Reporter’s Notebook | K’é comes first, when you produce your best work
One day, someone’s going to ask you how you cover half of the Navajo Nation alone, someone said to me. That day recently came.
For years, alone I covered stories and photographed news and events in Western and Utah Navajo, southern Utah, and northern Arizona. Some days I’d leave home before the sun rose and return home near or past midnight.
To get a great story with images takes all day, especially if traveling on dirt roads. There were times when I fell asleep alongside the road or outside a convenience store – I always felt safe because I thought I was acquainted with many people on this side of the mountain, in the west, and didn’t have to worry about danger.
There were times my vehicle had no gasoline to get to the next story or couldn’t make it through the sand or terrain, and I had to borrow a neighbor’s vehicle or walk for miles to get the story because, in journalism, deadlines matter more than anything else.
Due dates form the rhythm of life for writers, and they are time-sensitive obligations that add both structure and suspense to our lives. And we all respond to deadline pressure differently.
I’ve been tossed around inside a hot-air balloon basket many times for stories. A massive propane tank also fell on me. I broke my dominant arm on assignment on the Colorado River down the Grand Canyon. Someone slammed my camera to the floor.
I’ve dealt with carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis of the hand on numerous occasions. I’ve been grabbed by angry women, yelled/cursed at, and spoken to rudely.
I’ve been inside a small room with a known criminal, drug-paraphernalia users, and pedophiles. I’ve been stalked and followed home by a strange man (and then wouldn’t leave), and some people have thrown down the gauntlet and asked that I interview them t’áá Dinék’ehjígo.
They would say, “The only way you’re going to get an interview is if you interview me in Navajo,” or “This is about the Navajo language, interview me in Navajo.”
It’s usually the middle-aged men and women who test me. My Western elders know that I do, so talking with them is often calm and content.
But you learn everything on your own as a Diné journalist working remotely. And you learn how to be alone and make quick decisions. You don’t have your editor or publisher there with you or a photographer to help you.
How do I do it? How do I cover the half of the Navajo Nation alone?
Journalism and photography in our Nation are glorious work one can ever do. It takes every inch of you. You’ll risk your life, and no one will ever know what you went through – the pain and the emotional toll – to get that one story or that one photo, hoping it’ll be a front-page piece.
A while back, my fellow photographers and I every week fought for Native Lens, a full-color page in Section A of the paper. The tears and pain would be worth it when the editor chooses your photos.
We did it for fun, and it was fun. But that faded away because now it’s more about teaching and shaping the up-and-coming journalists’ success.
You’ve got to want the reporter’s/photographer’s life to be the best and to produce the best stories and photographs possible. It’s improving your craft every single day.
That’s what it takes to cover a large area and to be a Times reporter.
It’s love and compassion for your people. You’re Diné first and a reporter/photographer second in this field. You accept the food, drinks, and small gestures such as songs and prayers people offer you and can’t say no. You don’t ever say no.
K’é comes first, and that’s when you produce your best work.
It’s loving what you do to survive as a Diné journalist. It’s not only storytelling but also loving our land – the sunrises and the sunsets, the animals, the potholes, and the environment and the climate – because your office can be anywhere: alongside State Route 98, U.S. 89, Highway 160, at the Bears Ears Meadows, near Dook’o’oosłííd, and other places.
It’s about meeting people who are passionate and committed to their neighbors. It’s helping readers understand our Nation, shining a light outward, and covering our people and our land in all its complexity.
It’s going where the story is – no matter the danger or hardship – and enjoying it. And if you don’t, it can be hell on earth for you.
Because of the pandemic, I haven’t seen my family in three years. I haven’t seen my uncle Leonard, who’s serving our country, in five years. One day I’ll see them again.
That’s nothing new for journalists and photographers, though.
There was a time when I didn’t see my family for 10 years. In this field, you’ll miss parties, reunions, and get-togethers; you won’t see your nieces and nephews grow up, and you’ll miss the laughter and the time because you’re so infatuated with what you do. That’s what fueled me.
Everything was worth missing, including the holidays, weddings, being with family, and not being home.
It’s not until you lose someone, a family member, that you’ll regret it all. You’ll regret missing the family dinners and the talks around the fire, the smores, the second pot of coffee brewed over the fire, and not returning those text messages/phone calls.
You’ll find yourself stuck writing a story on deadline as they’re being taken off life support or being buried as you’re sitting nearby with a laptop, knowing it’s maybe OK to work because they knew you love what you do, and they understood.
You cannot cry because you’ve a tough exterior, and you think of them as you’re typing. It’s not until remorse and consciousness hit you at 4 a.m. weeks later that they are gone, and all you have are the memories before your job took you away.
You cannot make up that lost time with family because it’s too late. You miss out on life, milestones, and you forget the smell of roses. That’s probably too much love, but many of the top-level journos I know have also experienced this.
I know my fellow influential editorial colleagues at the Times went through their own experiences in the field, many in dangerous situations involving weapons and being verbally abused and disrespected by random people.
Tough times can be stressful, but they also have a way of centering us. I would not describe this past year as easy. But I have no regrets about it either.
As one of the Times editors, I get asked why – a lot: Why is your reporter covering this? Why is this dateline wrong? Why can’t you send your reporter here, or there? Why is there only one source for this story? Why can’t your reporter cover this story? Why is your reporter like this? Why didn’t your reporter interview this person, or that person? Why didn’t your reporter include history? Why is your reporter writing in Navajo when many people can’t read it?
Mountains of complaints: the Navajo Times needs a weekly editorial! You need to stand up for us! You need to speak to us! You missed some important stories, and I’m keeping count! Your reporters aren’t practicing good journalism! This is not even a story!
Threats: “If you write this story, I’m going to file a lawsuit against you”; and emotional appeals seeking to shut up opposing views and control or suppress information: “Please, don’t write this story” or “Don’t write this story. The people who gave you these documents are trying to blackmail me.”
I imagine our leaders experience something similar too. It’s no wonder they kindly request, “T’áadoo ádanihix doníníh,” as they take punches from their constituents.
There’s no crying nor complaining in journalism, and you must withstand any storm.
The Times’ top reporters are built tough. They are some of the most unbreakable people I know, and they are the only reporters in the world who can sit in a meeting entirely in Navajo and quote you word for word. There are only three Diné reporters in this field I know who can do that, and two are working at the Times.
To get a second opinion, I asked my colleague how many Diné reporters – who can speak, read, and write the Navajo language – are out there, and they said there are only a few who can do all three.
This is why we need more young Navajo-speaking and -writing reporters who uniquely see our Nation. We need them to take over our positions one day, and we need them to keep telling the stories of our people in the future and to keep our Diné paper going long after we’re gone.
We need young Diné to study journalism, photojournalism, communications, and English in college.
We need those willing to travel for miles across our Nation to meet people and invest in our chapters, ready to put a toll on their vehicle for a story. We need those willing to work around the clock for our people.
Wouldn’t it be great to see Navajo journalism offered at a university? Perhaps at Walter Cronkite? Or see a “School of the Navajo Times” or a “Navajo Times Journalism Institute” in Window Rock where you’ll earn a bachelor’s, a master’s, or a doctorate in journalism.
How to cover the Navajo Nation, Navajo politics (from a perspective that everyone will understand and to expose things the political consensus may have missed), the police beat, and see beyond the lens and write compelling stories. One that teaches our language and how to be in a journalism leadership role. Dreams.
So, my young Diné brothers and sisters go to school. Maybe study journalism. If not storytelling, get that degree in medicine or psychology – that you’ve always wanted – and come home and lead our Navajo Nation. It’s time for you to oversee.
It’s time for you to do whatever it takes to follow your dreams, even if that means sleeping in your car for two or four years because there’s no housing in a particular area – that’s not an excuse.
Even if your dream is 400 miles away or your commute is a long distance, don’t give up and keep putting your foot in front of the other. You grew up in a Nation where our elders are allowed to scold us and our parents are allowed to whip us. We have their strength, love, teachings, and the language they taught us.
Make it happen for our people who’ve passed on. Live for them and for those who couldn’t.