Jodi Rave: More American Indian journalists needed

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NEW HAVEN, Conn. – Jodi Rave has a message for aspiring young Native journalists: The newsrooms of America need you, because more Indians in newsrooms mean more stories and awareness about Indian issues.

Rave, a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes, covers Indian issues on a national basis. She was a guest speaker Nov. 16 at Yale University’s Native American Cultural Center, where a dozen or so students and a few members of the public gathered to hear her talk on “American Indian Journalism in the 21st Century.”

Rave is a columnist and writes stories for Lee Enterprise, which has 58 newspapers in 22 states. She has worked for Lee Enterprises since 1998 and has been based at the Missoulian newspaper in Missoula, Mont., since 2004, when she completed a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University.

An award-winning journalist, Rave has received top honors from the Native American Journalists Association, the Nebraska Associated Press, the University of Nebraska and the U.S. Army, and has been honored twice by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism for her reporting on race and ethnicity. She grew up on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota and graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, Tuscarora, assistant professor of American Studies and History and the Howard R. Lamar Postdoctoral Fellow at the university’s Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders, invited Rave to speak to her students as part of a semester-long series of speakers.

The two women noted a recent trend – the “infiltration” of American Indian professors into Ivy League universities. Harvard recently hired its first Indian faculty member, and Yale has three Indian faculty members.

Rave equated the universities’ trend to Native journalists in the country’s newsrooms. With around 60,000 reporters at work in newsrooms around the country, only around 300 are self-identified American Indians, Rave said.

“I think that really affects the kind of media coverage that you get. Just having a Native person in the newsroom, even if it’s just a copy editor, your views get heard and it sparks other people to do more coverage. I know in our newsroom we’ve got more and more reporters covering Native issues just because they’re becoming more aware of it, so if you’re interested in journalism, I’ll give you one of my cards before I leave. I know some great programs!” Rave told the students.

Rave said she had always wanted to cover Indian issues even though many of her colleagues don’t.

“They don’t want to be pigeonholed. They want to cover cooking or business or whatever, but I’ve never been of that mindset. I’ve always felt there was a lack of coverage of national issues in the daily newspapers. That’s a huge perspective that’s missing,” Rave said.

But Rave discovered quickly that there were no jobs for someone who wanted to fill the national vacuum in Indian news. She tried unsuccessfully to pitch the idea to papers all over the country. Finally, chance and circumstances converged and her paper decided to embrace the idea of a national Indian beat.

“My job was created for me. The planets sometimes all align, and it was one of those situations where I had an editor who was supportive, a city editor who was supportive and the managing editor. They had that much faith,” Rave said.

The reading public responded enthusiastically to Rave’s stories.

“It was just like a light had turned on for the entire community, because people hadn’t seen Indian stories before. They were hearing different perspectives and they liked it. And it hasn’t changed. Every day I get e-mails from people saying thank you for writing or I’m a fan of yours – I love to hear that. It makes me realize that it’s making a difference and I’m doing what I believe in. I don’t care about those other journalists who don’t want to write about Indian issues, because I do and I always have,” Rave said.

Passionate about the subjects she covers, one of Rave’s greatest recent successes was the Montana Legislature’s appropriation of $13 million in public education funding for Indian history and culture. The state’s 30-year-old constitutional mandate to provide that curriculum to K – 12 students had been completely ignored, but Rave’s yearlong coverage raised awareness and support for the appropriation.

“That particularly story affected the entire state. People began to realize, ‘Oh, this does pertain to us. This is important. It’s not just the students, but the teachers who have to learn this stuff, and higher education people who have to teach the teachers,’ and it was just a web that affected everyone. People were paying attention, because I was writing about it,” Rave said.

There is so much more work to be done in the newsrooms of America, Rave said.

“It’s sometimes just a little overwhelming thinking I’m the only Native person in the country writing about Native issues on a national beat. I’ve a really strong advocate for more Native representation in the newsroom. I think it’s critical now,” she told the students.

But, like all professionals, Rave was looking for the next story, and turned to the students.

“I’d love to hear what your experiences are like here on campus, because I’m going to write a column about my visit here to Yale, but I need to hear what’s on your minds. I can’t write without people’s voices,” she said.