Growing up and Reporting about Life On and Off the Rez

Jarrette Werk, a multimedia storyteller, reflects on his life experiences growing up on and off the reservation in Montana and how the two are very different, as he sets out on his own journey of storytelling.

I took this photograph of my family back home at our powwow grounds in the ʔákisinnítaaʔ ʔóhkhʔóóútʔa, or “Little People’s Creek Canyon” when I returned home during the pandemic. Left to right: James (Jimmy) Werk, Jarrette Werk (me), James (Jim) Werk, Kimberly (Kim) Graham, JayCee Werk, Harmony Werk, Sharon Stiffarm, Johnathon (JT) Werk.

By the time I entered the seventh grade, I could confidently call myself a professional mover. My three siblings and I could pack up a moving truck better than most adults — Tetris was the game, and we were pros.

When I graduated high school, my family had moved schools at least 15 different times, give or take three or so more. I was extremely lucky to spend time living all over Montana and even in Hawai’i, before moving to South Dakota and Nevada after graduation.

Each year it seemed as though we were either in a new place or revisiting somewhere familiar. My mom was a travel nurse, and my dad worked in construction in the summertime and was on the road as a truck driver in the wintertime. Wherever my mom would get an assignment we would pack up and move.

Being raised somewhat on the road, I was exposed to different people, experiences, lifestyles, and cultures at a very young age. I noticed how life on the reservation was different than life off the Rez. People treated us differently depending on where we were at the time, and the amount of work my parents got varied. There were some tough times, but there was so much joy as well. When you grow up like that you learn how to be creative and how to take things with a grain of salt.

As a child, we know our parents do their best to make sure you do not catch on to things or remember the struggles. I remember being monetarily poor, but my parents always made us feel like we were no different than anyone else. They made sure we always had the best of the best, they were my superheroes.

My parents and I pose for a picture on the beach in Hawai’i. (Photo courtesy of Jarrette Werk)

Fort Belknap History

To me, my dad was SuperMan, and my mom was SuperWoman. They did everything they possibly could for my siblings and me. We always had the best clothes, newest toys, and would spend so much quality time together learning how to play basketball, ride a horse, swim in the lake, or visit with our other family members.

So much of my childhood was spent outside, laughing, learning, loving, and being loved. Hays/Lodgepole will always be home to me. I cannot wait for the day I return so that I can do my part for my community, connect with the land, and lead a self-sufficient life free of worries of the city.

I am a proud member of the Fort Belknap Indian Community in north-central Montana, home to the Aaniiih and Nakoda people.

Established in 1888, our reservation is what remains of the vast ancestral territory of the Blackfeet and Assiniboine Nations. The Aaniiih or White Clay People, as members of the Blackfeet confederacy, and the Nakoda (Assiniboine) Nation signed the Fort Laramie treaties of 1851 and 1855 with the United States Government establishing their respective territories within the continental United States.

The Fort Belknap Reservation is part of what remains of my two Nation’s ancestral territories that included all of central and eastern Montana and portions of western North Dakota.

Located forty miles south of the Canadian border and twenty miles north of the Missouri River, which is the route of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It is the fourth-largest Indian reservation in Montana.

Today, there are approximately 7,000 enrolled tribal members, of whom nearly 3,500 live on or near the reservation which contains about 675,147 acres of land.

There are three communities that reside within our reservation, ʔɔʔɔɔɔnííítaanʔɔ or Hays, titáábíííh or Lodgepole, and Fort Belknap Agency across the river from baʔéeiʔééítaanʔɔ or Harlem. My parents graduated from Hays-Lodgepole High School, home of the Thunder Birds, and my older brother Jimmy, myself, and my younger sister JayCee all graduated from Harlem High School, home of the Wild Cats.

Back home on the rez, my mom and dad know everyone and everyone knows them. I would get the “oh your Kim and Jim’s kid” all the time. People would always tell us how athletic and exciting our parents were to watch in high school. For the most part, it was a regular accepting, and loving community.

In early summertime, the rolling hills below the Fur Cap Mountains are lush with green grass and fluffy clouds paint the skies just before sunset. Photo by Jarrette Werk.

Life On The Rez

My people come from, what I can argue, as one of the most beautiful places in Montana. We are fortunate to still have a large portion of our ancestral lands. I have so many memories with my family hiking, riding horses, hunting, and connecting with the land. Hours and hours have been spent in the beautiful wɔsʔ ʔííkikíínʔe or so-called Bears Paw mountains, byiɵɔtɔ or so-called Fur Cap Mountains, and the ʔákisinnítaaʔ ʔóhkhʔóóútʔa, or so-called Little People’s Creek Canyon, also known as the Mission Canyon.

When you first enter our canyon you are surrounded by steep, multicolored limestone cliffs that tower hundreds of feet in the air, which are a result of centuries worth of water erosion from the Little People’s Creek.

The scenic winding gravel road takes you past natural bridges, arches, windows (hole in a wall), small waterfalls, and a unique cave called Devil’s Kitchen. The road leads to our powwow grounds which is situated in a beautiful meadow lined with quaking aspen trees that paint the landscape in hues of yellow and orange during the fall, just in time for our annual powwow in August.

I love thinking back and reflecting on my childhood riding horses, branding our family’s cattle, playing kickball, and other family gatherings at the foothills of béihiiɵɔɔʔ ʔɔhʔánʔi or Eagle Child Butte near my grandma and grandpa’s ranch.

We are horse people, and a good portion of my childhood was spent on the back of a horse. In the summers, I remember spending almost every day down at the barn with our horses, fighting off mosquitos while training for youth rodeos, or cooling off in the ʔakisníícááh or Milk River. Memories like these are what I cherish, and I know so many other Montana Rez kids can relate.

Natural Bridge found at the mouth of the ʔákisinnítaaʔ ʔóhkhʔóóútʔa, or so-called Little People’s Creek Canyon in Hays, MT. Photo by: Jarrette Werk

How Tribal Radio Influenced My Storytelling

One of my first exposures to media was through our local radio station KGVA 88.1. Every morning on my 47-mile drive to school I would listen in to what was going on in our community and jam out to powwow music. I can hear it now, “you are listening to KGVA 88.1, the voice of the Aaniiih and Nakoda Nations…Nations…Nations.”

I did not know it then, but that little station helped influence me on local news. Even though it was not as advanced as some other stations, I still credit it to piquing my interest in journalism. I enjoyed hearing familiar voices and names in the different segments that would air.

In Indian Country, basketball is a part of the culture. I cannot even begin to count the number of hours spent as a child running, dribbling, practicing drills, and going to tournaments across the state. Like many other Native kids, the court was our second home.

Listening to basketball games and other sporting events commentated by our own people, like my cousin Adam, is such a great thing to me. It kept our community engaged and informed on how our teams did in the different events.

Randy Perez is a community member who is at every single event going on back home. He photographs basketball games, relay races, rodeos, you name it, he’s on it. I love how he does it out of the goodness of his heart. It’s always so nice seeing people using the photos he takes of them as their profile pictures on Facebook. I know I have in the past.

Shout out to our community for showing support for our youth and capturing these special memories for us to cherish forever, and thank you for planting the seed for me to pursue journalism.

The annual Hays Powwow is held in August each year. Photo by: Jarrette Werk.

Life off the Rez

My parents always made it a point to instill kindness and compassion into how we interacted and dealt with people. They made sure to teach us to treat everyone the way we wanted to be treated.

My three siblings and I were inseparable. Always looking out for one another. As the second oldest, I always made sure to be a good big brother to my younger sister and baby brother. Whenever my sister needed something I was sure to get it for her. It did not matter what it was. If she was cold and she did not think to bring a jacket to stay warm, I would take mine off and give it to her. If my parents were tired and needed help with my baby brother, I would watch him while they took a nap.

My mom and dad always worked hard and taught us what it meant to earn what we had. There were times when my mom and dad would both be gone for extended periods of time working to provide for us. They always strived to continuously improve and get better with each day.

In the fourth grade, my mom had taken a contract to work at the hospital in Malta, Montana. It was a short 45 miles off the reservation. So it was not far from my cousins, aunties, uncles, and grandparents. It was your typical run-of-the-mill rural farming town.

From the outside looking in, Malta was a town anyone would want to raise their kids in. A Hoosier-Esque basketball town. There is a Dairy Queen that makes the best moo-latté’s, the West Side truck stop had surprisingly good pizza, and the only grocery store was stocked with fresh produce from the farmers and ranchers across the High-Line.

We had moved into an older but cute little yellow house with two large oak trees in the backyard, perfect for a hammock. It was situated smack dab in the middle of the town. The elementary school was down the street on one side, and the high school down the other, and the city pool was all but a two-minute walk away.

Everything seemed as if it were perfect, but what my parents weren’t prepared for was what you could not see, hate and racism.

To put things into perspective, students, teachers, and community members spewed countless negative, stereotypical, and racist remarks at myself and my family. Teachers told me I was nothing but a “worthless Indian”, classmates called my siblings and me “prairie n-words”, countless homophobic slurs, and the cherry on top was that I should “k*ll myself” because no one liked me.

Montana, in general, is not diverse. There are eight federally recognized tribes scattered across the state. Each is surrounded by border towns. These border towns, generally, are known for their detest for Native American people. Malta was no exception. The level of blatant racism and hate one person can have for another is astonishing.

In 2020, during the high school basketball season one player from Wolf Point (Fort Peck Tribe) blocked a player from Malta, stole the ball, and went up for a full-court layup only to be intentionally fouled (pushed with full force) by the Malta player. Luckily no one was severely injured. However, no disciplinary actions were taken toward Malta or the player.

To me, that speaks to the level of character of the community, coaches, parents, and students of Malta. Some reflection and work needs to be done.

A couple of our horses grazing out in our field in Lodgepole, MT. Photo by Jarrette Werk

How My Community is Covered & How I Can Change That

The way the media reports on my communities back home in Montana is slim. Yes, there is an increase with coverage of Indigenous issues across the board, and this is in part to more Indigenous journalists, which is amazing to see. However, that is not enough. There is so much more work to be done to diversify newsrooms and employing more POC, especially Indigenous peoples.

For the most part, I see the media glossing over my communities and the issues impacting them, but when there is crime or negative things happening it is more likely to be covered. But on the same hand, reports have shown that when Indigenous women in our communities go missing or are taken from us, they receive three and a half times less coverage and their articles were shorter and less likely to appear on the front page in comparison to those of white women. This is unacceptable

I think about how in my own reporting or the way I view stories going on in my communities is different than the stories I see being shared. The only time I see stories of triumph or joy is during sports seasons, especially during basketball season. Yes it is true that year after year, Native teams in Montana dominate on the court, but there is room for improvement outside of sports.

There is so much joy and livelihood coming out of our communities across Indian Country that is not being covered, but deserves the recognition.

As a storyteller who happens to be Indigenous, I know I have the ability to think critically, with intersectionality, and with an open mind when addressing different stories. I am also highly aware of the different narratives that different outlets push with their reporting, some good but most are bad.

My parents and I at the 53rd Annual Scripps Lecture and dinner held by the Reynolds School of Journalism at The University of Nevada, Reno. Photo courtesy of Jarrette Werk.

Avoiding Extractive Journalism

As a storyteller, I do not want to fall into this trap of lazy and stereotypical reporting when trying to find work after graduation. I will make sure I am always finding nuanced ways of storytelling, especially within Indian Country.

I know I need to work on developing my willingness to step out of my comfort zone and cover more diverse peoples outside of the Indigenous community, because I feel like doing this will only strengthen my abilities as a storyteller. But as someone who sees how their people are depicted in the media, it is hard to step away when I feel like I can help make change.

I have heard time and time again from different people in Indian Country who are hesitant to speak with reporters because they helicopter in to take what they want and then leave. Extractive journalism is sloppy and not something I will do.

I am a firm believer in creating those meaningful and reciprocating connections. I never want to be the person who just takes from people and doesn’t invest the communities I am telling stories from. Sources are entrusting me to share their stories with the utmost respect they deserve.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to build, and continue to build meaningful connections with sources, other reporters, and various media outlets.

My work aims at providing an in-depth look at Indigenous communities and helping to reshape a narrative often set by persons outside of those communities.

Reporting by Jarrette Werk shared with the Reynolds Sandbox

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Reynolds Sandbox

Reynolds Sandbox

Showcasing innovative and engaging multimedia storytelling by students with the Reynolds Media Lab in Reno.