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'Native Report' focuses on the positive

DULUTH, Minn. - When WDSE-TV in Duluth invited a community advisory group to come up with program ideas, Tadd Johnson had one at the ready.

After seeing a barrage of stories about what was wrong around Indian country in Minnesota, Johnson, a member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe and solicitor general for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, suggested that the public television station consider a program showing the positives in those communities.

Good idea, the station decided; and naturally, Johnson would volunteer to help produce and host it, right?

So Johnson added time to do television stories to his full-time job with its current 240-mile round-trip commute, and he talked colleague Stacey Thunder into anchoring. Thunder is currently legal counsel with the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, of which she is a member.

''Native Report'' started with four episodes during 2004 and grew into a full 15-episode schedule by 2006. Now the half-hour program has been requested by public stations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, California, North and South Dakota, Michigan, Wyoming, Florida and Virginia.

Done in a broadcast magazine style, each episode presents stories that focus on people or issues. There have been segments on healers, teachers, voting organizers, artists and journalists, along with well-known guests like former National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall and current NCAI head, Joe Garcia; Ernest Stevens Jr., chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association; Kevin Gover and Dave Anderson, both U.S. assistant secretaries of Indian Affairs; New Mexico's Gov. Bill Richardson, now a presidential candidate; and Keith Harper, one of the lead attorneys on the Cobell v. Kempthorne trust lawsuit.

Each episode includes a ''Moment with the Elders,'' during which one elder will speak on a subject of interest to him or her, or will tell a story from childhood. ''Did You Know?'' trivia points out facts and bits of history about Indian country.

The show's pacing reflects a patient, quiet style that allows people time to tell their own stories.

Johnson said he hopes that the show speaks to Indian and non-Indian people, breaks down stereotypes and erodes prejudices. He recalled how comedian George Carlin once claimed that he could end war if he could introduce everyone to everyone else in the world, creating the idea that ''hey, I can't kill him. I know him.''

''Native Report'' can make introductions. ''There's a lot of just plain folks living on reservations,'' Johnson said. ''It's nice to give them a voice. Let those people speak for themselves.''

Juli Kellner, executive producer/director of ''Native Report,'' strongly agreed. ''They're not all big stories; they're stories of people. I really love helping to tell these stories. It feels great. ... I hope that our viewers kind of find that adventure with us and get excited.''

Thunder, who said she nearly ''fell off her chair'' when first asked to do a television show, had no broadcast experience but enjoyed her work on the program. ''It's such a great thing to do, to be part of a program to share our stories.'' She often reports on stories that she knows about, yet she has learned a few things, too. ''One of my favorite interviews was with [U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame inductee] Henry Boucha - who was one of my relatives, I discovered.''

Besides the work of Thunder, Johnson and Kellner, the modest-budget production includes photographer/editors Ted Pellman and Judy Hadel and the voice work of Wanda Sayers, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux in South Dakota and Paiute of Pyramid Lakes, Nevada. Funding support for the program started with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and now includes the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, the Otto Bremer Foundation, the Blandin Foundation and the Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation. The program is available to all public stations, thanks to that funding. The program also has its own Web site - www.nativereport.org.