Native Americans remain somewhat invisible in society. This may account for why even this fall some baseball fans felt perfectly comfortable mimicking a tomahawk chop and a Riverside math teacher thought it was a fine idea to don a homemade headdress and prance around her classroom.

But Native American representation in the media is improving. That’s the view of two Native American writers who spoke Thursday night in Riverside.

Terria Smith and Gordon Johnson both had newspaper careers — more on that in a moment. Now they’ve found other ways to get their messages out via fiction, nonfiction, books and magazines.

‘Reservation Dogs,’ the television show, has given a shot in the arm to Native stories,” Johnson said of the popular Hulu comedy about four teenagers in Oklahoma plotting to get to California.

“Slowly but surely, things are getting better,” Johnson said during a panel discussion with Smith. “Natives are getting in the newspaper. Our stories are being told.”

Johnson helped tell those stories as a feature writer and columnist for The Press-Enterprise in the 1990s. Three of his columns were included in the “Inlandia” anthology that did so much to help orient me to the wider Inland Empire when I read it earlier this year.

One of them, titled “Rez Dogs Eat Beans,” explains the freedom and survival instincts of the anything-but-pampered dogs on reservations. He also wrote about the more inclusive Ramona Pageant in Hemet and about a sweat ceremony to honor the Indians evicted from Warner Springs.

When I saw that the Inlandia Institute, the literary nonprofit, was hosting Johnson at the Riverside Main Library on Thursday as part of Native American Heritage Month, I made sure to be there. He was someone I felt I ought to meet.

If you’re a P-E reader, you might remember him or have met him yourself. He wrote for the paper from about 1993 to 2001 as a features reporter and columnist after working as a reporter for the Associated Press and as editor of The Californian in Temecula.

“For years and years, Indians only got in the newspaper when they messed up, like a car accident or arrest. Indians were pretty much invisible in the newspaper,” Johnson told me. “I wanted to get Indian people in the news, so other people would look at them as human beings … so when Indians did something good, it was in the newspaper too.”

He left when, he said, “I could see the writing on the wall” that newspapers would be struggling. (I’ve seen that writing on the wall too, I told him, but I avoid looking at it.) He switched his focus to fiction, longer nonfiction and screenwriting.

For Thursday’s event, Johnson, 70, who lives on the Pala Indian Reservation in northern San Diego County, was paired with Terria Smith, 42, another former newspaper journalist.

Smith interned at the Ventura County Star and was a reporter for the Desert Sun in Palm Springs for two years ending around 2010.

“The joke was I was writing about dog shows, rodeos and beauty pageants,” Smith said. Her least favorite assignment was covering an elderly chimpanzee’s birthday party. “I went to school for this?” she wondered.

Her breaking point was when the editor alerted her that the paper was about to publish a deep look into her tribe. She was unhappy that as the only Native reporter on staff, she hadn’t been involved or consulted. The story, she recalled, included a description of her community as a place where “wild dogs” ran among children.

“A wild dog, isn’t that a coyote?” Smith said during her talk. “I thought, these people don’t have any respect for me or where I come from. I gotta get out of here.”

She now works for Berkeley-based Heyday Books, a nonprofit publisher, which has released more than 50 books on American Indian culture and history. (It also published the 2006 “Inlandia” anthology.) She’s director of Heyday’s Indian effort and edits its quarterly magazine, News From Native California.

That, she says, allows her to “amplify” the voices of indigenous writers — including Johnson.

Johnson said she has improved his own writing, including his latest book, “Bird Songs Don’t Lie,” which she edited and Heyday published.

Smith, who lives on the Torres Martinez reservation in Thermal, was recently invited to join the Desert Sun’s volunteer editorial board. “Now,” she said proudly, “I get to have a say.”

Someone in the audience asked about American Indian stereotypes. “People are people,” Johnson said philosophically. “I’ve had people ask if we still live in tepees.” Smith said Native American artists tend to be “relegated to certain things” — colors, patterns, forms — that seem traditionally “Indian” rather than being encouraged to simply create art.

“We don’t exist on a museum shelf,” Johnson said. “We’re people. We’re still evolving.”

Afterward, as I waited to talk to Smith, a couple was asking her about the math teacher who danced while chanting “SohCahToa” as if it were an American Indian expression to try to impart a lesson about trigonometry. They were insisting that because the teacher had good intentions, that made it fine.

Smith was having none of it. The Native American student who recorded the lesson and set off the furor felt “humiliated” by the teacher, “an authority figure.” Even other students, from their nervous laughter, seemed to sense that the lesson was wrong, Smith said.