Unsung Heroes: Richard LaCourse, Journalist
Of all the professions and disciplines that have risen to new heights in Indian country over the last forty years, Native journalism may show the greatest advance. In the late 1960s, when the American Indian Press Association was aborning, there were a good number of periodicals serving Indian country, although only a few were presenting original news stories. Many of them were newsletters representing tribes, Indian organizations, and federal agencies serving Indian people. Few were commercially printed, and many were mimeographed. Xerox existed but was available only to large corporations.
The advances in Indian news periodicals and broadcast media was due largely to computer technology, better education for the younger writers, and more capital to invest in publications and other media. Most importantly, however, were young leaders who came to the front in reporting, layout, and management.
Among the young leaders who emerged in that era—and the most outstanding of them—was Richard V. LaCourse, Yakama. He was the first news director of the American Indian Press Association, and served from 1971 to 1975. Had it not been for Richard LaCourse as director of our Washington News Bureau the AIPA organization would not have gotten off the ground.
We called him “Wretched Discourse” or “Richard of Course,” and other take-offs on his name. Dick had a quick but mostly gentle sense of humor, although he could sting like a hornet when he felt it necessary, which was seldom. He spoke of his favorites in the Northwest as the Five Sophisticated Tribes, an obvious jibe at the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma. He teased a Hidatsa friend that the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold were the Mandarins, Datsuns, and Rickshaws, proof of the Bering Strait land-bridge theory of the peopling of the Americas from Asia.
Although I had known his parents from their days with the BIA on the Pine Ridge Reservation, I had never met Dick until 1971 when we brought him to Denver to interview for directorship of our Washington News Bureau. At that time he was a reporter with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. I was immediately impressed with his knowledge, creative ideas, and especially his energy and enthusiasm, and there was no question as to bringing him aboard.
Not long before he died in 2001, he sent me a rough manuscript chapter of a book he was writing and asked me to give him my thoughts and correct any errors I found. It was lengthy single-spaced document covering the years of AIPA’s existence before it finally failed in 1976. It’s an excellent account of his work during those exciting years. Dick was able to cover all the historic events of those years, including the Raymond Yellow Thunder killing in Gordon, Nebraska in 1971, the Trail of Broken Treaties in 1972, the Wounded Knee II Occupation of 1973, and all the legislation, litigation, and BIA power struggles of those years.
In 1972, I was in Omaha covering a national meeting of urban Indian centers from across the country at which they had hoped to create an organization to represent their interests on a national level. The meeting was contentious, with the American Indian Movement making much mischief, apparently to derail the creation of such an organization. It was felt by many attending the meeting that AIM saw the new organization as competing with them for power in the urban Indian communities.
What finally broke up the meeting, however, was news from Gordon, Nebraska, some 340 miles away, where Lakota laborer Raymond Yellow Thunder was beaten to death by four young white thugs. AIM called for the formation of a caravan to Gordon to demonstrate for justice. This emptied the halls of the conference, and ended the effort to organize urban Indian centers nationally.
I returned immediately to Denver and contacted Dick in Washington to fly out to the Pine Ridge Reservation to join me in covering the action. Tribal leaders saw AIM as an urban Indian phenomenon, and there was concern over the organization’s first venture onto an Indian reservation. Richard “Dick” Wilson had just won election to the office of president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and was anxious over AIM’s arrival, although he generally welcomed their intent to demand justice for Yellow Thunder’s murder. LaCourse and I met in Rapid City, SD, where we rented a car and drove to Pine Ridge. The Bureau of Indian Affairs anticipated a clash between the Tribe and AIM, and asked if LaCourse and I would set up a rumor control center. We declined their request, and instead set up a new periodical for the Tribe, the Oglala Nation News.
Even while he and his minimal staff in the news office covered Washington events and sent out weekly packages of news stories to a wide range of Native news periodicals and broadcast media, he also took time to train and mentor Native American journalist interns.
Recently I received an email from one of those interns, Angie Aunquo Hamilton, Kiowa, who now serves as an Indian Probate Judge for DOI Office of Hearings & Appeals. I had first met her when she was an intern with the AIPA in Washington, along with Larry Emerson, Navajo, and Bruce Davies, Oglala Lakota. These young journalism students were from different colleges and were under the mentorship of LaCourse. Her words sum up what many young people thought of him as a professional and a mentor.
“At the time of my internship I was a journalism major at Oklahoma University, and he taught all three of us interns so much—where the news really came from; who were the unknown power brokers in DC and where they met; and how they decided things affecting the rest of Indian country. He sent us out on assignments around Indian country and educated us on how to discern who was ‘real’ and who were in it for themselves. We saw many unsung Indian heroes with our young eyes back then, and wished we could have written about many of them. I will never forget Richard LaCourse; we were all proud to know him and to have him as our editor and educator. Because of his inspiration, after journalism school, I became editor of our Kiowa Tribal News and was a state stringer for Gaylord's Daily Oklahoman, because I had small children then. Later, I went to Law School and then worked as an attorney for Oklahoma Indian Legal Services doing Indian Rights law.”
I am not aware of what has happened to Richard LaCourse’s book manuscript, and other valuable historic files he had amassed over forty years up to his death in 2001. I had thought of asking his family if I could finish the book, but don’t have the time or energy any more. And I think that only LaCourse could finish it. Except for Mark Trahant, perhaps, there are no others like him any more.
He was a role model to many. He had a passion for fact, accuracy, and truth. I have never known a more highly principled person.
Charles Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association, and served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Nebraska. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is iktomisweb.com.