Journalist Jodi Rave Lee

(WOMENSENEWS)–As the first national correspondent–and the first Native woman, at that–to cover Native issues for the Lincoln Star Journal in Lincoln, Neb., and the entire Lee Enterprises newspaper chain, Jodi Rave hears the same question over and over, from colleagues, sources, friends and acquaintances. “Geez, what’s it like in the newsroom? You’re Native, a woman, and you’re writing about Native issues.”

The question touches on an issue many female journalists of color–and female journalists in general–face. Because they are members of minority groups and covering issues relevant to their communities, female journalists of color are often questioned about their ability to be “fair.” There’s that unspoken question: Will their racial background and commitment to covering news relevant to their race be seen in the often predominantly white newsroom as an advantage or a barrier in the pursuit of “good” journalism?

The answer is a no-brainer for Rave. She believes that her community matters. She is also aware that there is very little news about Native issues in mainstream papers. Since childhood, Rave’s goal has been to report and write about the inequities suffered by the Native community. And her work is constantly affirmed by those in the Native community. Rave receives hundreds of letters and e-mails every month from Natives across the country who say that her work is making a difference in their communities.

In fact, Rave was a first-place winner–twice–at the Native American Journalists Association’s annual conference this past summer. Rave won awards for Best News Writing Daily and Best Feature Writing Daily.

The 37-year-old North Dakota native, who got her start working as a journalist in the National Guard, knows that her work matters outside of her community, too. Rave won the Military Print Journalist of the Year award in June 2000 and is still an active member of the National Guard.

Like many journalists, Rave fell in love with the profession when she worked for her high school newspaper in Bismarck, N.D.

“I don’t think that anyone in my family thought that I would become a journalist. My family would probably remember me most for sketching cartoons,” she laughs.

Rave’s artistic ambitions are what led her into the newsroom–she was her newspaper’s graphic artist. But her artistic ambitions were sidetracked when the editor of her high school newspaper asked her to write a guest editorial. After receiving kudos, Rave hung up her easel and became a full-fledged reporter. When the spring newspaper awards were announced, she was stunned to learn that she had won the prize for best editorial.

Talent Honed on Reservation

Rave, a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes indigenous to North Dakota, believes that her knack for writing and reporting was honed during her childhood on the Fort Berthold reservation in northwestern North Dakota.

“I spent my early years around Native people,” Rave says. “I grew up at a time when the American Indian movement was going strong. Indian pride was emerging. People on both the reservation and in urban areas were demanding civil rights for Native peoples.”

“I was always writing and pouring out my feelings about the injustices I saw around me,” Rave says. “When I started school, that’s when I really started noticing the disparities between my community and the white community that surrounded us.”

“Early on my mom told me, ‘you tell them that you’re proud of being Indian.’ This really sustained me because, when it was time to go to school, we moved to Dickinson, North Dakota, which was all white.”

There, 60 miles from the Fort Berthold reservation, Jodi learned to fight.

“I was the only Native kid in my whole grade school. I was teased incessantly. I became pretty good at learning how to stand up for myself at an early age,” Rave says laughing with only a touch of ruefulness.

Rave’s family moved back to Bismarck when she was in high school. Despite her academic success, she did not apply to colleges to study journalism. Instead, Rave took a job right after high school–reporting and writing for the tribal newspaper.

One of her assignments involved going to the local power plant, an important employer in the region, and interviewing management on what steps Natives in the community, who had had little success in obtaining jobs there, could take to land one of its relatively high-paid positions.

Rave took management’s advice and ended up attending process plant technical school and going to work as a laborer at the plant.

“I was 20 years old and earning $30,000 … that was some pretty heady stuff!”

She also became a mother–of a son now 17.

Rave Begins to Explore the United States

Struck by wanderlust, she left her job at the plant and traveled around the United States from 1987 to 1989. She eventually joined the National Guard and spent a year in the Army.

In 1991, she started to find her way back to journalism. Rave’s travels led her to Cheyenne, Wyo., where she joined the National Guard as a journalist. Rave’s National Guard commander, Rosalind Chalisky, was the director of the journalism program at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne and encouraged her to enroll in the college’s journalism program.

Chalisky remembers Rave well.

“Jodi drove from North Dakota on the weekends to come to drill–that’s like 16 hours–because ours was the closet Public Affairs Detachment. I thought that was quite remarkable. At the time, she had a young son, but she knew she wanted to better her life. Even then we knew that she was talented–and very focused and driven.”

After graduating from the program, Rave was hungry for more.

Rave left behind her support system and family and moved to Denver, where she enrolled in community college, while working full-time and raising her young son. Her goal was to establish residency so that she could gain in-state status and apply to the journalism program at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Because of the high-cost of housing in Boulder, she continued to commute–this time from a suburb outside of Denver.

Boulder is also where she met her husband, Frankie C. Lee. Lee, who is Navajo, is an electrical engineer.

Rave’s first job out of journalism school was as a business reporter at the Idaho Statesman in Boise.

Rave moved on to the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah and was there for less than a year when the Lincoln Journal Star approached her. The paper had an opening for a business reporter and thought that Rave would fit the bill.

During a series of pre-employment interviews, Rave took the opportunity to express her interest in reporting on Native issues. And Joe Starita, the city editor who interviewed her, listened.

Remarkable Job Offer Over the Phone

When Starita finally phoned Rave with a job offer, she was surprised but pleased. The job was something that Rave, a firm believer in Native spirituality, had included in her prayers for years.

Starita, now an associate professor in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, believes that hiring Rave was one of his best moves as an editor.

“The addition of Jodi Rave to the Lincoln Star Journal added a whole new dimension to our coverage. She was able to do stories that appealed to both Native and non-Native readers because she got access to stories that a non-Native wouldn’t get. Compared to other journalists, Jodi just dug deeper.”

Rave’s beat extends from the Great Lakes to the Great Plains, and covers nine states.

“There’s a treasure trove of untapped stories out here,” Rave says. Rave thinks that editing might be her next move. She’s proven there’s an audience for the stories she writes and that there’s a need for Native news coverage.

And she’s at a point where she feels ready to think about going into management.

“I reached the goal that I set out to accomplish when I accepted the position at the Journal Star,” she smiles. “It’s time to set out some new ones.”

Siobhan Benet is a journalist in New York and content manager for Women’s Enews.

For more Information:

Lincoln Journal Star:

Native American Journalists Association: