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Don't Eat a Big Mac on a Bear Hunt: Tristan Ahtone's Journalism 101

Tristan Ahtone tells Jason Asenap about being a Native journalist, and the time he journalistically vomited dangerously close to a grizzly bear.
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Tristan Ahtone is a Kiowa Journalist. Tristan Ahtone is also a journalist who happens to be Kiowa. Tristan is both of these things.

I’ve known Tristan for a while, and it’s always nice to catch up, whether it’s over a cigarette outside Matador bar during Indian Market in Santa Fe, NM or attending a screening at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. I’ve often admired Tristan’s chosen field of work and envied his many travels. Since I’ve known him, he’s worked in Montana, Japan, and everywhere in between. I think Tristan’s doing some of the best journalism out there right now, in particular his recent work with Al Jazeera America. I recently caught up with him at a bar in downtown Albuquerque. Not long after this conversation, he headed to the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) 2014 National Native Media Conference, where he won five awards, three of them for his work with Al Jazeera.

Over pints, Tristan discussed what it means to be a "Native journalist"—or a "Native" anything—and shared a great, terrible story about a bear hunt that didn't go as planned.

Where did you get your interest in journalism?

I was a really shitty painter, and they had a good journalism course at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

How did you come to work for Al Jazeera?

Pure luck.

Courtesy Bevan Bell

Kisha’s photo atop Mount Kilimanjaro which earned her the Nair $10,000 award.

What does it take to become a reporter?

General curiosity. And a penchant for coffee and cigarettes help. Also, knowing how to write helps a little bit too—not much though.

Are there many Natives in journalism? 

There are lots of Natives in journalism, most of them are working around the country, sometimes you don’t see them. I think right now even just with NAJA, I think we have 350 people registered with us.

Do you have a position in that organization?

I’m the treasurer. My last year.

What do you mean when you say we "don’t see" the Natives in journalism?

I think it depends on the outlet you’re looking at. A lot of these folks are working on tribal papers, which we don’t get to see very often—you know, a lot of local stuff. A lot of our reporters are doing the good work in their communities. It’s kind of hard to see. It would be like me saying are there a lot of Native filmmakers you know? Or are there a lot of Native painters? You can think of a couple that you know right offhand.

Do you even think in those terms? “Native journalist” Does that even cross your mind? Because I know a lot of Native filmmakers who don’t like that term at all.

I mean, I think it’s always a loaded term, putting "Native" in front of anything.

During Gathering of Nations when they always have these “Native models”, to me, it seems—it seems less than when you put Native in front of it. Like, kind of corny. I’d rather just see real models—whatever that means.

Native models means they're snaggin' dude!

You know what I’m talking about though?

It’s a loaded word, to some degree. You put "Native" in front of something and you’re pigeonholed almost automatically.

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Exactly. The thing about some writers in particular, fiction writers, they exploit the hell out of that. They don’t even care as much as being classified as that, in fact that’s the territory that they mine. Whereas some painters, maybe they aren’t as interested as being classified as "Native painters." Except during Indian Market, when they are trying to make money, which is okay with me you know?

Using that term, it has an ability to pigeonhole you: You’re going to have a market, it’s going to be a very small market. I think, generally, it can be very dangerous to do so. Are you a painter or are you a “Native” painter? Are you journalist or are you a “Native” journalist?

I see you as being more of a journalist, because you aren’t necessarily working for a Native-specific organization.

I do sometimes, I work for National Native News occasionally, I’ve helped with Native America Calling in the past, I’m running pieces in Native Peoples magazine. I do file at other places, Indian Country Today in the past, I kind of like the idea of a journalist who just happens to be Kiowa. I kind of like that a little bit better. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong with putting Native in front of anything, it just depends on your reasons. I have reasons for not doing it, but sometimes I have reasons for doing it. Journalist, Native journalist—I’m both of those things. I’ve been thinking about this weirdly recently because I had to do a piece on the artist George Morrison. I really dug it. I wasn’t really familiar with him; I did a long piece on his work and the retrospective that’s going around, for Native Peoples magazine. I really dug it because that guy was a Native dude by all accounts, a Native guy. But you walk in and you see his work, it doesn’t look like a “Native artist”. After I delved into his life a little bit—I walked away looking at the same piece again, Yeah, that’s some fucking Native artwork, man.

RELATED: Life Story, Art History: 15 Works by Chippewa Artist George Morrison

At the same time he’s just doing “work”. 

Yeah, I dig it. I dig that it’s just his thing. He just wanted to be an artist, and he did whatever it took to do that. I really dug that a lot. I totally ripped off his line, “I’m a painter that happens to be Native”. It’s a good fucking line; I’m stealing that thing, that’s a good line.

What has been your most interesting experience as a reporter?

There’s been a lot of good ones, man. I think the most interesting experience, plus worst experience was, it was a little bit of both: I had to do a story on grizzly bears in Wyoming. We kept seeing the AP feed saying that the bear police—wildlife officials—were moving grizzly bears. So they catch a problem bear and they would have to move it to a different part of the state. The bear police would just move it. They catch a bear at somebody’s house, what they would do, put it in a cage, drive it to Yellowstone, a couple hundred miles away, and let it go. This happened every single day and I started wondering are they going to start moving the bears back? Isn’t this just like bear taxi or something? So I got to go along with the bear police, the bear catchers, so their whole job was to investigate when there may be a bear in the area and to grab it and capture it and move it. 

So I go out with all these fucking tough old guys, fucking bear hunters for a living. I got to spend all day with them, there were bears all over the place, I’ve never seen so many freaking grizzly bears in my life. It was ridiculous. We were out all day, from four o' clock in the morning, to six o' clock at night, and I’ve got a couple hours of down time before we got right back out because it’s bear season. So I make the really bad mistake of eating McDonald's in the town of Cody, because that was all that was open. I’m exhausted and I smell like dead deer, I’ve been recording audio all day for the station I worked for. So I go to get McDonald’s, so I eat it, I go back to my room I’m going to sleep for a couple of hours, you know okay whatever I’m tired. Somewhere around about 2 in the morning I woke up I could tell—I got fucking food poisoning. I got that bubble. Like, Oh no, that don’t feel right.

Washing machine kinda thing.

Yeah, washing machine kinda thing. And I had to go back out with the bear catchers 'cause we were on the trail of this particular bear. And I’m just feeling bad, you can hear my stomach. [Makes bubbling noise.] It’s bad!

What was it—hamburger, chicken nuggets?

It was a cheeseburger or something like that; I don’t fuck with the chicken nuggets. 

So we go out, we had set up a trap the day before and the trap had a bear in it. So I get over there, and so we go through the whole process, we get out the dart gun and everything, we pull up to the bear, I’m sitting in the middle of this truck. The guy with the dart guns leans out the window and takes a shot, it hits the bear and I guess it bounces off. You can just see it hit, and bounce and fly off.

So we’re sitting there thinking Man, that bear's not going to go down! So we back up and this time I’m feeling bad. There’s a bear over there and it’s pissed off and we got to do something about it. So we load up another dart, go through this whole process, pull back, shoot it, it lands, it doesn’t bounce or anything like that. Then there’s this great moment—I’ve got my recorder running and you just hear it’s really quiet, we’re watching this bear, it’s four o’clock in the morning, you just hear my stomach go [gurgling sounds]. 

The guy, Dusty, he goes, “Dude, was that McDonald’s?”

And I go, “Yeah you gotta let me outta this car right now.” So there’s a fucking grizzly bear ten feet away—it’s not quite asleep, but I’m going to puke all over this car if I can’t get out of it. 

So they’re like "Shit, we got to get him out of the fucking car!" So you hear them all pull out their shotguns, you hear the doors open, then [shotgun noises]—I’ve got it all on tape. It’s great. So they have to guard me with shotguns as I go puke behind a hay bale. It was horrible, I just let it rip. They didn’t want the bear to jump up and come at me. I didn’t think it could, but you never know. Oh my god it was like The Exorcist, behind a hay bale, in the middle of nowhere Wyoming. The guys were trying to make sure I’m not going to get killed by a grizzly. I felt so much better after that, it was great. You know, these were manly men. If you met them in a bar you'd be like, “What do you do for work?” and they would be like, “I catch bears for a living.” 

You'd say, “Get this man a beer!” These are men. And here’s little reporter like, “I have to throw up from the McDonald's.” I thought I could hang, but I can’t. 

Was that the best or worst experience, or just the most interesting?

It was interesting—it was a range of emotions, 'cause there’s a lot of emotions when you vomit.

Jason Asenap (Comanche/Muskogee Creek) is a writer and filmmaker from Walters, OK now based in Albuquerque, NM. Asenap was selected to the 2011 Sundance Institute Nativelab fellowship.