“First.” “Only.” “Groundbreaking.”
In a country where, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Native Americans account for just 0.53 percent of journalists nationwide, Native American journalist Jodi Rave’s career has been defined by these adjectives. In the past eight years, she has worked as the only Native American daily newspaper reporter at the Idaho Statesman and the Salt Lake Tribune, and, since 1998, as the first and only national correspondent covering Native American issues for Lee Enterprises’ Lincoln Journal Star—a position that the Journal Star created specifically for her. Four weeks ago, Rave came to Missoula after a year as a Nieman fellow at Harvard University to continue her work (still as the only daily news reporter in the country on the national Native beat, says Rave) at the Missoulian.
While her presence at the Missoulian is a change for the newspaper—Rave is the first full-time Native American reporter to work at the paper—her years as a pioneer in Native American journalism could be summed up like this:
Some things change with time, some don’t.
Her job, for one, hasn’t changed much with her move to Montana. Rave came to Missoula in part for her husband’s job as a civil engineer, but also because the Missoulian is a Lee Enterprises newspaper to which she could transfer upon her return from Harvard. “I write for [Lee’s] news chain,” she says, “so I’ve always been a part of their network. What’s different is that I’m just working out of the [Missoulian] office. I’m still maintaining a relationship with my editors in Lincoln.”
The Journal Star’s city editor, Peter Salter, still edits her work, as does Missoulian Editor Mike McInally; Rave’s articles will continue to be shared among multiple Lee newspapers.
The atmosphere in newsrooms hasn’t changed much, either, over the years, says Rave. “It’s a white newsroom,” she says of the Missoulian, smiling, “but most newspapers I’ve either worked at or interned at were all-white newsrooms.” In Montana, she says, considering that Native people are the largest minority, “it shouldn’t be a white newsroom. There definitely should be more Native representation, I believe.”
(The Independent, for the record, presently employs no Native editorial staff.)
Though soft-spoken, Rave has built a career out of speaking her mind. When she read a Boston Globe study of newsroom parity a few years ago, “I looked up Montana,” she says, “and saw that there were zero Indians at that time at any of the Montana newspapers.” She sent an e-mail to Lee Enterprises CEO Mary Junck. “I think they were surprised, to be honest,” recalls Rave, “that that was the state of their newspapers, and they said they would work to change that.”
Lee Enterprises is getting more involved in recruiting Native journalists, says Rave. The Missoulian currently has three Native American student interns, all from Montana. At Lee’s Helena Independent Record, Northern Cheyenne Shawn White Wolf now works as a reporter after attending a 12-week training program at the Vanderbilt University-based Diversity Institute, founded in 2002 by the Freedom Forum and geared in part toward training minority journalists who might then return to report on the communities from which they came.
“There is that belief, and it’s well-founded,” says Rave, “that you’re going to get the best reporting from the people who are knowledgeable about the place in which they live, and know the questions to ask.”
For Rave, who grew up as a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, that place remains Indian Country. Initially, her focus was on human interest stories, “letting people know what normal Indian life is like, giving a voice, that sort of thing,” she says.
Raves anticipates that now, after five years covering a national Native American beat, the focus of her stories is something that will change. “I’m still very much interested in covering Indian Country,” she says, “but at this point there are issues I’ve overlooked that are quite important, and I’m ready to take those on.”
Among those issues are tribal water rights (which Rave reported on in the July 21 Missoulian), education, housing, economic development, Native participation in the political system, and the Indian health care system. “The health care provided for federal prisoners is about $5,500 per patient,” she says, “whereas if you’re an Indian going to Indian Health Services, they’re only paying about $1,100 per patient.
“There really is a shortage of information about Indian people,” she adds, “so tackling some of these tougher issues is just something that I feel like I need to do.”
She thinks Montana will be a good place to do it. “In Nebraska,” she says, “there were probably about 12,000 Native people, and I had enough stories just from that state to fuel my beat for five years. I was able to get a national sense of things by the tribes there, and I really expect that situation to be the same here in Montana, except the reporting ground is going to be 20 times more fertile than Nebraska because you have probably five times as many Indians here, and you have some very socially and politically active tribes here.”
Asked if she feels pressured being one of a still-small number of Native American reporters covering so much ground, Rave smiles again:
“So many times I’m told by people—like when I came here—that, well, Jodi, we’re so glad you’re going to be covering Montana issues, because you get it, and we don’t have to explain it…and you know, initially it was a huge pressure. I felt like I had all this responsibility to get it right, but now I’m more confident and willing to push the envelope further.”