Feathered Native American headress

By Jacqui Banaszynski

Last week brought the sad news of the deaths of more fine journalists I’ve been graced to know. One was Jim Caple, who was one of those sports reporters who saw sports through a wider and more creative lens. We overlapped for a time at the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Minnesota before he went back to his native Washington to write for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and then to a long-running column at ESPN. He was quirky and dear. He was just 61 when he died of ALS.

I was also hit hard by news of the death of Doris (Brewer) Giago. Hers is a byline very few of you will be familiar with. She worked in smaller news markets before she turned her talents and values to an esteemed career teaching other journalists in her native South Dakota; she wasn’t one to seek the spotlight. Indeed, that she found her way into journalism at all always struck me as a remarkable testament to grit.

Doris — I am taking the liberty of calling her that — was born on the massive Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which is also home to the 1890 massacre of 300 Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee and a seminal political protest in 1973. (The cemetery from the massacre is worth a visit.) It remains one of the poorest places in the United States. Born in 1945, she came of age at a tough time for any woman who aspired to journalism, but Indigenous people were nowhere on the radar of the mainstream press — and tribal papers were notoriously censored or corrupt.

South Dakota journalist and journalism professor Doris Giago

Doris Brewer Giago, native name Chewicakiya Pi Win

According to her obituary in the Brookings, South Dakota, Register, she joined a convent as a young woman and taught typing and coached volleyball at a mission school.

Those bits of her life were lodged somewhere deep in my memory. I also knew that she worked at the newspaper in Rapid City, South Dakota, but then left to co-found, with her then-husband Tim Giago, the Lakota Times, which was the first American Indian independent newspaper and inspired the founding of others across the country. I knew Doris raised their two children as she worked her way, with unglamorous determination, through a master’s degree and then a teaching and mentoring career in journalism. I knew she adored her granddaughter, Juneau. But there were too many things I didn’t know, beginning with her native name: Chewicakiya Pi Win. I wish now I knew what it meant — if it translates at all.

The student teaches the professor

So why this particular grief? It centers and blooms from one exchange I had with her 32 years ago. I was on a leave from the newspaper, teaching as a visiting professional at the University of Kansas. Doris was a graduate student there, and enrolled in two of my classes — one on social issues journalism and the other on interviewing. She was my senior in age and, as I learned, wisdom. But she treated me with a respect that, at first, felt almost like deference — something that had little to do with me and everything to do with her reverence for education and teachers. She was quiet in my classes, which could sometimes get edgy with debate. I wondered at first if she felt out of place — an Indigenous woman and mom in a world of brassy white kids 25 years younger.

The work she produced soon convinced me otherwise, as did her obvious attentiveness in classes. Lordy, that woman could listen!

The semester progressed and I was feeling pretty brassy myself in my first real teaching venture. But as we worked, in the interviewing class, on a very challenging story, I noticed a change in Doris. She remained quiet, but seemed unsettled. I asked her to stay after class one day and urged her to tell me what was wrong. She demurred. I prodded. Then she taught me a lesson I never forgot.

I had rehearsed with the students how to get over cold-call shyness and difficult interviews: Walk up to people. Knock on the door. Introduce yourself. Tell them what you are doing and why. Don’t be belligerent but don’t apologize. Make eye contact. We also rehearsed asking sensitive or personal questions: Be matter-of-fact. Put it in context but be brief. Again, don’t apologize. And don’t presume that they don’t want to talk. Make eye contact.

Doris now told me that she trusted me, so she trusted the value of my approach. But …

But what, I asked?

Reporting with cultural awareness

I may have the nuances of this wrong, but my takeaway: I was projecting my culture — white, American, journalist and, no doubt, competitiveness — on the rest of the world. That’s not, Doris said, how all worlds work. What I remember is her telling me that were I doing this on the reservation, I would be doing it all wrong. It was wrong to assert yourself into someone’s home; you sat outside, quiet, until someone came out of their own volition. It was wrong to ask direct (blunt?) questions; you exchanged family histories and then waited, quiet and patient until they talked. It was wrong to look people directly in the eye; you looked downward in a show of respect as they spoke.

Again, I may have the nuances of this wrong. But what I learned of such great value was that I couldn’t just assume that my way is the way of others. If I were going into a different culture — and any story we do has us wade into a different culture, even if it’s in the house across the street — I had to attend to the customs and morays of that world. I had to understand before I could be understood. Bottom line: I had to pay attention, listen and learn.

I’ve never forgotten that lesson, and try not to forget to apply it and teach it. It inspired and informed my belief that all reporting is foreign reporting. I’m also grateful that I had a chance to reconnect with Doris Giago at an event at South Dakota State University just a few years ago, and thank her directly.

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