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Crow Tribe journalism teacher seeks stories no one tells

September 10, 2022 GMT
Journalism and podcasting instructor Luella Brien works with Angelina Toineeta and James Brown at Lodge Grass High School, on Sept. 6, 2022, in Lodge Grass, Mont. Brien said it was her curiosity about a family member who went missing that spurred how her into journalism. (Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette via AP)
Journalism and podcasting instructor Luella Brien works with Angelina Toineeta and James Brown at Lodge Grass High School, on Sept. 6, 2022, in Lodge Grass, Mont. Brien said it was her curiosity about a family member who went missing that spurred how her into journalism. (Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette via AP)

LODGE GRASS, Mont. (AP) — Luella Brien initially wanted to be a school teacher, but never thought she’d be one after taking a different career path. Shortly after graduating high school, she pivoted from education to pursue journalism.

Now those paths have converged in her new position as the journalism teacher at Lodge Grass High School.

No one was more surprised by the career change than Brien, who was offered the job weeks before the new school year by her predecessor Ben Cloud during a summer audio reporting workshop with students.

“Towards the end of the camp he just sort of says to me, ‘By the way, I’m retiring. Do you want to teach next year?’” she said with a laugh.

Juggling time between working as the tour manager for the Crow Tribe and editor for the online news company Four Point Media, she was initially hesitant to take the position. But, she ultimately accepted it, realizing the opportunity to expand local journalism with her students.

In addition to her career as a Montana journalist, Brien also worked as an instructor at Little Big Horn College and a media consultant for the Crow Tribe and Apsáalooke Legislature.

Despite not seeking the job, she feels uniquely qualified for it.

“It’s always been news,” she told The Billings Gazette. “I was either covering news or I was teaching others about news, so it’s always been a part of my work.”

Journalistic pursuits

Brien’s interest in reporting started while growing up in Hardin. Skimming her father’s daily newspapers once he was finished with them. What started out as skipping to the comics led to finding her name in the scholastic achiever’s list and eventually to learning about current events through local articles.

As she grew older, she noticed the lack of news focusing on the Crow Indian Reservation. She said it was her curiosity about a family member who went missing that spurred how her own journalistic pursuits. She pestered family members who were reluctant to discuss it and neighbors to find out what everyone knew about the disappearance.

She learned that people went missing from her community, often without much of a follow-up investigation, more often than she thought.

“As I got to talking with more and more people, I found out that a lot of families have similar stories to mine,” she said. “So I wanted to tell the stories of our community that no one tells.”

Brien graduated from Hardin High School in 1999 and earned a liberal arts degree from Little Bighorn College in 2004. The lack of interesting job opportunities and her enjoyment of journalism courses led her to earn a bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of Montana in 2006.

This would land her reporting jobs with the Ravalli Republic, Billings Gazette and, most recently, the Big Horn County News. It was back in her home county where she finally realized her goal of highlighting Crow Reservation news in a way it hadn’t previously. Her position as the paper’s editor and general manager led to the paper’s coverage of tribal affairs to increase significantly.

She believes the rapport she developed with the community over the years also gave her the chance to tell their stories, which other reporters may not have gotten to.

“I don’t speak Crow, but the people there know me,” she said. “It didn’t matter if I had moved away for a few years or not. They remember me and they trust me.”

‘Dead Indians or feathered Indians’

Brien said tribal communities like those in Big Horn County had grown disillusioned by most news outlets’ coverage of their lives and communities due to its limitations and depictions. Specifically, she said, most of these stories reported on either crime or tribal events highlighting their history and culture.

“We’re either dead Indians or feathered Indians,” she said. “Too often these news outlets will fly in or drive in to town, get what they want or need and go on to tell the story they want to tell.”

This trend of misrepresentation and sensationalizing extends to nationally published papers like the New York Times, who reported on the disappearances of Crow women Kaysera Stops Pretty Places and Selena Not Afraid. Brien said reporters were quick to speak with Stops Pretty Places’ family shortly after she went missing but didn’t report it until after Not Afraid went missing the following January.

“So, Kaysera’s story is just sitting there for months, nothing’s getting done, and then Selena goes missing and they’re back immediately to talk with her family,” she said. “Then the story comes out and Kaysera is only mentioned towards the end. How much longer was that story going to sit there before they decided to run it?”

Coverage like this and previous stories led Native communities to avoid talking to news reporters and rely more on local sources like Big Horn County News. Her shift toward more reservation coverage wasn’t welcomed by everyone. Almost daily conflicts between the broader community and the paper prompted Brien to leave the paper in 2021 and launch Four Points Media.

The online news outlet focuses solely on the Crow Reservation in Big Horn County and to date has been funded through various grants. It was quickly met with positive results with over 3,000 readers visiting its website in the first month.

Funding inconsistency and Brien being its only contributor lead to initial hiccups, however. The company’s website Four Points Press is due to re-launch this month while a recently hired reporter and additional board member will help sustain operations going forward.

The need is there

Four Points Media is far from the only local news outlet struggling to find its financial footing. Sam Sandoval is the editor of Char-Koosta News, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes’ official newspaper, and says they could cover more news throughout their community with additional staff and resources.

The paper has reached out to the University of Montana’s journalism program about potential tribal reporters, but travel distances, lack of familiarity with the community and its small population has made it a less-attractive option for reporters. Sandoval has also reached out to nearby high school newspapers in Pablo, Ronan and Polson for potential contributors, but said declining student interest has resulted in inconsistency in recent years.

“The popular thought these days is that journalism is dying, newspapers are shutting down…but the need is there,” he said. “It’s just not stable enough and there’s not enough people committed enough to do the work.”

Journalism-publications teacher at C.M. Russell High School in Great Falls Beth Britton says she’s noticed a steady decline in student interest in her journalism course over the past 10 years.

“This will be the first year since 1965, when the school was founded, where there won’t be a paper,” Britton said. “That’s more than upsetting.”

Also president of the Montana Journalism Education Association, Britton said she’s heard similar cases from other schools that competing new electives, high teacher turnover and students’ preference for social media apps over news have led to multiple school papers either becoming web-based only or getting phased out entirely.

“They don’t get the paper. A few students said they read some magazines, but only one or two said their parents read the paper,” Britton said of her students today. “They have no role model of a newspaper.”

The Lodge Grass Gazette

At Lodge Grass High School, Brien is addressing these gaps in both tribal reporting and student reporting through her classwork. This year, the school is offering journalism, photojournalism, audio/visual production and yearbook classes that will use contemporary storytelling approaches. For their first journalism assignment, students were asked to introduce and describe themselves through a TikTok video.

Throughout the school year, students will also learn the fundamentals of multimedia journalism and write their own print articles, design the school’s yearbook, produce podcasts and short films. They will also get hands-on experience contributing original reports to both Brien’s Four Point Press and the school newspaper, the Lodge Grass Gazette.

Senior student Angelina Toineeta decided this year to pursue a career in journalism after writing a piece on the Little Bighorn FFA program for last spring’s photojournalism class.

“It was a cool feeling, getting to see what I had written on the page,” Toineeta said. “I’d like to continue to write about my experiences and the things going on in my community.”

Brien hopes to continue teaching at Lodge Grass High School and increasing this interest for years to come.

“I want them to be excited about this class,” Brien said. “I want this to be the elective that students tell other students they have to take.”