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Changing guard at Fort Belknap Community News

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Jessie James Hawley can laugh now about the two times she got canned from her job as the managing editor and sole staff reporter at her tribal newspaper.

“They said I was too opinionated,” she recalls. “It usually had to do with politics.”

Hawley, now 65, was first hired as head of the Fort Belknap Community Newspaper in the late 1980s. She had some journalism training, but that didn’t prepare her for all the other duties that came with the position.

“I used to go crazy,” she says. “I’d go get the news. Then I’d work on the writing until 2 or 3 a.m. Then I’d go home, and the next day I’d put it on a diskette and travel (about 40 miles) to Malta. They’d print it, and I’d either wait around or come pick up the papers later. Then I’d have to distribute them. You’d do everything, but I loved it.”

The Assiniboine and Gros Ventre publication, one of three tribally run newspapers in Montana, was formerly a mimeographed newsletter known as the Camp Crier, the name given to the person in many traditional tribal camps who got everyone up in the morning. It was run through the local agricultural extension office for awhile, Hawley says, and was a regional paper serving both the Rocky Boy’s and Fort Belknap reservations during another reincarnation. In recent times it has even been managed under the auspices of Fort Belknap College.

Hawley, a Gros Ventre, says that during most of the paper’s history it has received the bulk of its financial support from the Fort Belknap Community Council, which continues to run the publication as a tribal program. That governmental relationship, however, can present conflicts to whomever runs the operation. Pressure to ignore controversial stories can be intimidating at times.

“I think one of the biggest things is that you need to be very careful,” Hawley explains. “I don’t think I’ve ever been scared of anybody. I always wrote and published what I thought was important.”

In recent years the paper has also been managed at various times by Terri Longfox, Rose Cochran, and Jennifer Perez, a Fort Belknap tribal member who recently left her post as a regional reporter with the Great Falls Tribune. Perez has long dreamed of starting a statewide paper to cover all of the state’s seven reservations, but finding adequate funding to start such a project has proved frustrating. The only other tribal papers now operating in the state are the Char-Koosta News on the Flathead Reservation and the Wotanin Wowapi News on the Fort Peck Reservation.

Hawley, one of 14 children, was born on the Fort Belknap Reservation, but her family moved to California when she was an infant. She came back home while still in high school, but then “ran away and got married to a Korean War hero.” She later earned a high school diploma and attended the University of Montana in Missoula, where she majored in journalism before transferring into the school’s social welfare program.

Hawley says her experience running the Fort Belknap Health Department, serving a four-year stint on the tribal council, and working for the Montana United Scholarship Service gave her valuable insights she later put to use running the tribal paper. Her husband, Cranston Hawley, is also well-known, and has served as a tribal judge on the reservation for more than 30 years.

Due mainly to funding shortfalls and political disputes, the Fort Belknap paper has been shut down at various times in past years, leaving the reservation with no central repository for local news. But tribal leaders hired Jessie Hawley back as a consultant in 2000 with the goal of getting the paper up and running again. Assiniboine tribal member Elizabeth “Biz” Doney, now 25, took over the reins last year, and Hawley called it quits—she says this time for good—in August.

“I think a newspaper is really important, because we’re writing the history for tomorrow,” Hawley says. “To me, you have to document what’s going on. But I have a bad habit that when I get into something, I do it 150 percent. That’s not a compliment for myself, because it’s insanity sometimes.”

Under Doney’s watch the paper has gone from a monthly publication to a biweekly. But keeping the underfunded, one-person operation going is more than a full-time job. Like her predecessor, Doney must sell ads, write and edit stories, shoot photographs, prepare the paper for printing, handle subscriptions and other distribution tasks, as well as do all the bookkeeping. Computer breakdowns are common, she says, and days of work sometimes disappear with a single malfunction. Most issues run up to 24 pages, meaning there’s a lot of space to fill. About 1,000 copies are published and distributed both on and off the reservation.

Doney admits that her responsibilities are often overwhelming, but she says she usually enjoys the chaos, and hopes to eventually move to Missoula to earn a journalism degree.

“It’s kind of hard to do everything,” she explains. “But I really like this job. It’s important to me.”

Doney completed a business plan for the paper as part of a student project while attending Fort Belknap College. She later recommended raising the newsstand price from 50 cents to 75 cents to help cover costs, and she’s trying to sell more subscriptions. The price increase brought a slump in sales, but Doney is optimistic about readership increasing as the paper again finds its place on the reservation.

“I mainly want to focus on the positive, not the negative,” she says. “I’m trying to encourage others to write for the paper. I’m also trying to get the (tribal) council to use it more to their benefit to get the word out about what they’re doing.”

Hawley, meanwhile, says she’ll still help at the paper if needed. Otherwise she plans to relax and nurture her business, Gift Baskets by Turtle Woman.

Asked about her “Indian” name, Hawley says it was given to her by a Northern Cheyenne spiritual leader when she attended the Native American Church.

“I asked him why that name, and he said it was because I was always sticking my neck out for people,” she explains.

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