Gerard Baker, his hair woven in two long gray braids, gazed out at an auditorium full of Native American high school students at Crazy Horse Memorial. “You will be the voice of the ancestors,” he told them. “You will be the voice of the future.”
The students had traveled to the center of the nation just over a week ago from throughout the West to explore careers in journalism. They spent three days at the base of this South Dakota monument, conducting interviews and drafting news stories. One afternoon they posed together on top of the granite carving, the warrior’s face behind them illustrating Baker’s message.
Baker, a Mandan-Hidatsa, grew up on a North Dakota reservation, playing basketball and graduating from a Catholic boarding school. There, a nun predicted he’d do well just to get a steady job pumping gas.
Instead he climbed his way up through the National Park Service, and he’s now the first American Indian to become park superintendent at that other granite monument nearby – Mount Rushmore.
“When I’m through up there,” he joked, “all four of those guys are going to have braids.”
To white residents of Western South Dakota, Baker’s position alone signifies dramatic change in their state. Yet so much still needs to be done. On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1999, 64 percent of the population lived below the poverty level.
This conference was designed to lure Indian students into careers as reporters, editors and photographers. Last year, of nearly 57,000 American journalists, 332 were Native Americans.
Shannon Shaw, a reporter for the Osage Nation, asked the students at Crazy Horse, “How many of you are tired of seeing just bad news about Indians in the paper?”
As their hands shot up, she said, “That’s where we come in.”
Eighty-four-year-old Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today and the Freedom Forum, one of the conference sponsors, told the students not to be discouraged by changes in the newspaper industry. “The upside is there is more hunger for more news and information by more people all over the world than ever in history,” he said.
One group of students tackled a package of stories on the diabetes epidemic among Native Americans, who are 2.2 times more likely to have the disease than white Americans.
Piper Hamlin, a Navaho freshman from Durango (Colo.) High School, wrote a story on the benefits of a traditional native diet. Her sidebar listed the foods her sources described: berry soup from the Blackfeet, Navaho blue corn mush, Lakota pemmican and Apache acorn soup.
Mountain Blue Bell Shoe, of the Blackfeet Academy in Montana , quietly slipped off to interview Indian teens about the link between diabetes and alcohol.
Mountain captured the vernacular of these kids, tough, poignant, vulnerable. “The alcohol is always there because my family owns a bar,” one student told him. “My family is really held loosely because everybody is either borderline diabetes or alcoholic and it is always going to be that way.”
Mountain listed the embarrassing marks of alcoholism: “a big beer belly, yellow skin and the strawberry nose.”
On the first day of the conference the first American Indian superintendent of Mount Rushmore told the students the secrets his grandfather taught him. “We need to become warrior societies again,” he said. “Once we’re warriors, nobody can stop us.”
Before arriving at Mount Rushmore, Baker himself fought an angry contingent of George Armstrong Custer buffs to change the name of Montana’s Custer Battlefield to Little Big Horn Battlefield. Like this country’s Native American journalists, he made sure the stories of Indian people would no longer go untold.
The next day, Mountain Blue Bell Shoe quietly pounded out these words on his keyboard, echoing Baker’s own: “The only way that we can overcome this diabetes epidemic is that we go the way that our ancestors went … now we all have to be warriors.”