalists.

Reservation newspapers are almost always owned by the tribes. As a result, they tend to shy away from controversial issues or viewpoints not endorsed by tribal governments, McAuliff said.

As a result, “there’s no such thing as freedom of the press in Indian Country,” he said.

Without independent media, rumors run rampant. Blogs are really another manifestation of that rumor mill, McAuliff said. Unlike a traditional newspaper, the information they’re spreading isn’t verified, and the people posting aren’t necessarily trying to present fair and balanced views, he said.

“It’s yet another reason why tribes desperately need their own independent media,” McAuliff said.

Newberger, meanwhile, views the CDATimes as an experiment in citizen media.

He used a blog related to the site to discuss one of his concerns – diminishing bloodlines. His baby daughter is one-eighth Coeur d’Alene, which means she isn’t eligible for enrollment in the tribe.

The post sparked a lively discussion. Others weighed in about the difficulty of knowing that if they married a non-Native, their children wouldn’t be eligible for tribal enrollment.

Newberger sees those kinds of discussions helping the tribe identify and address critical issues.

“The site, to me, is great and doing wonderful,” he said.