NorthWest Indian News growing in reputation.

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Broadcast reaches audiences from Alaska to New Mexico

Richard Walker -- Today correspondent

TULALIP, Wash. - The idea behind NorthWest Indian News is simple: Provide a medium through which Native news and feature stories could be told by Native people.

Since it started four years ago, the news program has grown in audience and reputation: NWIN is now broadcast over 15 public access stations and 12 commercial stations from Alaska to New Mexico, reaching thousands of viewers. NWIN is sent on DVD to every school district in Washington state and has been deemed educational.

The news team consists of what news director Jim Browder called ''a loose organization of storytellers.''

For the reporters, it's a chance to do what Browder and cameraman Mark Anderson, Cowlitz, call ''journalism the old-fashioned way,'' which actually jives with the Native way of doing things on several levels. NWIN is produced semi-monthly, so there's no pressure on reporters to rush. They can take time to cultivate relationships with sources and tell a story with depth and feeling. Of course, the color, drama and tradition of Northwest Coast Native events do a lot of the work.

''There's so much interest throughout society about Native culture,'' Anderson said. ''NWIN enables us to provide positive stories about Indian country by Native people themselves. There's not a lot of chatter. You can see and feel the spirit of Native culture.''

The name was the brainchild of Lita Sheldon, communications manager of the Tulalip Tribes. Sheldon, Tulalip/Paiute, took Browder's TV production class at Northwest Indian College 17 years ago. In 2002, they met at the college to discuss the idea of doing a Native news broadcast.

As Browder remembers it, Sheldon noticed the letters in the college's abbreviation, NWIC, and came up with NWIN, the letters W-I-N setting the direction for a positive news program.

The team of Anderson, Browder, independent producer Bev Hauptli and Sheldon turned to tribal newspaper editors like Ronnie Washines, Yakama, for on-air reporters. They envisioned reporters pursuing stories with camcorders, but decided against it in favor of better filming quality - they knew production quality would be a big part of NWIN's success.

''Bev insisted that we keep our eye on quality,'' Browder said. ''Go for the highest quality - that became our mantra.''

The Tulalip Tribes council agreed to fund the program as a project of the communications department. NWIN was ready to go to work.

NWIN first aired with a 24-minute show in spring 2003 in Bellingham and Seattle/Tacoma. The program included stories about a Nisqually dairy pasture being returned to salmon-rearing estuary, Upper Skagit elder Vi Hilbert's commissioning of a Coast Salish symphony and how after 50 years the U.S. government was keeping its promise to rebuild an ancient fishing village flooded by the Dalles Dam.

NWIN produced a 28-minute show in fall 2003 and continued with quarterly programs through 2004. Chenoa Egawa, a Lummi/S'Klallam actor, singer and writer, joined NWIN as host in 2004. In 2005, NWIN began producing shows once every two months.

Through NWIN, viewers have witnessed the Suicide Race. They've met Native teens learning filmmaking with the help of Spokane author/filmmaker Sherman Alexie. They've met people who are working to save languages from extinction.

NWIN took an in-depth look at the history of an ancient fishing village the Lower Elwha Klallam have struggled to protect, providing sensitive, appropriate coverage of healing ceremonies to honor ancestors whose graves were disturbed by a state construction project.

In the process, NWIN has won the trust of the people it covers. ''We do stories the old way,'' Browder said. ''We're journalists doing a job, but from a position of mutual respect.'' Anderson added, ''It's all relationship-driven. You have to be respectful and get to know people.''

Sometimes, that means knowing when to put the camera down. When Herbert Clyde Fisher Jr., known as Chief Klia of the Hoh Tribe died Dec. 27, 2006 from injuries sustained in a vehicle collision, NWIN went to the funeral - not to cover it, but to show respect.

Some of the stories have been particularly challenging. In covering a Canoe Journey, Anderson found himself in a seagoing canoe in 12-foot swells. At the Omak Stampede, horses and riders raced down a steep hillside to the river below in a test of bravery and skill. Anderson had only one chance to get this shot and Washines had one chance to give a narration that captured the excitement and meaning of the event.

NWIN's formula has been a winning one. In 2006, NWIN won an award from the Native American Journalists Association for its feature about the construction of a traditional Cathlapotle plankhouse. In October 2006, NWIN won a silver Telly, an Oscar of sorts, awarded for excellence in local and regional TV programming.

NWIN has also opened career paths for Native journalists. Washines, the editor of the Yakama Nation Review, is at ease on-air. Niki Cleary, lead reporter for See-Yaht-Sub, the Tulalip newspaper, was encouraged by Sheldon to try on-air reporting; she's now a regular in front of the camera. Fred Lane, Lummi, has done reporting for NWIN and has been recruited to do voice work for KVOS-TV.

Egawa, who appeared in ''Northern Exposure'' and was co-host and narrator for the PBS series ''The Inside Passage,'' sees her role with NWIN as an important part of what she does as an educator and storyteller.

''It's kind of a groundbreaking thing,'' she said. ''It's a modern way of storytelling - using technology to get our stories out to a wider audience.''

There are a lot of stories to tell and Sheldon would like NWIN to go daily. Tulalip Chairman Stan Jones likes the idea. ''I think they do a pretty good job. I hope they can do more. I wish I could get it all the time.''

Former Lummi Chairman Darrell Hillaire, a member of the Governor's Council on Substance Abuse, thinks the time has come for NWIN to do more critical reporting.

''There needs to be some critical coverage of what we're doing in Indian country,'' he said. ''Substance abuse is a major issue in Indian country and we should be talking about it.''

The Tulalip Tribes is currently NWIN's sole source of funding - at $25,000 per episode - but NWIN is positioned for commercials. Programs leave enough time for 12 30-second commercials.

NWIN is establishing a track record so that if efforts to establish a national Native channel similar to Black Entertainment Television are successful - there are three efforts right now - NWIN will be ready.

''Whenever they establish a Native American channel, we want to be on that channel,'' Browder said. Meanwhile, he expects NWIN will be Webcasting within five years.

While NWIN has ambition, what it accomplishes with each edition is not lost on the team - recording the modern history of Northwest Native people.

Rod Van Mechelen, Cowlitz, a proponent of a Native American Channel, said of NWIN, ''NorthWest Indian News is a treasure and I am certain that generations to come will look upon their work with reverence.''

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at rmwalker@rockisland.com.

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