From Beltway to Big Sky 

Before his sudden death last summer, Joe Durso, Jr., the former dean of The University of Montana School of Journalism, had advanced one more step toward his dream of having UM known nationally as the center for Native American journalism-he secured a one-year grant to fund a Native American Journalist-in-Residence, the first of its kind.

Dennis McAuliffe, a member of Oklahoma's Osage tribe who comes to Missoula from the Washington Post, says deciding to leave his home in Baltimore to come to Big Sky Country for a year was the "toughest five seconds" of his life.

As the Native American Journalist-in-Residence, he'll teach a multicultural reporting class at UM and a beginning reporting class later this spring at Salish Kootenai College. But he says his focus will be recruiting Native American students from Montana and the rest of North America.

"There are really good Indian students out there, and they're floundering," he says.

McAuliffe takes issue with the perception that all native students are getting a free ride to college courtesy of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"If UM wants to recruit Indian kids, they can find the money," he says. "The BIA doesn't pay tuition, but many of the tribes do. The university can pursue funding in ways a kid in the middle of a reservation cannot."

The Washington Post’s Dennis McAuliffe joins UM in a new venture.
Photo by Chad Harder

Carol Van Valkenburg, acting dean of the UM School of Journalism, says the goal is to double the number of Native American students enrolled in the program in the next year. There are currently ten.

"Since the announcement of Denny's job, we've probably had another 10 inquiries, and that's not just from the state, but the country," she says.

McAuliffe's position is funded by the Freedom Forum, the philanthropic arm of the Gannett corporation. Van Valkenburg says the Freedom Forum liked the proposal so much that it awarded more money than was requested. She hopes McAuliffe's tenure will demonstrate how effective the position can be, leading to continued funding or the application to the Knight Foundation for a permanently endowed Chair of Native American Journalism.

"There's a good chance that will happen this year or next year," Van Valkenburg says.

McAuliffe is just pleased that a university is taking the initiative to aggressively pursue Native American students and journalistic topics.

"Indians tend to be overlooked, especially in education," he notes. "That UM even thought of this, I find amazing, and they should be commended."

In fact, UM's journalism program has included a Native News Honors Project since 1991, and the success of the class piqued the Freedom Forum's interest. Van Valkenburg says the Native News project sprung from what faculty members saw as a lack of Native American representation in the media.

"Those covering Native American issues didn't understand the culture or historical perspective. Most stories were really stereotypical," she explains.

The purpose of the class, Van Valkenburg says, is not only to train Native American students to report stories unfolding on their own reservation, but also to train nonnative students to cover stories in tribal communities with a more informed perspective.

"We have lots of Native American speakers come in, so the issues are not judged only in the white, Anglo-Saxon tradition," she says.

McAuliffe has worked for years on a project similar to Native News as part of the summer activities sponsored by the Native American Journalism Association (NAJA). As a mentor, he helps about a dozen native college students produce two or three issues of a newspaper during the course of a week each year.

But McAuliffe says despite NAJA's programs encouraging Native American students, there are still relatively few tribal members working as professional journalists.

"I know of three Indians working at major newspapers, and that's including myself."

At the Washington Post, McAuliffe pioneered the paper's Native American beat in addition to serving as the night editor of the foreign desk. He compares working the often chaotic late shift to being an emergency room doctor without the high pay, but says he enjoys it because he's an "action junkie."

"In a sick way I'll probably miss it," he jokes.

However, that's not to say his year-long sabbatical from the newspaper will be especially restful. In addition to his university duties, he plans on writing another book about Sybil Bolton, his Osage grandmother. The first book is currently being transformed into a television movie.

"I'd also like to go skiing one more time and catch a fish fly-fishing," McAuliffe adds with a laugh.

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