Reporting in a Sovereign Nation

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Getting the story of the tragic killings of five students, a teacher and a security guard at school on the Red Lake Indian reservation in northern Minnesota meant overcoming a particular set of challenges. TIME’s Chris Maag reports:

The Red Lake Tribal Council took strong measures in the days after the shootings to rein in press access to their sprawling reservation. On Tuesday tribal chairman Floyd Jourdain Jr. announced that reporters must stay inside a fenced parking lot next to the reservation detention center. Reporters caught roaming the reservation suffered tough penalties. Many were escorted off tribal land and instructed never to return. Two photographers were arrested and spent the night in jail. Two others were pulled over at gunpoint by tribal police. Police confiscated their cameras. "This is insane," said Bill McAuliffe, a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune who was among the first on the scene.

At first, Jourdain defended the restrictions for cultural reasons. "We as a people have very firm rules about the process of mourning, and it just wouldn't be appropriate to have the media going out and invading their homes in this very private time."

Most members of the tribe contacted by phone by reporters said the tribal council had barred them from speaking. Jourdain said that wasn't true. After two days of constant pestering by the press corps, the chairman let his frustration show. "We're very isolated," he said at a Wednesday press conference. "Nobody ever wants to come up here. It's only when there's a tragedy that people are interested in us."

By Friday, Jourdain allowed journalists slightly more access, giving them freedom to set up cameras in parking lots at a number of community centers where wakes and memorial services were taking place. But journalists remained barred from entering the services or going anywhere else on the reservation. "Sometimes the press works so hard to get the story that they step on people in grief," says Jerry Moberg, an attorney in Ephrada, WA who served as the lawyer for the Moses Lake School District after it experienced a high school massacre in 1996. "I know the press doesn't like it, but they have to respect the fact that they're covering a sovereign nation. I don't see anything wrong with what the tribe is doing."