Laura Waterman Wittstock: Writer, Educator and Activist

Essay by Diane Wilson

As the producer of First Person Radio, a weekly interview program on KFAI-FM, Laura Waterman Wittstock hosts authors and community leaders who address hard-hitting topics affecting Native people today. Speaking in a measured, thoughtful voice, Laura moves with ease from politics to art, revealing the restless intellect that has fueled her career as an award-winning journalist, media and education consultant, and activist. Yet she is most passionate when she speaks about Native children, including the great-grandchild she is raising. “I see the potential in every Indian kid,” Laura said. “The potential is there if we give them a chance.”

Throughout her career, Laura has found ways to combine her passion for helping Native youth with her love of writing and a deep commitment to education. As the former president and one of the founders of Migizi Communications, a non-profit organization that provides media programming to the Native community, Laura has helped many young Native journalists develop the tools to tell their own stories. In April, 2011, her 27 years at Migizi were recognized with the Farr Award for “exceptional contribution to public affairs journalism,” a prestigious award presented at the annual Frank Premack Public Affairs Journalism Awards Program at the University of Minnesota. Laura is currently the president and CEO of Wittstock & Associates, a media and education consulting firm.

When asked to introduce herself on the brisk February afternoon when we sat together for an interview, Laura pointed to the heron symbol she wore on a necklace made by her son. “I am a member of the Heron clan,” Laura said. “That’s one of the eight clans of the Seneca Nation, which is located outside of Buffalo, New York, not far from Niagara Falls.” Despite the sudden wealth created by casinos, the Seneca Nation continues to struggle with poverty. Long distance members like Laura are required to appear in person each year to restate their membership, while the tribal council is not particularly welcoming to tribal members who want to return. As members reflect an increasingly young demographic, Laura said, “They want a new kind of tribal government that is going to be responsive to their needs and transparent.”

As a journalist, Laura is acutely aware of ongoing challenges to freedom of the press, the restrictions that are often placed on newspapers that are either owned by tribes or located on reservations. As tribes are under mounting pressure to make difficult decisions with regard to economic development and natural resources, these decisions will affect generations to come, sometimes with catastrophic results. And yet, Laura says, “It seems as if very few people are aware of it in our community.”

Referring to recently published book, Yellow Dirt by journalist Judy Pasternak, Laura explained how the government pressured a Navajo family to allow access to their land for uranium mining. Miners and their families were never warned about the risks of radioactive exposure, nor were they told that their drinking water and the materials they used to build their homes were contaminated. Repeating a story that is all too familiar, the trading post and mining engineers got rich, while the Navajo people remained extremely poor. Cancer rates and birth defects skyrocketed.

Today legislators are pressing Native tribes to allow access to resources that include oil, timber and water, often suggesting that rules and regulations need to be relaxed for the benefit of the tribes. For tribes that are struggling with high unemployment and poverty, this will be a difficult argument to resist, especially if traditional values have been weakened by assimilation policies. “It could be a very bad time coming,” Laura warned. “It seems as if very few people are aware of it in our community. It’s my job at First Person Radio to let them know what’s going on.”

Laura invites an eclectic mix of guests on her radio program such as Walter R. Echo-Hawk, who wrote In the Courts of the Conquerer: The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided, a book that delves deeply into the injustice that is prevalent in federal Indian law. Another guest, John Echohawk, Executive Director of the Native American Rights Fund, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to defending the rights of Native tribes, spoke about the environment and exploitation of resources. Recently, Laura hosted Chief Arvol Looking Horse, keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Woman pipe and founder of the World Peace and Prayer Day.

Through her work, Laura continues to educate the Native community about issues, events, and topics that are important to Native people. Despite all of the challenges, Laura believes that one of the strengths that Native people bring to this struggle is their spirituality. “I believe that is a strength that can’t be broken,” Laura said. “Spirituality is something that can help poor people understand that other people want their money more than they do. These people will do whatever they can to take it away from those in need.”

Laura’s interest in observing the world around her began when she started writing as a 10-year-old living in Honolulu, far from home. A gifted teacher took an interest in her and encouraged her to share her opinions, talking to her as if she were an adult. By helping her observe and respond to the world around her, Laura began to develop an inner life and an interest in writing. Thanks to her teacher’s encouragement, one of her poems was published in the National Education Association Journal. Even today, Laura continues to write poetry with a group called the 42nd Street Irregulars.

“With some Indian kids, life is episodic,” Laura said. “We all have some trauma in our lives, some unhappiness, stepfathers who hit us. All of those kinds of things drive a nail in our willingness to share with the world. The antidote is to try to engage that inner life we all can have.”

Laura’s marriage brought her to Washington, D.C. where she hoped to find work as a journalist. After applying at a magazine that was looking for Native journalists, she was hired as an administrative assistant. Lacking even the ability to put calls on hold, Laura was on the verge of being fired when Browning Pipestem, a brilliant Native lawyer, walked into the office and asked to see her boss. Ten minutes later, he came out and announced that she was the editor of the magazine, saying, “A good Indian is a bad thing to waste.” Laura was later affiliated with the American Indian Press Association, where she worked with Richard LaCourse, a well-known journalist from the Yakama Nation in Washington. She became Executive Director of the Association in 1975.

A job offer from the National Indian Education Association brought Laura and her husband to Minnesota, where she was initially shocked by the lack of diversity in the population. Laura developed a collaborative project with the Red School House to learn what people thought was the best way to approach Indian education. Drawing from her journalism training, she brought a team of staff to interview staff at the new school. After sifting through volumes of information, her team identified common themes that had been repeated many times. From the findings in this exercise, Red School House received its first federal award to develop new ideas about Indian education.

It began by creating ways to saturate kids with language and culture. “When we had lunch, Gahgoonse Porky White would go from table to table and speak only in Ojibwe. Maybe they understood some words and maybe they didn’t. Language learning teaches that it helps to combine two things: music and language, food and language. I thought what would happen if you wrote the menu in Ojibwe? Porky would do that every morning. Pretty soon they got used to it. This school gave the kids a very strong grounding in culture.”

Learning from these early programs, educators have continued to develop new ways of teaching Native youth. While in Albuquerque for a conference, Laura observed a Middle School education conference that invited over 1,000 Native students to think about college. The message was “you’re all winners, you’re all going to do this.” At the same time, this conference was also intended as a “stealth drug program,” helping kids overcome issues of chemical dependency in their family without saying, don’t do this. “I was very very impressed with the people doing that,” Laura said. “It was all positive.”

While mainstream education often focuses on deficits, seeing only the negatives, real learning engages students by appealing to their interests and building self-confidence. Laura discovered an effective practice when she was asked to teach a semester in Indian History. Despite not considering herself to be a teacher, she created an innovative project, setting up a file for each of her 10-year-old students with his or her name on it. She said to them, “Let’s discover together what in Indian history is going to be in this file.” When staff came from the National Education Association to visit her class, they asked her students a question about Sitting Bull. Thanks to the files, the students knew his tribe, his Indian name, and even the circumstances of his death. What made the difference for her students was the chance to discover things for themselves and develop confidence in their own abilities.

In 1974, after the recession forced many Indian newspapers out of business, Laura was part of a small group of Native journalists and students who founded Migizi Communications with the goal of providing accurate information about Native peoples. “From the very beginning of looking at radio,” Laura said, “I believed that was the magic that would help Indian kids. There’s great capacity for learning when you combine education with technology.”

Alternative forms of education are increasingly important as schools often fail to understand issues of historical trauma, instead diagnosing Native youth with behavioral problems at a much higher rate than other ethnic groups. “The kids are lost in the system,” Laura said. “There’s very little hope that we can teach the system how to be more Indian oriented. There doesn’t seem to be any desire to understand the Indian population.”

Yet Laura continues to be hopeful about the future for Indian children. “One of our biggest resources is our kids,” Laura said. “I’ve come to believe that the critical years are 5th to 8th grade. Something magical happens with a young child. Children really seem to be able to get hooked into the technique of learning, the curiosity of learning, and the ability to criticize and we have to learn how to maintain that.”