Tireless and tenacious storytelling
by Ray Ring
NAME: Lori Edmo-Suppah
HOME BASE: Shoshone-Bannock Tribes' Fort Hall Reservation, Idaho
DESCRIBING HERSELF IN A NEWS STORY: "She enjoys her job even though she gets grouchy at her computer when fonts don't work or files get corrupt. Her camera was stolen at the Festival last year ... However, she says life goes on and she'll eventually get over it."
Late in her 17th straight day at work, Lori Edmo-Suppah is happy to have a visitor bring her a cup of strong coffee from the nearest Starbucks, 12 miles away. Her office is a nest of deadlines on a gravel road, in a cinderblock building amid farm fields. Sipping caffeine with one hand and clicking a mouse with the other, she peers at her computer screen and uploads another week's worth of news stories to the Web site of the Sho-Ban News.
As the Sho-Ban News editor, Edmo-Suppah oversees coverage of the half-million-acre Fort Hall Indian Reservation of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, north of Pocatello, Idaho. And her interests sprawl more widely than the reservation: Her Shoshone-Bannock ancestors, among the first Native Americans to take up riding the horses brought to this continent by the Spanish, once roamed as far as modern-day Canada and Mexico. Local families still have relatives scattered on other reservations, and the Sho-Ban News
circulates about 1,750 copies of each issue to readers in Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada and Utah. Edmo-Suppah manages seven staffers, assigns and edits stories, reports on events herself, shoots photos, lays out pages, troubleshoots computer glitches, wrestles with the budget, collects bills, and sometimes even delivers papers. She also fills in for other workers, as she does today, for a webmaster on maternity leave.
"It's wearing sometimes," she says, smiling ruefully.
Her life illustrates the struggles and rewards of being a Native American journalist. She grew up on the reservation with 10 siblings, in a three-bedroom house that had no hot water and was heated by a woodstove. Her parents were involved in tribal government, and their conversations helped get her interested in tribal affairs. So she began exploring journalism, working for a long-ago Sho-Ban News editor, Mark Trahant, who now runs the editorial page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
. She went off to the University of Montana for a journalism degree; spent a year teaching journalism at the University of Idaho, dispatching students to cover many reservations; then came home to run the tribal paper. Now in her eighth year as editor, about to turn 48, with three kids and a husband who works in a tribal education program, she's still paying off her student loans.
She's tough and tenacious, leavened somewhat by a droll sense of humor. "Lori balances tribal interests, family ties, hiring and training good reporters and skimpy resources," Trahant says. "Yet she produces solid community journalism year after year after year."
Though the tribal government has power over the paper, she digs into touchy issues, such as who profits from tribal contracts. One tribal chairman ordered her not to report on deals involving the tribes' casino, but she didn't back down. When she got crossways with another tribal chairman in 2003, he fired her and most of her staff - one of the risks many tribal journalists face. In response, she published an alternative paper from her home; her coverage helped a new chairman win the next election, and she got her job back.
She has covered questionable deals in which white farmers lease land and water from tribal members, and pollution left by a multinational corporation's defunct phosphate plant. "I've been threatened countless times," she says. Recently, after she wrote about a guy who beat up a basketball referee, he and his mother both threatened her, she says: "It was just a big drama, and I got blamed as usual." One wintry night, driving back from covering a game, she skidded on a slushy road and rolled three times.
She finds special meaning in writing about the tribes' history and culture, including the treaty rights that allow them to manage salmon far from the reservation. In her "spare" time, she's involved in an effort to preserve the Bannock language, which is now spoken only by a few elders. They're writing a Bannock dictionary, and they've obtained two "Phraselators" - computerized translators developed by the military. Speak English into the devices, and it will be played back in the Bannock language.
Summing up her work, she says, "I do it because of our tribal people. They have a lot of stories to tell. Storytelling is what our culture is about."
The author is the magazine's senior editor.© High Country News