A new journalism teacher and an enthusiastic newspaper publisher are giving Native American teens on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota an opportunity to be heard.
The school newspaper isn't just circulated around school. It's also read across the reservation - and the region - as a supplement to the Lakota Country Times.
The Mustangs of Little Wound High School on the Pine Ridge Reservation are hoping to have a winning basketball season this year. But basketball isn't the only group activity that's been rebounding at Little Wound.
Speaking over the noise of the classroom heater, Nicky Oulette gives her 12 students some pointers on what makes a story newsworthy. Oulette is the first journalism teacher Little Wound has had in years. Her arrival last fall helped spark the resurgence of an activity that's also been absent for some time: the school newspaper.
Nicky Oulette reviews the current issue of the Mustang News while Madeline Buckman works on her column.
"They pick the articles that we write. Sometimes, if we're getting stuck, I'll kind of guide them along," says Oulette. "But, especially lately, they've been the one picking the articles."
Those articles have a widespread reach since the Mustang News is published alongside the region-wide, professional Lakota County Times newpaper.
"I don't know about many high schools that have this type of set-up," says Oulette. "I know a lot of schools have their own newspaper or newsletter, but don’t know of many who have a newspaper for the school that's part of a reservation-wide or huge area-wide publication."
Little Wound District Superintendent Linda Hunter says a newspaper had always been a part of the school, but fell by the wayside when journalism classes were eliminated. Now that Oulette is at the helm, Hunter says the Mustang News is not only back - but connecting the school with the community it serves.
"I know that one of our goals is to establish communication with the community and with our parents," says Hunter. "And this is a perfect way of doing it because students write the stories, they take the pictures. And, so, then it's a good way of showcasing what's going on in the school."
Brooke Chase Alone works on her next assignment for the Mustang News.
Next generation of storytellers
Student reporter Brooke Chase Alone says her favorite assignment, so far, has been covering the history of the annual Big Foot Ride - a two-week-long trail ride from the Standing Rock Reservation to Wounded Knee.
"My grandpa, Percy White Plume, he was one of the original riders. He helped start it the first year it got started. So, I just went to his house and interviewed him about it," says Chase Alone, who is learning a lot about reporting. "I actually really like it. It's really fun sometimes. I mean, sometimes you get stuck with articles you don't really want to write about, but most of the time they're really fun and interesting,"
Madeline Buckman covered a story about a broken water pipe that flooded the school, but says she really doesn’t like reporting. She is interested in a different aspect of newspaper work.
Nicky Oulette teaching the Little Wound school’s journalism class.
"Mostly the, like, editorial part where you can write your own opinion pieces about things," she says. "I really don't like going on both sides of stories. It's kind of not my thing."
So, Buckman is starting her own column about the weather. But no matter what a journalist writes, one of the payoffs is actually seeing your story in print.
And the students do, every two weeks, when Lakota Country Times publisher Connie Smith personally delivers copies of her paper to the high school. It includes the Mustang News as a supplement every other Wednesday.
Smith says the public reaction has been overwhelming. "Everywhere I go, people are talking to me about how proud they are. The kids do the news. They do the interviews. They take the pictures. I think the quality is as good as some of the stories I get from community members... because we get stories and photos from community members that come in. So, I’ve been really pleased."
Lakota Country Times publisher Connie Smith arrives with the current issue of the Mustang News.
Other student papers have been incorporated into Native American newspapers, but it’s not the norm, according to Jeff Harjo, executive director of the Native American Journalists Association, who notes that the Association’s slogan is "raising the next generation of storytellers."
"What we like to hear about is young people getting involved I journalism, young people doing their own paper, or a portion of the paper," says Harjo, "and that is really great news for us."
The Mustang News inspired two other schools on the Pine Ridge reservation to publish their own papers, and they take turns being circulated in the Lakota Country Times. Publisher Connie Smith's goal is to have a student newspaper in every reservation school.