Aliyah Chavez is an award-winning native journalist who specializes in reporting on indigenous communities and serves as the anchor and producer at Indian Country Today, the nation's largest and oldest organization dedicated to indigenous news. She also co-hosts "Break It Down" on Arizona PBS. Chavez joins Voices from the Field to reflect on her personal journey, the calling to service that local broadcasting offers and the importance of inclusivity and a space for indigenous voices in America's broadcast news landscape.
Edited and Paraphrased for Print
Welcome to the latest edition of Voices from the Field. Today, we're thrilled to have news anchor Aliyah Chavez from Indian Country Today. Aliyah, thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.
Well, it's great to have you. And as we wind down for the year, we've had some great conversations along the way. And I'm really excited to talk to you about your career and your journey and what brought you into broadcasting. So let's kind of start off right off the bat. Could you talk a little bit about when you first realize your calling as a broadcaster, what drew you to and what inspired you?
I first realized my calling when I was actually an undergrad at Stanford. I had taken a journalism class. And I always love to share this story because it was the first time in my life where I felt so genuinely excited about what I was learning. And I know when you're in college, you often get a lot of reading. And it was actually the first time where I was asking my professors like, 'Hey, can you send me more things to read?' Or you know, 'What else can I learn about this field?' And so that's when I really knew that journalism was for me. But what I also like to think about is that, shortly after I had taken my first journalism class, I had also read this academic paper by a native researcher, Stephanie Freiburg. And in this paper, what I learned was that media representations are really, really heavily influenced. Or I should say, native people are very heavily influenced by how they're portrayed in the media. And this research paper that I read was basically saying that what what most people and dominant American culture see of native people are racist sports mascots, or there's animated cartoons like Pocahontas, and how all of these media portrayals really feed an untrue and an inaccurate portrayal of what native people are. And I am from Kewa Pubelo, which is in New Mexico, and I'm very, very proud, native person and a very proud indigenous reporter. And so shortly after I read that academic paper, it really got my wheels thinking about how journalism is something that I love, and researchers are finding these really important things about native people. And so I kind of meshed the two together, and it's really worked out really nicely for me in terms of my everyday job and what I get to do. But I also like to believe that if I had either known any reporter, before I got to college, I would have probably figured out at a very young age that this is what I wanted to do. And I love when people say, you know, I didn't know a reporter, or I didn't know someone who worked in television. And if I had had those kinds of role models, and maybe one who looked like me and sounded like me, I feel like I would have probably known earlier in life.
So what were you majoring in before at Stanford before you realize you wanted to go into journalism?
I was actually in the pre law track. I thought that that's something that I wanted to do. And looking back now I don't think that that's something that would have interested me. I took a few political science classes and they were fun, but it doesn't give me the same excitement as journalism.
That makes sense. I think we all have a calling which just takes time to find it, right? So as an anchor, tell us what a day in your life looks like today. What is your sort of daily rhythm? When do you take in the news? How do you decide what you're going to report on? How does all of that work for you?
Sure. So a little bit of background Indian Country, today's newscast is aired on various PBS affiliates nationwide. And so what my day looks like is, I wake up in the morning, and I wake up pretty early, and I try to work out because it's very therapeutic for me. And then I get ready for work. And I show up at the studio, and we tape our newscast. And it's live to tape. It's not a live show. So I do the news, and I do interviews, and then we send it off to our video editors, and they get the show ready for the stations. And they do you know, closed captioning and all of the other good stuff. And then they send it off. And it airs at whatever time the PBS affiliate wants to air it. But after I do all of that, in the morning, all of the taping, I have an editorial meeting. So it's really there where we decide what what the news is going to be. We tape actually a day in advance. So we're always working a day ahead, which adds another layer of challenge always, but it's something that we've, I think gotten into a real groove with and so I really love that. So I'm usually doing editorial meetings. And even though I'm an anchor, I love to report stories like that, to me is just the most exciting thing to ask people, What do they care about and why. So I'm always signing up to report a story or two every single day. And then after that my afternoons always look different. They're, you know, sometimes I get to talk to classes, and I love speaking to students, and I love children. So that's really exciting. Other times I'm doing special projects like fundraisers or packages or things like that. So I'd say most of the time, my mornings look the same. But on the same vein in the afternoon, it's always something different.
Which is great, right? There's always adrenaline flowing to do new things and try new things. That's wonderful. You know, you talked about your day sort of structured in different parts. What do you feel are your sort of day to day but also long term most important goals as a native American broadcaster?
I think the short answer to that is one of my goals is to advance native people in media. our editor at Indian country today, Mark Trahan, has been in this industry for a very long time. And he likes to remind people that there's not a single native person sitting behind an anchor desk at a national news organization. And I just dream of the day when someday someone can turn on, you know, a mainstream channel and see a native person doing that. And I think someday, that's gonna just become the regular occurrence for people. And I can't wait for that. So I think that's definitely one of the big goals long term, specifically, because now that I've been in this industry, there is no shortage of talent of native reporters. And I see that every single day. I think that native journalists bring so much of their background, but also, so much of the solid journalism skills that every newsroom wants. And I think what we need as allies, and we need somebody to take a chance on us. And it's really a win-win. I think for the viewers as well. It's a win-win, when they're seeing the diversity on the screen as well. So that's more long term. But I would definitely say advancing native people in media is what I'd like to do.
That's a fantastic goal. I also think that the the landscape has changed so much in the last maybe decade, that those things are much more like people can see that happening now. Whereas maybe 15 years ago, you would have thought, someday, I feel like you're closer to that someday today than we've ever been before.
As an industry, I couldn't agree more. And I will say when I turn on the TV, now, and I see more black and brown reporters on television, and especially to see more women it gets me so excited. And I know that the time for native journalists is going to come and I just can't wait for that to happen.
Yeah, you know, it's funny, I grew up in the newspaper reporting world, so I'm kind of dating myself here, but I remember at a time where I would be shocked to see a byline by a South Asian and now it's just commonplace. It's so rewarding and gratifying to know that we've come a long way and I feel like we're all sort of in that same, you know, boat if you will, to get into that place much faster. And as you're talking about long term goals, what do you think are the most rewarding things in your current day? What do you get the most pleasure out of in your current job?
I love this question mostly because the most rewarding thing for me in my current job is hearing from our viewers and our readers. Indian Country Today is also a digital news outlet, as well. And I love that people take the time out of their day to tell us what we're doing well, I haven't personally heard too many things that we're doing wrong. But most of the messages that we get are people saying, 'If there wasn't Indian Country Today, we would just not know about native people.' Or we get messages from tribal leaders saying, 'Thank you so much for your reporting on this, like this really helped us inform our tribal council about how to make a decision about a certain topic.' And it's really in those kinds of messages where you feel so gratified that the work that you're doing is a public service to people. And I think that that's a common goal among a lot of news organizations. We want to give people the information that they'll use to make choices about their lives. And I see that every single day and hands down, that's the most rewarding part of it is making sure that we're keeping people up to date about what's happening in Indian country. That's the affectionate term for what we like to call native communities in the United States. And it's just so gratifying when we get to hear those positive messages.
That's awesome. Are there specific examples of projects or initiatives you've worked on that have been more rewarding, sort of beyond the day to day?
Sure, yeah, I would say that there's two projects that I've been really proud to work on. The first has been being a part of Indian Country, today's coverage on COVID-19, we've actually started a series called Portraits of the Pandemic. And basically, what it intends to do is write obituaries about native people who have passed from COVID-19. And the data shows that native people have been disproportionately impacted by the virus. And we know that because I mean, we see our relatives, you know, battling it very often. And unfortunately, we also know a lot of people whose lives have been lost. And when we sat down in the beginning of the pandemic, we said, 'how do we want to cover this in a thoughtful and meaningful and respectful way?' And we actually started thinking back to previous pandemics, like the Spanish Flu, which wiped out native communities in very large numbers. And we thought, 'Well, what if there was a place where we got to learn about people who passed from this?' And so we've been very intentional about our coverage about COVID-19. And it gives me goosebumps to read the stories that other reporters at Indian Country Today have filed their stories about elders who pass but there are also stories about high school students who pass before they could graduate. And I actually reported a story about a four-year-old girl who got COVID-19, and she's paralyzed from having the virus. And so it's the stories like that, that you you get to report and share. And they're just really meaningful. So I would say that our coverage on COVID-19 has been really it's been a joy to work on it, even though it's a very sad topic. And the second project that I've been really proud to work on has been about elections and our coverage on politics. I don't think that a lot of people understand the special and complex relationship that native tribes have with the federal government. And so it's been a real project of mine at Indian Country Today to show up to big spaces and say, 'We're native media, and we matter just as much as anyone else.' And so an example of that was actually in April, I got to ask a question at a White House press briefing with Jen Psaki, the press secretary, of course. And what happened is that they were starting a new initiative where they were letting reporters ask questions outside of the beltway. And so I got to ask a question over Zoom. And it meant so much to me that, you know, we had that opportunity to do that. And I also like to think about the fact that so often, reporters, especially those who cover the White House, get to attend these press briefings every day, but in the same vein, it is so rare for a native reporter to be in that room. And so it meant so much to me and to my organization to be able to do that. So I would definitely say that those two projects have been so rewarding for me.
That's wonderful! As we wind down, there are a couple of questions. You've talked a lot about the aspirations, being a native person and wanting to see more native American faces, native people faces in mainstream media, where do you see local broadcasting and public broadcasting and stations like yours? Where do you see those going in the next five to 10 years? What are your challenges and opportunities?
Yeah, that's a really great question. As I said earlier, I really hope that in the next five years, there's more native people on stations everywhere, both in local news, but nationally on public media stations in radio and print everywhere. I would really love to see that in, as I mentioned earlier, I think that as newsrooms diversify, and as we're seeing this industry, change, I can't echo enough, how much more that I want native people to be in those spaces. And the other part of it is that I think I cover politics a lot. I think what we're seeing in the federal government is this shift that you mentioned earlier, to be more inclusive of indigenous voices. And one example of that is in the Secretary of the Interior, Deb Holland. She's actually from a tribal nation, which is very close to mine. And our tribes speak the same language. And when I was covering her selection and her confirmation process, I can't tell you how informative it was, for me to have a similar lived experience to her and also be able to cover this historic nomination process. And so I think if we're going to continue to have policymakers who are indigenous and who are bringing that voice to the table, it's only like that much more important that native people and native journalists are at the table too, just because they think you're being able to tell stories in a different way. So yeah, all of the all of the same sentiments that I echoed before I would share here.
Yeah. So it's almost like the rising tide lifts all boats, right. I mean, you're hoping that the more people see faces, the more they become comfortable and understand that there are different perspectives, the better. We are all for it.
I couldn't agree with that more.
The last question I have is, you've talked about talking to classes in your free time and talking to young people. I'm sure that there's a huge percentage, and they look up to you, because they see your face on television reflects their own experiences and their own voices. What advice would you give to somebody who's looking to get into journalism, whether they are an indigenous person or not? What are the what are the sort of things that you learned on your journey that you want to pass on to people that are potentially looking to become journalists?
I love that question. Mostly because it wasn't very long ago at all that I was in the same shoes. And I also feel like I'm also still in the same shoes at the same time. But I would say what has been so helpful for me has been to find the mentors and the champions who will guide you along your path. And once you're in the industry, as well, I think finding your peers who you feel comfortable with is so important. I attended a few trainings with pointer and they were very heavily geared towards black and brown journalists. And some of the people that I met there work for, you know, stations way different than mine, but it just helps so much when you feel like you have a friend that you can talk to because so often I think when you're in this industry, it's rare for other people to really understand what it feels like if they're not in it themselves. And so, I think that that is been instrumental in my grappling with growing my skills and growing my skill set in this industry. So I would just definitely echo like find your community and find your people that will help you and will take the time to listen to you or, you know, send you funny memes or links to dresses or I mean, I don't know, just to be able to find that community to foster growth for you, I think is really, really important. And then the second thing that I would say is that I think if you want to be a broadcaster, I would make sure, I mean, people say this all the time, but make sure that you have the solid reporting background. Because if you're a good writer, and you're really good about turning over the stones that are journalism, that your future and your possibilities are limitless, and there's so many ways to excel in this industry. And I think as a society, we're all the more better for the better reporters that we have.
Wonderful. As we wrap up, I want to thank you for your time. Aliyah, is there anything else you'd like to add?
No, I would just echo that I'm really honored to be here. And to talk to the National Association of Broadcasters. I know that it's Native American Heritage Month. And I just feel grateful for months like this when we can uplift Native Voices and indigenous voices in the media. So thank you so much for having me.
Of course, of course. And I hope that someday we don't have to use specific months to recognize different populations, right. I mean, that's the ultimate goal. But this is a start. So, again, thank you for your time, and all the best to you. And we look forward to hopefully connecting with you again in the future.
Aliyah Chavez is an award-winning Native journalist who specializes in reporting on Indigenous communities. She is an anchor and producer at Indian Country Today, the nation’s largest and oldest news organization dedicated to stories about Indigenous people. She is also a co-host of “Break it Down,” a 8-minute talk segment that airs weekdays in the primetime block of Arizona PBS.
Her reporting has covered a wide-range of topics, including elections, politics, education and to the coronavirus pandemic that disportionately impacted Indian Country.
At Indian Country Today, Aliyah has had many successes. In 2019, she became the first reporter at ICT to have a story recirculated nationwide in the Associated Press, marking a historic moment for an Indigenous news outlet to have its reporting in a mainstream circulation. In 2020, Aliyah reported 8 of ICT’s 20 most read stories including a profile of a Diné grandmother whose online business soared after she became an internet sensation. She also extensively covered the selection and confirmation of Secretary Deb Haaland to lead the Interior Department. In 2021, Aliyah was selected to ask a question remotely at White House Press Briefing. It was an uncommon opportunity for reporters outside of the beltway to ask questions of a presidential administration — and was also uncommon for a Native reporter to ask a question about Indian Country.
Much of Aliyah’s reporting has specialized in politics. She has interviewed presidential candidates, members of Congress, senior administrators in the federal government, and tribal leaders. She has joined ICT for two of its election night specials. In 2018, she was an on-air correspondent reporting from San Bernardino. In 2020, she co-anchored ICT’s election night newscast from Phoenix. Aliyah also led the team’s coverage in locating and identifying the Native candidates running for office across the country in 2020.
Aside from her reporting, Aliyah is a frequent face in many communities. She has given numerous live talkbacks on Canadian national television with the Aboriginal People’s Television Network. Aliyah was selected as the keynote speaker for graduation at her alma mater, the Santa Fe Indian School, in 2021. She frequently speaks to students and professionals on various panels and workshops, in addition to moderating discussions.
In 2021, Aliyah won three awards given by the Native American Journalists Association for her reporter. She has previously won another award by the organization. She was also selected as a finalist in the NBC News Associates Program in 2018 where she was interviewed by a panel of 10 executive producers and senior vice presidents at NBC.
Aliyah is a citizen of Kewa Pueblo and is a two-time graduate of Stanford University. She has a masters degree in journalism and a bachelor's degree in communication and the comparative studies in race and ethnicity.
In her free time, Aliyah most enjoys being a big sister and auntie, cheering on the Stanford Cardinal and eating breakfast burritos.
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