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What I Learned While Mentoring Native Journalism Students

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I know it’s the students who are supposed to do the learning in a mentoring program. But the mentors wind up learning a thing or two as well. I know I did.

For instance, while helping my assigned students at the Native American Journalists Association’s Project Phoenix/Native Voices project in Santa Clara, California in early July, I learned which American tribe has the second-most native speakers. Everybody knows the Navajo have a thriving population of Native speakers, the most in the country, but I was surprised to find, via Census Bureau numbers, that the Yup’ik have the second highest total, about 150,000.

Doing a little research into the federal tribal recognition process, I was surprised to find that more than 300 tribes, in 44 states, have currently petitioned the government for tribal status. California alone has 81 groups vying for recognition, including the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, less than five miles from the convention site. The only states that don’t have current applicants are Hawaii, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, New Hampshire, and Wyoming.

But there are more fundamental things to be learned through the mentoring process. There’s a satisfaction in passing along knowledge and skills to receptive kids. There’s admiration of the students’ brightness, energy, and big dreams. There’s admiration of their youthful stamina, too, as project days can stretch to 16 hours of hard work as multiple deadlines (website, print, video, radio, multimedia) draw near.

NAJA has been running its mentoring program for a long time, 20 years, time for a whole generation of journalists to mature. It is generating a pool of smart, hardworking journalists who will surely help increase the number and percentage of American minority journalists, who occupy just 8.5 percent of journalism jobs currently, but make up 36 percent of the total population. This year’s program totals about 25 students and mentors.

I lucked out by being assigned two accomplished college journalists, Sarah K. Jones and Pauly Denetclaw. Sarah, who is Chickasaw and Choctaw, attends East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma, the Chickasaw capital. Pauly, Navajo, goes to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Sarah is highly efficient and undaunted by looming deadlines. Pauly has dedication and energy to spare and is passionate about social justice. Both did fine stories for web and print and I look forward to working with them on the radio program here. They will be the mentors in that effort, and me the student. Any news organization would be crazy not to hire them.

In fact, it is great to see the newsroom at NAJA’s 30th annual conference filled with many young women journalists. In my time in journalism (more than 35 years) the business has made great strides in closing the all-guy club journalism used to be. All of the students here, male and female, are bright and focused—read about them here.

The students have excelled in coming up with story leads. Sex trafficking on reservations, there’s a breathtaking topic. (Jourdan Bennett-Begaye is working on this one.) The Kiowa man who played in the World Cup happens to be playing near here July 11, and Erin Tapahe grabbed him for an interview after practice. A piece on the San Francisco Giants mascot controversy turned up a fresh angle—the team is conducting an internal review to prevent more fiascoes like this happening. USA Today beat us to the story by a couple of hours, but I call that A+ reporting (by Charlie Perry and Carina Dominguez).

It is really amazing to see the solidarity that has been created among such a diverse group of people, many meeting for the first time. We started out as three distinct groups: high school students, college students, and mentors. But the lines began to blur almost immediately, and we have started to be a tribe of journalists, whether young ones, ones in mid-career, or elders (like me). We became a collective, working cooperatively to accomplish the most good under the most rigorous deadline pressure imaginable.

Props to Mark Dreadfulwater, Cherokee, multimedia editor at the Cherokee Phoenix, who headed the mentoring program this year, and to the other mentors and NAJA staff as well. Here are a few of the Native journalists you will be hearing from again: Dion Tapahe, Cheyanne Lee Hodge, Dylan Graham, Josh Pullium, Monica Webster, Pauly Denetclaw, Sarah K. Jones, Amanda Frank, Brandon Frye, Erin Tapahe, Charlie Perry, Melanie Balakit, Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Carina Dominguez, and Brittney Bennett.