I came to the University of Montana to write stories about Native Americans. This semester I took a class called Native News. In this class teams of photographers and reporters are sent out to cover stories on the seven reservations in Montana. This was invaluable experience as a journalist, and even as someone who grew up on a reservation.
I am from the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, which is home to the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho tribes. I am an enrolled member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe.
Growing up, I imagined my life off the reservation as a journey I couldn’t wait to start. I lived in a town that still has one grocery store and a gas station. At the time there wasn’t even one stoplight on the whole reservation. An avid reader, to me it seemed all the excitement and adventure in the world happened everywhere but Fort Washakie, Wyo. I wanted to be among the few successful Native American writers who traveled to seemingly exotic lands far from invisible reservation lines marked by road signs.
I only wanted to leave my home to experience life beyond its boundaries. I always planned to come back and tell the stories of my people. But I was swept away by the appeal of the city and the nomadic journalist lifestyle. In 2004, I received my bachelor’s degree in journalism from Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.
I moved to the East Coast and started a photography internship at the Washington Post, which turned into a freelance job. I returned to the Midwest to work for three years at the Kansas City Star as a full-time photojournalist. I was once again living in a large city that allowed me to photograph people and events I imagined as a youth.
I was working my way through the fast-paced world of journalism. I was learning vital photography skills, but it wasn’t as fulfilling as I imagined. I was living in a suburb surrounded by housing developments with names like Whispering Hills and Lexington Farms. The stories and people I wanted to cover were not living next to strip mall developments and fancy coffee shops.
During this time the journalism world was turning upside down. The recession was hitting newsrooms hard and people were being laid off. Reporters were picking up cameras and photographers were shooting video. This combination of factors contributed to my decision to pursue a master’s degree. I wanted to sharpen my writing and photography skills so I could effectively tell the stories that concerned me.
Our Native News subject this year was health care. I must admit it is strange learning alongside my peers about issues and problems I have learned to accept on some levels. The class is designed for journalists to immerse themselves into another culture. Sometimes it felt like I was taking a class on my childhood. However, I learned so much in this class, especially about how to cover sensitive and urgent topics in Indian Country.
My story dealt with the problem of youth suicide on the Fort Peck Reservation. Over the past couple of years people age 10 to 24 years old have been taking their lives. While I was still making contacts in Fort Peck from Missoula, a 15-year-old girl committed suicide. Eventually, I met her grandmother when I traveled to Fort Peck. At first I was surprised she was open to doing an interview so soon after her granddaughter’s funeral. In fact, everyone I met in Fort Peck was very open to telling me his or her story. They are a community that does not want to lose any more young people to suicide. Their hope is by sharing their stories lives can be saved.
Because of this class I now know I made the right decision by returning to school. I never left journalism; I just decided to take a different path in the field. Now more than ever it is essential for journalists to master all aspects of journalism. I hope it is a path that prepares me so I may have the skills needed to cover these important stories in Indian Country.
Tetona Dunlap is a first-year graduate student at the University of Montana’s School of Journalism.