JoAnn Jones, associate judge for the Ho-Chunk Nation Trial Court and former Ho-Chunk Nation president, is seen in her office in Black River Falls, Wis., on Feb. 9, 2022. Casino revenue chiefly funds vital Ho-Chunk infrastructure and government programs like education, social services and tribal courts. But plunging revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic triggered widespread budget cuts. (Ilana Bar-av for Wisconsin Watch)
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When Indian Country Today invited us last year to join a multi-newsroom effort to cover tribal economies across the nation, we jumped at the chance.  

The Institute for Nonprofit News, Indian Country Today, Wisconsin Watch and eight other news partners examined the state of the economy in Indian Country. This reporting was made possible with support from the Walton Family Foundation.

Since 2009, our reporters have covered issues in all corners of Wisconsin — from the frac sand mines of Trempealeau County to the iron range of northern Wisconsin and the sandy shores of Door County. But we acknowledged needing to strengthen our reporting for citizens of the 11 federally recognized tribes living throughout the state — including sovereign nations that suffered financial shock as their casinos shuttered early in the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As the pandemic illustrated the precariousness of tribal economies that rely heavily on casino revenue, we focused on the Ho-Chunk Nation, which plans to break ground on a $405 million casino complex in Beloit.

But having invested little time reporting in Indian Country, we began with few connections and sources to open doors, build trust and guide our reporting. 

And history didn’t help us build trust. While it was the U.S. government that drove tribes like the Ho-Chunk from their ancestral homelands and forced Indigenous children into often abusive boarding schools, white-run newspapers were complicit through the stories they told, the stories they omitted and the stereotypes they furthered through crude or racist headlines.  

So we looked for someone to help us make connections even before we started reporting. We turned to Anne Thundercloud, a Ho-Chunk citizen and public relations consultant who spent more than 10 years working in public relations for the Ho-Chunk Nation’s government. Thundercloud had written a thoughtful piece in Madison Magazine on the need to bridge the disconnect between tribes and the rest of the public.

We hired Thundercloud as a consultant. She sprung into action behind the scenes — helping us arrange interviews, gain photography access and understand cultural norms. In a few instances, she nudged reluctant sources to speak with us. In some ways, she played the role of a fixer — a  local professional who traditionally helps international journalists navigate unfamiliar territory. 

Mario Koran is an investigative reporter for Wisconsin Watch, and recently reported on challenges and opportunities for Wisconsin’s tribal economies.  (Photo by Pat Robinson)

Without Thundercloud, our reporting may have lacked crucial voices in Ho-Chunk Nation, including its president, Marlon WhiteEagle, everyday people impacted by the economic downturn, and Ho-Chunk gaming officials, who spoke to us outside of their official capacity on the Ciporoke podcast, which tackles issues facing the Ho-Chunk Nation. 

Without those voices, we might have been left with a story about a community, rather than for it and shaped by citizens’ input. 

Of course Thundercloud — like anyone — has an individual perspective based on her own experiences, history and biases. While we invited her insights, we applied the same fact-checking process to the information she provided as we would for any other source. 

Ilana Bar-av, a Madison resident of Ho-Chunk descent, helped us tell the story visually and improved our reporting more broadly. When we visited Black River Falls, the seat of Ho-Chunk government, sources stopped Bar-av to talk — some knew her when she was small and others asked that she relay their hellos to her mom. Bar-av’s relationships and cultural connections materialized in her photographs in subtle but important ways that a non-Native photographer would be hard-pressed to replicate. 

Finally, as Wisconsin Watch often does, we embraced collaboration rather than treating other news outlets as competition. Aside from frequently checking in with Indian Country Today and the eight other newsrooms working on the project, we leveraged our relationship with the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. Frank Vaisvilas, who covers Native American affairs for the Green Bay Press-Gazette, contributed reporting on the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and Oneida Nation to round out the story.  

Sharing resources and knowledge across similarly-missioned newsrooms only strengthens our service to communities.  

I recently chatted with Thundercloud about why she agreed to work with us, what she hopes her work will accomplish and what she learned during the project. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Anne Thundercloud, a consultant for Wisconsin Watch on a reporting collaboration with Indian Country Today, is seen in Tomah, Wis., Feb. 10, 2022. (Ilana Bar-av for Wisconsin Watch)

When Wisconsin Watch first approached you about working with us on a story, what was your initial reaction? 

When I first saw the email from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, I’m like: “Uh oh, now what? What do they want to know about us? What do they want to delve into?” 

But then it also legitimized it to me when they mentioned you were working with Indian Country Today on a larger project. So I thought, “Okay, well, if it’s coming from Indian Country Today, they didn’t just pull my name out of a hat. Let me hear what they have to say.” 

So you were put off at first when you heard ‘Center for Investigative Journalism,’ because you thought we were going to be investigating something nefarious? 

Yeah, pretty much. Like: “What did we do wrong? And why are you approaching me? What am I, some turncoat?” Just so you know, that was my first instinct based on having dealt with other mainstream media outlets. I’ve had to write letters to the editor for painting us in certain ways when they didn’t even ask us any questions for the story.  

When I first started doing public relations for my tribe, it was almost a joke how much turnover we had in the tribal office. But I started to develop relationships with reporters, be a reliable source, and really try to bridge the gap. There were times where I had to go to bat for us, because we were misquoted, and I would have to call up an editor and demand a correction. 

Then I started to get a little bit more respect. And so did the nation. And then we started to become a more visibly prominent nation within Wisconsin.

What made you say yes to the assignment working with us? 

Because my people are not in a great position right now between membership and two branches of government that are not communicating well with us, or with each other. It’s a mess.  

I thought if I can work with you guys to reach our people, then more people may feel as though they’re being heard and it can bring about a broader conversation. If I can’t be a leader within our government organization — which I don’t want to be — I can use my skill set and my connections to bring about change and make my people feel empowered. My real thing is, Mario, I want to help my people. But I also want to help you or other journalists have a better understanding and better relationships with us.

What are some things that stand out from working with non-tribal journalists? Are there things they got wrong or misunderstood?

I think that they didn’t do their homework. They weren’t culturally sensitive. There were times when they would call and it was evident that they had already written the story and they wanted a quote from me — from the nation as their spokesperson, to make it appear as though it were a balanced story. 

I kept a good, watchful eye on the news stories that were appearing about my nation, and also the other 10 tribes in Wisconsin, because I wanted to see what was being covered, the tone of coverage. And I could also see that some of the nations were not taking full advantage of the stories — by not commenting when they had the chance to. 

Were there any moments as we worked together on the story where your cultural values clashed with your professional values? Did the work present any ethical challenges?

Well, I always have to be true to myself. For instance, as we worked on this story I came across a confidential tribal document. I thought it was a really critical, necessary piece for your story. However, it said “confidential” on it. And if somebody says something in confidence, then I want to keep that confidence. 

Having worked with my tribe, I know that sometimes people don’t uphold confidentiality agreements, and word spreads throughout the building or the nation. But I have a strong duty and personal set of standards that I adhere to. Because if I don’t hold true to them, then I cease to be myself.

Did you ever worry your loyalty to the tribe would be called into question for working with us on the story? 

Yes. Because I never knew the exact content of what you’d found, I never knew how the story was going to turn out or what people would think when they read it. And I wondered if people were going to see me as a sellout who sold information on our people. 

That’s the other thing that played a big role in not giving you that confidential information. I also see this as a business transaction between me and Wisconsin Watch. I’m being paid to perform a certain service for you guys. Had I given that information to you, I’d have felt like I was selling information about my people. And that’s not something I want to do, or be known for. 

Do you feel like you developed a certain amount of trust with me, as a reporter and representative of Wisconsin Watch? Why or why not? 

That’s a good question. (Wisconsin Watch) told me I’d be working with a reporter named Mario — and you are Latino. So right away I was like, ‘Cool. You’ve got a person of color. That’s going to help this situation.’ I’m just being straight up about that. 

But then you as an individual, I felt comfortable with you right away, and we were able to establish a sense of trust immediately.

Do you think you learned anything new from this project about your own tribe or its government? 

That we’re even more closed off than I ever imagined. It was frustrating and disappointing to see all the people who didn’t get back to you, who didn’t follow through with meetings. I had to go behind closed doors and prod them to talk.  

Why do you think some tribes seem to be reluctant to speak with outside reporters? 

A lack of trust. People are afraid of having their words misconstrued or taken out of context. And they’re fearful that they won’t like how the story will turn out, what its tone will be, whether the story will be positive or negative. 

You earn trust by listening, observing and asking appropriate questions about cultural norms.

For example, in my culture, I’m not supposed to present myself as an expert. It shows a lack of humility. You’re supposed to profess you don’t actually know anything — you’re just learning. And so I think that’s another reason you don’t get a lot of people speaking up. There’s a big cultural difference between public relations in the modern sense and then also with the way that we’ve communicated traditionally.

But also, we basically haven’t had the skill set to work with the media. And this is why I do what I do — because there’s so many missed opportunities for our authentic voices to be heard and not just told by the man. And I want to make it better.  

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Mario Koran reports on education, immigration and issues affecting communities of color. He is currently a New York Times local investigations fellow. Most recently, Koran was a 2021 Knight Wallace reporting fellow at the University of Michigan. Previously, Koran served as a west coast correspondent for the Guardian US and spent five years covering education for Voice of San Diego, where he was named the 2016 reporter of the year by the San Diego Society of Professional Journalists. Since leaving an internship with Wisconsin Watch in 2013, Koran’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Appeal, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, among others. Koran holds a BA in Spanish literature and MA in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.