As general manager and editor of Big Horn County News in Montana, Luella Brien was tired of constantly fighting for coverage of the Crow Indian Reservation, which makes up nearly 80% of the county’s land area.
So she quit and started her own nonprofit outlet, Four Points Press.
Nearly one year later, Four Points Press is getting ready to move into office space in the heart of Crow Agency, the reservation’s government center. Thanks to a grant from the Reynolds Journalism Institute, she has two reporters, one part-time and one full-time, who both live on the reservation. They’re covering the hyperlocal issues — tribal politics, school closures, local businesses — that rarely get attention from the state’s corporate media outlets.
“Natives (often) have to read news articles from people who don’t live here, who don’t understand the nuance, who don’t understand even what is a legitimate name in the community,” said Brien, recalling an instance while at the University of Montana where a person gave a fake name to a student reporter — “Luke Warmwater” — that ended up in the paper.
Now she’s running a publication by and for the Apsáalooke (the tribe’s original name), a longtime dream for Brien.
“I’m the first female tribal member to get a journalism degree, and probably only the second or third to work in the industry,” she added, noting that other reporters have come up after her. “I’m from here, I grew up here. There’s a built-in trust.”
>> We’re highlighting the work of indigenous news outlets ahead of Indigenous People’s Day on October 10. Read more perspectives about the holiday and learn more about tribal media outlets from the Native American Journalists Association.
Indigenous news organizations fill a big gap in news coverage for tribal communities, which often face stereotypical, harmful and sparse coverage from corporate media outlets. There’s another challenge for journalists: many tribal nations don’t have constitutional protections for freedom of the press and information.
Osage Nation, headquartered in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, didn’t have a dedicated news organization until 2009, after a Supreme Court ruling enshrined constitutional press freedoms and the legislature mandated funding for Osage News.
Before that, there was a communications department with a monthly newsletter reviewed by the Chief, said Shannon Shaw Duty, editor of Osage News. Journalists working without that protection are fearful of reporting on issues that might be perceived as negative by officials, have quit in protest or been fired from their jobs.
“The first thing I did after our press freedoms came about was move us from our offices that were next to the Chief’s building, changed our logo, killed all elected officials’ editorials, and began reporting, among many other things,” she said. “It was a wild time.”
Osage News has won numerous awards, including the Elias Boudinot Free Press Award in 2014 for holding tribal leaders accountable under the Osage Open Records Act, and Best Newspaper from the Oklahoma chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2021.
>> At The Pivot Fund, we’re focused on elevating these kinds of locally-rooted news organizations that not only tell the stories of BIPOC communities, but will be accountable to them long-term. It’s up to grantmakers, foundations and philanthropists to learn how to be good partners to these underserved communities.
Osage News has received financial sustainability grants to help it form a business plan. The news operation is also expanding its social media presence, and just published the first episode of a new podcast, “This Osage Life.”
“I can already tell this is something that we will have to continue doing because our readers loved it,” Shaw Duty said.
It can also be challenging to raise local dollars — a requirement of many journalism grants — in a small community where many people are grappling with unemployment, housing costs and other pressures, Brien said. As she works to build a sustainable path for the news organization, Brien is working two other jobs, including teaching journalism at Lodge Grass High School, where she hopes to spark students’ interest in journalism and storytelling.
Eventually, she wants to expand the organization to include book publishing and documentary film, to expand the kinds of Apsáalooke stories that are told.
“There are people who have amazing biographies that should be written. But there’s no outlet for that,” Brien said. “But that has to be part of this, Four Points Press.”