Vincent Schilling
Brewer prefers asking the questions rather than answering them.

NAJA Honors ICTMN’s Suzette Brewer for ICWA Investigations

Vincent Schilling

Investigative journalist Suzette Brewer (Cherokee Nation) brought great honor to Indian Country Today Media Network when she received the 2015 NAJA Richard LaCourse/Gannett Foundation Al Neuharth Investigative Journalism Award on July 11, and took home a check for $5,000. The award recognizes “groundbreaking investigative work by a journalist or a team that creatively uses digital tools in the role of community watchdog.”

Brewer, who specializes in Federal Indian Law and the Indian Child Welfare Act, has also written for other national publications and written several books. She has served as the public affairs officer for the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, and as communications director for the National Indian Gaming Association and the American Indian College Fund.

Brewer, who says she has “sat all by myself in my hobbit hole, at cafes, restaurants, on the floor in airport terminals, in my car and at truckstops,” to do her groundbreaking reporting, confessed that she was a little nervous about doing this Q&A. She explained that she much prefers asking the questions rather than answering them.

How did you first get your start as a Native journalist?

I went to the University of Mississippi, which publishes The Daily Mississippian. It's one of the few universities in the country that still publishes a daily newspaper. I began writing a weekly column for them back in college. It was great training, because in an op/ed you only have 650-850 words to make your point. It forces you to economize and think about how to convey your argument with maximum impact… Which is ironic, since now I'm primarily known for long, expository writing and multi-part series.

How have times progressed over the years for Native journalists?

I think Native journalism is reaching a new level of both exposure and expectation, a kind of "Golden Age," if you will, in terms of the audiences we reach and the subjects we are now able to cover. Because of the Internet, our stories are being read and viewed all over the world. It has also become much easier to research a topic more thoroughly than back in the old days, when you had to scroll through hours and hours of 'microfiche,' dusty old law books and had to search hard copy phone books for contact information, etc. I started out with a manual typewriter and white-out and had to mail stories in to my editors, wait for them to get it and then wait for edits, etc. Thank god those days are over. I much prefer technology.

The ability to research anything at any time also denies our sources the opportunity for what T.S. White called "prevaricated fabrication." With digital media, the ability to embed primary source information into your story is becoming, in my opinion, crucial. Now, if someone is complaining about something they say they didn't say, I just embed a link to the speech or letter into my text. It's very handy.

What was your most memorable story?

I’ll say two: Baby Veronica and the Oglala v. Van Hunnik story out of South Dakota.

What are your views on your work regarding the Indian Child Welfare Act?

When I saw the headline, "Supreme Court to Hear American Indian Adoption Case" in January 2013, I knew the basic framework of the Indian Child Welfare Act, but not much about the case itself. But I knew, the second it came across the transom, that it had the potential to rock the foundation of modern tribal life in America. And I am sad to say that it has.

The last two and a half years have been a journey of stamina and discovery – for all of us as Indian people. I don't think anyone could have predicted just how deeply emotional and important the Indian Child Welfare Act has become to rank-and-file tribal members since 2013. Before Veronica, none of us thought that much about what was happening in family courts across the country. Now, there is vigilance and a genuine concern for what has been happening in the last 30 years. Adult adoptees have come forward in droves to heal and share their experiences; families have testified about the terrible effects of what happens when ICWA is not followed; tribes are galvanizing in an unprecedented way to stand up to a very powerful industry that has signaled its intent to overturn this important legislation.

One final thought. Indian people truly love their children. You cannot go anywhere in Indian country, to any gathering or event, and not see children running around. People bring their kids with them everywhere they go. To say that "Indians are a danger to their kids" is a terrible defamation of the parents who work so hard to raise their children every day. To honor them, I – and many other people – are committed to preserving the fabric of our communities.

It's an all hands on deck kind of situation right now.

How does it feel to be the recipient of the Richard LaCourse Award?

I'm still kind of in shock. I had seen something the week before the announcement about an award that Dennis McAuliffe Jr., had won, and for some reason I had the impression he was the winner of this award, and thought, 'Oh, nice. Good for him.' And I didn't think anything more about it, because that's not why I do what I do. But a week later Chris Napolitano [Creative Director for ICTMN] sent me a text that said something about "Jana," but I didn't have my glasses on, so I called him thinking it was about one of my sources, and he said, 'Hey, you won!'  It was shocking to say the least. As always, I was scrambling on deadline, so I was completely blown away.

My first thought was my parents, both of whom were tribal members.

What would you say to young Native journalists who desire to get into this field?

Two things: 1. Do it because you love it; and 2. Now's the time. It's the best time ever to be a Native journalist. With technology, you can be on the moon and file a story (assuming you have a good wifi connection up there), so go do it. We have so many stories to cover in Indian country, from land issues, health care, sports, the arts, policy decisions, education, infrastructure, and so on. There will never be a lack of subject matter. And we have an obligation to tell those stories, not only for our people, but so the rest of the world can see what's happening in our communities. It's a constant education.

Anything you would like to add?

I have to thank all of the people in Indian country and beyond who have very bravely stepped forward in the last two years to tell their stories, share information, and bring daylight to what can be a very dark subject matter. I am constantly aware of the fact that 50 percent of the Native population in the United States is under the age of 18. Therefore, it is to the hundreds of thousands of adult adoptees and Indian children who continue to be removed from their homes and communities that I dedicate this award.

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