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On the path to success: Gwen Lankford finds her niche

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MISSOULA, Mont. - Gwen Lankford, a Gros Ventre member of Montana's Fort Belknap Indian Community, is clearly on an impressive track to success.

Only 28, Lankford's already paved the way as the first American Indian news reporter at NBC affiliate KECI-TV in Missoula. She's also worked as a presidential appointee at the U.S. Department of Interior, as a national advance worker for former Vice President Al Gore, and as a minority-outreach official at the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

And that's only the beginning.

Now Lankford is completing a graduate degree at the University of Montana's School of Journalism and doing a prestigious summer internship at Home Box Office headquarters in New York. In time she hopes to start her own production company, film documentaries, write books and screenplays, and work every way she can to help Native peoples become better understood in the American mainstream.

Once she gets back from her assignment with HBO, where she's working in the documentary unit, Lankford says she'll start working on a half-hour program on Indian education in Montana, which will be credited toward her master's degree.

"I can say it's one of the biggest turning points in my life - finding journalism," she said. "I feel like I'm blessed to have found my niche."

Lankford largely credits her family with giving her the spunk and drive to push ahead. Her mother, Rhonda Whiting, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, an attorney, and a top director of the highly successful S&K Technologies firm, has been involved in state and national politics for decades.

In 1984 and 1988, Whiting was Montana campaign director for the Rev. Jesse Jackson's twin presidential bids. Lankford cut her teeth helping with both campaigns, co-organizing a Jackson visit to the Flathead Indian Reservation and working to get out the Indian vote. She also was active as a high school student in the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign.

Lankford went on to help organize minority voters for two re-election campaigns by former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., then in 1995 worked on voter outreach for Chicago Alderwoman Helen Shiller while observing Cook County politics for a semester through the Urban Studies Program. In 1996, Lankford helped organize a Washington, D.C. fundraiser for Montana congressional candidate and Crow tribal member Bill Yellowtail, as well as official birthday bashes for former President Clinton in New York City and other satellite sites. She later joined Gore's campaign team to work on logistics, constituency outreach and as a community liaison.

The long hours and dedication to the Democratic Party paid off. In 1997, Lankford was named special assistant to then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. In that job she prepared issue reports for top officials, scheduled many of Babbitt's appearances and did much of his advance work. The same year she completed a political science degree - and was a standout athlete - at Colorado College, a private liberal arts school in Colorado Springs.

Smart, confident and stoked with enough energy for at least three people, Lankford later did some modeling and acting in Los Angeles and worked nearly a year in Los Angeles at the marketing arm of Columbia TriStar International Television-SPE. That eventually led to an internship and the television news job in her hometown of Missoula, where she's also worked as an assistant producer, editor and fill-in anchor.

Lankford says she's been given a lot of flexibility at KECI-TV to cover a host of Indian issues from around the region. Last year she and colleague Jim Harmon produced and directed "Blood of the Earth," a 53-minute comprehensive documentary on Flathead Reservation water rights and other tribal socioeconomic and cultural issues. The Montana Broadcasters Association in late June named the film the top television program of the year for 2002. Partial funding for the project came from the nonprofit Greater Montana Foundation.

"I think the world of Gwen," says Keith Sommer, the station's vice president and general manager. "I really respect her work, her work ethic and her desire to succeed. She's awesome. She's really awesome. Gwen can do anything she wants in life. I wish I could clone her. I sure hope we can keep her on our team here at KECI-TV."

"What I could offer was some of the things a lot of people didn't understand," Lankford says of the water-rights project and other stories she's completed on tribal natural resource issues, Indian military veterans and on-reservation and off-reservation development, among many other topics.

"I'm Indian, but I spent a lot of my time growing up in Missoula, which has a mixed population," she added. "Indian people, more than a lot of other people, have to have our feet in two worlds now. Because of the struggles we face we must stay in touch with our culture and also try to navigate in the mainstream."

Despite her strong Native ties, Lankford says she often feels like an interloper when delving into tribal issues.

"It's so easy to get your head in the clouds," she explained. "But I just try to remain humble. In my heart what's most important is my community. I know the things that ground me and allow me to go forward are Indian. It would be horrible to get to the point that I wouldn't ask my elders anything. It's never just me with any of this."

Lankford says she makes inroads by being diplomatic, instead of confrontational.

"I understand what makes things tick in mainstream culture," she said. "When I'm thinking about the angles to a story, I also try to remember that we're all human beings. I try to look at what the threads are that hold us all together."

"She's definitely one of our great successes, and she's still a student," observed Denny McAuliffe Jr., a former Washington Post reporter who now serves as an associate professor of journalism and the Native American journalist in residence at the Missoula program where Lankford studies.

"Right now, she's my greatest recruiter," McAuliffe says. "She's the simple reason why we need more American Indians in journalism. I hope she stays in journalism. I hope (NBC Nightly News anchor Tom) Brokaw reads this and offers her a job."

"I just feel that since I've been home, I've really thrived," Lankford says. "Home for Indian people is something that's so important. Being here gives me the strength and the support to carry on with these big projects I've been working on. I get lots of support from my family and friends. For a lot of Indian people, they don't think broadcast television is an option for them. But I think it's important to keep working with children to keep perpetuating dreams in them so they can be the next generation of leaders, whatever they chose to do."