By ERIC YOUNG, The Billings Gazette
LODGE GRASS, Mont. (AP) – Luella Brien originally wanted to be a teacher, but never thought she would be one after following a different career path. Shortly after graduating from high school, she quit education to pursue journalism.
Now those paths have converged in his new job as a journalism teacher at Lodge Grass High School.
No one was more surprised by the career change than Brien, who was offered the job a few weeks before the new school year by his predecessor Ben Cloud during a summer audio reporting workshop with students.
“Towards the end of camp, he kind of said to me, ‘By the way, I’m retiring. Do you want to teach next year? she laughed.
Juggling her job as a tour manager for the Crow Tribe and editor-in-chief of online news company Four Point Media, she was initially hesitant to take the job. But, she finally accepted it, realizing the opportunity to expand local journalism with her students.
In addition to her journalism career in Montana, Brien has also worked as a teacher at Little Big Horn College and a media consultant for the Crow Tribe and the Apsáalooke Legislature.
Although she is not looking for the job, she feels particularly qualified for it.
“It’s always been in the news,” she told The Billings Gazette. “I was covering the news or teaching others about the news, so that was always part of my job.”
Brien’s interest in reporting began while growing up in Hardin. Leafing through his father’s dailies once he was done with them. What started as jumping to comics led to finding his name on the scholastic student list and eventually learning about current events through local articles.
As she got older, she noticed the lack of news focusing on the Crow Indian Reservation. She said it was her curiosity about a missing family member that spurred her own journalistic pursuits. She pestered family members who were reluctant to talk about it and neighbors to find out what everyone knew about the disappearance.
She learned that people had disappeared from her community, often without much follow-up investigation, more often than she thought.
“As I spoke with more and more people, I discovered that many families had similar stories to mine,” she said. “So I wanted to tell the stories of our community that nobody tells.”
Brien graduated from Hardin High School in 1999 and earned a liberal arts degree from Little Bighorn College in 2004. Lack of meaningful job opportunities and her enjoyment of journalism classes led her to earn a bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of Montana in 2006.
This would have landed him jobs as a reporter with the Ravalli Republic, the Billings Gazette and, most recently, the Big Horn County News. It was back in her home county that she finally realized her goal of highlighting Crow Reservation news in a way she hadn’t before. Her position as the newspaper’s editor and general manager led to a significant increase in the newspaper’s coverage of tribal affairs.
She believes the rapport she has developed with the community over the years has also given her the chance to tell their stories, which other journalists may not have had.
“I don’t speak Crow, but the people there know me,” she said. “It didn’t matter if I moved 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 have become disillusioned with most media coverage of their lives and communities because of its limitations and portrayals. Specifically, she said, most of these stories reported either crimes or tribal events that shed light on their history and culture.
“We are either dead Indians or feathered Indians,” she says. “Too often these outlets fly or drive into town, get what they want or need, and continue to tell the story they want to tell.”
This trend of misrepresentation and sensationalism extends to nationally published newspapers like The New York Times, which reported on the disappearances of Crow women Kaysera Stops Pretty Places and Selena Not Afraid. Brien said reporters were quick to speak with the Stops Pretty Places family shortly after her disappearance, but didn’t report it until after Not Afraid went missing the following January.
“So Kaysera’s story sits there for months, nothing is done, and then Selena disappears and they immediately come back to speak with her family,” she said. “Then the story comes out and Kaysera isn’t mentioned until near the end. How much longer was that story going to sit there before they decided to air it?”
Such coverage and previous stories have led Indigenous communities to avoid speaking to reporters and rely more on local sources like Big Horn County News. Its move towards greater reservations coverage has not been welcomed by everyone. Almost daily conflicts between the wider community and the paper prompted Brien to leave the paper in 2021 and launch Four Points Media.
The online media focuses solely on the Crow Reservation in Big Horn County and has been funded to date by various grants. He quickly encountered positive results with over 3,000 readers visiting his website within the first month.
The inconsistency of funding and the fact that Brien was its sole contributor, however, resulted in initial hiccups. The company’s website, Four Points Press, is due to be relaunched this month, while a newly hired reporter and an additional board member will help maintain operations going forward.
Four Points Media is far from the only local media that is struggling to find its financial position. Sam Sandoval is the editor of Char-Koosta News, the official newspaper of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and says they could cover more news in their community with additional staff and resources.
The paper contacted the University of Montana Journalism Program about potential tribal reporters, but the distances traveled, lack of familiarity with the community, and its small population made it a less attractive option for reporters. Sandoval also contacted newspapers from nearby Pablo, Ronan and Polson high schools for potential contributors, but said declining student interest has led to inconsistencies in recent years.
“The popular thinking these days is that journalism is dying, newspapers are closing…but the need is there,” he said. “It’s just not stable enough and there aren’t enough committed people to do the job.”
Beth Britton, a journalism and publications teacher at CM Russell High School in Great Falls, 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 will be no newspaper,” Britton said. “It’s more than upsetting.”
Also president of the Montana Journalism Education Association, Britton said she’s heard similar cases at other schools of competing new choices, high teacher turnover and student preference for social media apps over news led several school newspapers to become web-based only or get phased out altogether.
“They don’t get the paper. A few students said they read magazines, but only one or two said their parents read the newspaper,” Britton said of her students today. “They don’t have a newspaper template.”
At Lodge Grass High School, Brien fills these gaps in tribal reporting and student reporting through his classroom work. This year, the school is offering courses in journalism, photojournalism, audiovisual production, and yearbook that will use contemporary storytelling approaches. For their first journalism assignment, the students were asked to introduce themselves and describe themselves through a TikTok video.
Throughout the school year, students will also learn the basics of multimedia journalism and write their own print articles, design the school yearbook, produce podcasts and short films. They will also gain 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 about the Little Bighorn FFA program for last spring’s photojournalism class.
“It was a cool feeling to see what I had written on the page,” Toineeta said. “I would like to continue writing about my experiences and the things that are happening in my community.”
Brien hopes to continue teaching at Lodge Grass High School and increase that 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 need to take.”
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