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A changing of the guard for Fort Belknap Community Newspaper

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FORT BELKNAP, Mont. - Jessie James Hawley can laugh now about the two times she got fired as the managing editor and only staff reporter for her tribe's newspaper.

"They said I was too opinionated," she said. "It usually had to do with politics."

Hawley, now 65, was first hired as head of the Fort Belknap Community Newspaper in the late 1980s. She had some journalism training, but that didn't prepare her for all the other duties that came with the job.

"I used to go crazy," she said. "I'd go get the news. Then I'd work on the writing until 2 or 3 a.m. Then I'd go home, and the next day I'd put it on a diskette and travel to Malta (about 40 miles away). They'd print it, and I'd either wait around or come pick up the papers later. Then I'd have to distribute them. You'd do everything, but I loved it."

The Assiniboine and Gros Ventre publication was formerly a mimeographed newsletter known as the Camp Crier, the name given to the person in many traditional Native camps who got everyone up in the morning. It was run through the local agricultural extension office for awhile, Hawley said, and was a regional paper serving both the Rocky Boy's and Fort Belknap reservations during another reincarnation. It has in recent times even been managed under the auspices of Fort Belknap College.

Hawley, Gros Ventre, said that during most of its history the paper has received the bulk of its financial support from the Fort Belknap Community Council, which continues to run the publication as a tribal program. That governmental relationship, however, can bring allegiance difficulties to whoever is running the operation. Pressure to swerve off a controversial story or issue can be intimidating at times.

"I think one of the biggest things is that you need to be very careful," Hawley said. "I don't think I've ever been scared of anybody. My oldest and middle daughters were always concerned about that. But I always wrote and published what I thought was important."

In recent years the paper was also managed by Jennifer Perez, a Fort Belknap tribal member who recently left her post as a regional reporter for the daily Great Falls Tribune, Terri Longfox, and Rose Cochran, who formerly worked at the tribal public radio station.

Hawley, one of 14 children, was born on the Fort Belknap Reservation, but moved to California when she was less than a year old. She came back home while still in high school, but then "ran away and got married to a Korean war hero." She eventually earned a high school diploma and later attended the University of Montana in Missoula, where she majored in journalism before transferring into the school's social welfare program.

Hawley said her other experience running the Fort Belknap Health Department, serving a four-year stint on the tribal council, and working for the Montana United Scholarship Service gave her valuable tools that helped later when running the tribal paper. Her husband, Cranston Hawley, is also well-known, and has served as a tribal judge on the reservation for more than 30 years.

The Fort Belknap paper has been shut down for various reasons at different times over the past decades, and Hawley in 2000 was hired as a consultant with the goal of getting it up and running again. Last fall Assiniboine tribal member Elizabeth "Biz" Doney, now 25, was appointed to take the reins, and Hawley called it quits - she says this time for good - in August.

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"I think a newspaper is really important, because we're writing the history for tomorrow," Hawley said. "To me, you have to document what's going on. But I have a bad habit that when I get into something, I do it 150 percent. That's not a compliment for myself, because it's insanity sometimes. It's just time to make a change."

Under Doney's watch the paper went from being published every month to coming out every other week. But the increased frequency didn't boost sales and subscriptions as much as hoped for, and the publication is now back to a monthly schedule. One of Doney's favorite tasks is doing the tedious and time-consuming page layout, but the aging computer system in her cramped office often malfunctions and causes unplanned delays.

"Sometimes the equipment has been unreliable," she explained. "The whole thing crashed at one point last May."

Doney, a salutatorian graduate of the Chemawa Indian School in Oregon, said she also finds her job overwhelming at times, but she nonetheless enjoys the chaos of a one-person newsroom and hopes to eventually earn a degree in journalism. Her nickname "Biz" comes from her father, who noted she was always busy as a child.

"It's tough to be the only one trying to do all this," Doney said. "It's kind of hard to do everything. But I really like this job. It's important to me."

Current issues are running up to 24 pages, meaning there's a lot of space to fill. Luckily, contributors include Perez, who still lives in the area, and Shawn White Wolf, a Northern Cheyenne tribal member who works as a staff reporter with the daily Helena Independent Record. About 1,000 copies of the tribal publication are published and distributed both on and off the reservation.

Doney completed a business plan for the paper as part of a student project while attending Fort Belknap College. She later recommended that the newsstand price go from 50 cents to 75 cents to help cover costs, and she's trying to sell more subscriptions. The price increase brought a slump in sales, but Doney is optimistic about readership increasing as the paper again finds its place on the reservation.

"I mainly want to focus on the positive, not the negative," she said. "I'm trying to encourage others to write for the paper. I'm also trying to get the council to use it more to their benefit to get the word out about what they're doing."

Hawley, meanwhile, said she'll still help at the paper as needed. Otherwise she plans to relax and nurture her business, Gift Baskets by Turtle Woman.

Asked about her "Indian" name, Hawley said it was given to her by Northern Cheyenne member John Wooden Legs when she attended the Native American Church.

"I asked him why that name, and he said it was because I was always sticking my neck out for people," Hawley explained.