Part of the Conversation

UA's 'Red Ink,' believed to be the only student-run Native American magazine, celebrates 20 years

When Joseph Quintana Ramirez stood in front of a group of students recently at the San Xavier Mission School, he held up one of his favorite issues of Red Ink, believed to be the only student-run Native American magazine in the country.

The bright colors on the glossy cover pop from a portrait of football legend Jim Thorpe, by regular Red Ink contributor Ryan Huna Smith, a Chemehuevi and Navajo artist who lives and works in Tucson.

"I asked them, 'Do any of you know who this is?'" Ramirez says. "They didn't know."

Ramirez, who is working on his master's degree in American Indian studies at the UA, believes talking to young students about Red Ink is an opportunity to let those students know the magazine exists—and to teach them about important figures in American and Native histories, like Thorpe.

That issue, from the fall of 2000, was published long before Ramirez, the current Red Ink managing editor, came to study at the UA; he joined the magazine's staff in 2009. Ramirez, who is from the Santo Domingo Pueblo, played college football, just like Thorpe.

"That's what it's all about, what we have been trying to do with Red Ink," Ramirez says. "More outreach, going to schools, talking to kids—I know for me, it's not always about what we publish. I took this job because it was a leadership opportunity. That's what we want to show the kids."

Next to a stack of Red Ink issues, with the Jim Thorpe edition sitting on top, Ramirez has a binder containing pages of an issue in progress. It commemorates the magazine's 20th anniversary, and it just went to the press.

A portrait of Native American writer and activist Vine Deloria Jr., who wrote Red Earth, White Lies and Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, is on the cover. In large type is the word "Renewal," the theme Ramirez and his staff set for the anniversary, as well as the year—a period of transformation for the Native community not just in Arizona, but across the country.

"We no longer have Vine Deloria, and right now, N. Scott Momaday is getting older and doesn't do as many engagements as he used to. Who are the up-and-coming leaders of the community?" Ramirez asks. "We want to explore that, and we also wanted to do something to honor everybody who came before us."

The magazine started as a small newspaper, and eventually grew into a black-and-white scholarly journal before becoming the four-color glossy that exists now.

Ashley Tsosie-Mahieu, who helps with marketing at the magazine, is a good example of the important role that Red Ink plays in attracting Native students from other parts of the country. Tsosie-Mahieu first picked up a copy of Red Ink when she was in college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She's had two stories published in the magazine, and when she finished her undergraduate and master's degrees, she decided to pursue her doctorate at the UA because Red Ink is based at the school.

Although Tsosie-Mahieu is Diné (Navajo), she didn't grow up in the Southwest; she was raised in Illinois. Her mother pushed her academically while also connecting her to their culture.

"Still, for me, growing up in the Midwest, the pressures of being in a predominately white society was sometimes difficult," Tsosie-Mahieu says.

Tsosie-Mahieu says that as an avid writer in high school, she would have loved to have known about Red Ink.

"I think having something to submit my writing to that was specifically Native American would have been great," she says.

Making Red Ink accessible to a younger and wider audience is important to Ramirez. He's created a system that makes it easier for each new managing editor (since turnover is higher than at other publications), and he's been seeking more grants and other funding sources, such as advertising, to guarantee that the magazine can continue to be printed twice a year. Eventually, he'd like the magazine to offer stipends or scholarships to staff members.

"When I first took over, we had a budget of $100; now, we've worked up to $10,000, which all goes to publish the magazine. We all volunteer," Ramirez says.

During Ramirez's first year, he and his staff didn't have enough funds to print an issue, so they created an online edition and then printed it for subscribers when they raised additional funds.

"We needed to be inventive. In hindsight, even through it was still a good idea, it was probably too early to go completely online before the Kindle and the iPad came out," Ramirez says.

Through letter-writing campaigns, and fundraising auctions and raffles, Ramirez was able to raise enough money for the 20th anniversary issue.

"This month, we are now focused on grant-writing. We also want to bring in more advertising, not just subscriptions," Ramirez.

Still, those subscriptions have proven to be important in building a fan base that's not just Native. At the Tucson Festival of Books, the conversations that take place at the magazine's booth every year remind Ramirez of the magazine's mission to spark discourse. As an example, Ramirez cites a previous issue in which Momaday and Deloria debated the theory that Native Americans arrived in North America by using an ice bridge between what is now Russia and Alaska. Ramirez says that at last year's Festival of Books, it was an interesting topic to non-Indians who discovered the articles.

Ramirez says another wonderful experience has been seeing well-known authors embrace Red Ink and help promote it. Leslie Marmon Silko, while at a reading in California, was asked where to find up-and-coming Native American writers. Ramirez says he was excited to learn that Silko answered, "Red Ink magazine."

When controversial activist Ward Churchill was speaking in Tucson about his work with the American Indian Movement (AIM), Ramirez says he and other Red Ink staffers asked if they could interview him for the 20th anniversary issue.

"He said yes, and the next day, we sat in his hotel room, and he gave us three hours of his time. He talked about everything from AIM to Obama. It was amazing," Ramirez says.

When Daniel Wildcat, the author of Red Alert!: Saving the Planet With Indigenous Knowledge, spoke in Tucson, Ramirez says that as the writer left the stage, he pumped his fist into the air and yelled out, "Support Red Ink."

"We have a reputation, and that's important to us," Ramirez says. "And the support from these writers—we really appreciate it and are so grateful."

Ramirez says that what makes the magazine a unique voice in the Native American community is that the national call for submissions goes out to everyone.

"You can be an elder who never went to school and dropped out, and still find a place in Red Ink," he says. "That's what makes us unique from a lot of other publications."

This is the last year at Red Ink for Ramirez. He's finishing his master's thesis and is hoping to pursue an MBA at the UA. But he and other staff members are laying the groundwork for the next round of opportunities in this new digital age. Ramirez says they are now turning to the radio; they hope to do a show on a station run by the Pascua Yaqui Nation, and possibly a show on KXCI FM 91.3.

"We want to do interviews, news, funny news—making fun of what's going on in Indian country and discussing issues like borders and immigration," Ramirez says. "We have ideas about what's going on in the Iraq war and the financial crisis—but (we want to cover things) from a Native perspective. That needs to be part of a conversation going on in the whole community."