Sunday, August 23, 2009

"Where are my dancing Indians?"

Nearly two years after I started this blog to recount the great, and not so great, moments in my 30-year journalism career I remembered one of the most disturbing editor moments in my tenure.

Well, actually, not directly my career, but anyone who worked at the Oakland Press in the 1980s will clearly recall the “dancing Indians” incident.

(To my dear friend “cat paws” feel free to chime in with your intimate knowledge of this incident).

No, I have not lost my mind with the culturally insensitive and politically incorrect description, “dancing Indians.” The term came right out of the mouth of an angry editor and the story is 100 percent true.

In the early 1980s, there was a controversy brewing in Waterford Township over the development of a piece of property that had some connection to a local Native American tribe.

One of the people upset by the pending development dropped a dime on an editor about a “big” protest that would occur at the next Township board meeting. Native Americans (my term) were expected to turn out in huge numbers to let their anger be known at the meeting.

The excited editor dispatched a reporter and photographer to the meeting in anticipation of a huge protest that hopefully involved dozens of Native Americans dressed in traditional loin cloths and wearing feathered head dress.

When the reporter and photographer arrived at the meeting, they found no one outside and only two people inside to speak in opposition to the development. Both were in traditional American business suits and instead of carrying a bow and arrow were armed with briefcases.

The two men, one was an attorney for the tribe as I recall, spoke in respectful tones to the Township Board about the tribe’s concerns and how the objections could be overcome without a huge lawsuit.

Returning from the assignment, the reporter and photographer filed a story that accurately reflected what transpired at the meeting. The picture was of a lawyer in a business suit addressing the township board.

After the editor who assigned the story began to edit it, he was livid.

“Where are the dancing Indians?,” he yelled across the newsroom. “I sent you to get dancing Indians and you bring me back this?”

Despite the protests of the reporter and photographer, it took a long time to calm the editor down and convince him that there were no “dancing Indians.”

“I was told there would be dancing Indians,” the editor protested.

From that moment on, any outrageous story assignment was frequently referred to as a “dancing Indians” assignment. Any reporter at the OP knew immediately what a colleague meant when they said I’m off on a “dancing Indians” assignment.


Anonymous said...

I suppose that editor would send someone to cover a German opening a business in Frankenmuth and wonder why there were no pictures of the German dressed in Lederhosen.

Cat paws said...
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Anonymous said...

Well put, "Cat Paws!"

Bob Allen said...

Oh, God, I had forgotten how much Bill loved stories about the mafia. If Newsday hadn't been part of the LA Times-Washington Post wire service, my job would have taken a bit less of my stomach lining than it did.

Keep your friends close. Keep your editors closer.

Anonymous said...

I was one of the fortunate ones who fled the Oakland Press in the late 1990s for the sake of my sanity, and I got a serious kick out of reading this. There were indeed a couple of editors there who were long on bluster and short on brains...

Cat Paws said...
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Jim of L-Town said...

Bob, I too, had forgotten the obsession with all things Mafia. All it took was a story subject with a name ending in "O" to get things stirred up.

All of us aged a little over that.

Sven Garlic said...
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