Bonnie Red Elk, who made a legacy as a driving force for telling the truth and never giving up, even in the face of oppression, has walked on.
The Montana journalist and editor, who would have turned 64 on July 6, died due to complications following a stroke she endured last year.
“She was an important leader in the world of not only Native journalism, but (also) journalism in Montana as well,” said Rich Peterson, her childhood friend and colleague.
A defining moment in Red Elk’s career is the moment she faced major backlash—and overcame it.
In 2006, Red Elk grew aware of allegations that then-chairman of the Fort Peck Tribes, John Morales, had been using thousands of dollars in tribal funds for personal trips to Florida.
When Morales caught wind of Red Elk’s pursuit of the story, he fired her from the editorial position she held for 30 years at the Sioux tribe’s official newspaper, the Wotanin Wowapi—a position she gained after just a year at the paper despite having no prior journalism experience.
But she didn’t let this hold her back.
Red Elk started with a clean slate, establishing her own publication, the Fort Peck Journal. Eventually, the newspaper thrived while the Wotanin Wowapi closed in 2007 due to inadequate revenue and readership.
As for Morales, his position as tribal chairman was taken away within six months of Red Elk’s termination.
This drive and passion led to Red Elk’s achievement of the Wassaja Award, given to her by the Native American Journalists Association in honor of her persistence to report in spite of her challenges.
“I feel like Bonnie is so brave in a way that I can’t even understand,” said Mary Hudetz, NAJA president. “What she did was really hard.”
Red Elk’s accomplishments are an inspiration to Native journalists, Hudetz said. “She just did what she felt was right and she stuck to it.”
Red Elk’s bravery can’t be overstated, Peterson said.
“I don’t think people knew what kind of trials she went through,” said Peterson, who worked alongside Red Elk at the Journal. “She took a lot of threats by officials—personal threats. And I don’t think people realize how many threats she went through.”
Red Elk never let the hostility stop her.
“I did not back away from controversy," Red Elk said in a 2007 Harvard University publication. “I approached my job strictly from the perspective of a journalist, without animus toward those on whom I reported.”
Besides Red Elk’s strong-willingness, she was also kind, caring and generous, Peterson said.
“If you needed something, she’d try to do it for you. Whether you were in trouble or needed a hand, she was always there,” he said.
Though Red Elk was never one to let her voice be silenced, she had a quiet demeanor. But she made up for it, Peterson said. “She spoke with her pen.”
Student journalist Paris Burris, Chickasaw, is a Native American Journalism Fellow for 2015-2016. She wrote this content for the newsroom immersion program of the Native American Journalists Association at the National Native Media Conference in Washington, D.C. She will graduate in 2016 from the University of Oklahoma.