Jodi Rave has what she calls "the entrepreneurial bug." It was with her throughout her 11 years covering Native American issues for Lee Enterprises in Nebraska and Montana. She couldn't imagine working for someone else for the rest of her career. Three years ago, she took the leap, leaving the Missoulian and launching Buffalo's Fire, a personal blog about Indian Country. But as the number of hits climbed into the millions, it proved to be worthy of something bigger, she thought. Last year, Rave, a member of the North Dakota-based Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, set out to transform the blog into a national news site.
Buffalo's Fire version 2.0 officially launched last week during the Reservation Economic Summit and American Indian Business Trade Fair in Las Vegas. The site, Rave says, will "chart a new course in Native news."
Rave finds herself charting many courses these days. To call her a print journalist who's successfully gone digital ignores the larger aims of her leap.
Rave, who in 2004 became the only Native American woman to receive a Nieman Journalism Fellowship, at Harvard University, left the Missoulian in 2009 primarily to write a book about Elouise Cobell, the Blackfeet woman who fought for more than a decade to win a $3.4 billion settlement for Native Americans robbed of their Individual Indian Money trust accounts. Cobell, who died last October, is also the subject of a movie script Rave is writing. Two years ago, Rave began hosting a radio program about Native issues on KBGA. She's nearly completed a master's degree at the University of Montana, where she's studying law, environmental studies and creative writing. After that, she plans to pursue a doctorate in Native language revitalization. And she's working to develop another website that will display remote sensing data to help tribal members track oil and gas activity on reservations. She's a journalist in the broadest possible sense.
Buffalo's Fire is her project of the moment. On a recent day, inside her Missoula home-office, Rave talks about the pressing need for more reporting on Native American issues that goes deeper than what non-Indian journalists "parachuting into our communities" can do. It's the reason she became a journalist in the first place. "The mainstream press, they've always been really absent and have overlooked tribal communities," she says.
Buffalo's Fire, made possible by a web-based fundraising campaign that brought in more than $10,000 last year, covers politics, language revitalization, science, education, indigenous knowledge, natural resource development and Indian trust reform, among other topics. Rave hopes advertising will sustain the site. It attracted more than a half-million visitors in February, before the official launch. Rave is also developing a Buffalo's Fire mobile app.
The site is partly a news aggregator. Recent posts point to stories on topics ranging from the Confederated Colville Tribes in Washington agreeing to a $193 million settlement with the federal government for mismanaging tribal lands to the debate over the University of North Dakota's "Fighting Sioux" nickname.
But the site's main strength, Rave says, is its opinion and analysis written by experts on different facets of Indian Country. "Let's go to the people who are in the trenches and have them tell their stories," she says. "They'll get it right. And you won't have somebody coming in trying to piece together a story and write it in a couple of days and miss the finer nuances or totally overlook some key areas. We'll have people who really know what's going on telling the stories. That's really what I consider one of the highlights of Buffalo's Fire."
One of the site's first columns is by Fredricka Hunter, director of American Indian Student Services at the University of Montana, who discusses culturally relevant strategies for retaining Native students. In the fall of 2011, she notes, nearly a quarter of the 585 Native American students enrolled at UM were either on academic suspension or probation.
Rave says Buffalo's Fire will develop a particular focus on land and language. "You hear a lot of people talk about the need for economic development, and that's always important," she says. "But preserving the Indian land base and promoting indigenous languages are two key, critical areas."
On the Fort Berthold Reservation in west-central North Dakota, where Rave grew up, only one fluent speaker of the Mandan language remains. That's why Rave is seeking a doctorate in language revitalization, and partly why she plans to soon return to Fort Berthold and her hometown of Twin Buttes.
There's another reason to go home: the oil and gas boom. The Fort Berthold Reservation is at the center of it. And the land management issues the boom brings into focus are at the center of the book Rave is writing about Elouise Cobell. "All of the issues that define the Cobell lawsuit are unfolding today in North Dakota, and on my reservation," she says.
Naturally, it isn't much of a leap for Rave to go cover it.