Lessons in DC: Writing national stories, seeing ‘the treaty,’ and tapping into a national network

Navajo Times reporter Pauly Denetclaw enjoyed the oysters at the nation’s capital

Pauly Denetclaw, Dine, finds herself back at her desk in Window Rock, Arizona at the Navajo Times after she spent the month of March reporting from Washington. 

Denetclaw explored much of Washington from interviewing congressional members to riding scooters (on the sidewalks, not in the designated lanes). She probably didn’t see her love for oysters coming when she told Indian Country Today her first impression of the “swamp city” on day 1.

Here is what she thought of the district and what journalism skills she walked away with. 

Question: What are your thoughts of Washington, D.C. after your month-long fellowship?

Pauly: Okay. So I know my first interview I talked about how creepy the buildings were, but they grow on you. Okay. Now I'm like, I could totally live in like a brick house. Like that'd be super cool. I really liked these columns to now and so that's been an interesting change. I think it also helps like working in a building that is, has this like old school architecture that helped. Um, so yeah, that was nice. Oysters here are super good. They're the greatest thing. I love oysters.

Question: Advice to Native journalists considering this fellowship?

Pauly: One, do it. This is the greatest experience ever. You get so many opportunities. And Mark (Trahant) is such a great editor and he's really helped to improve my writing. Mark sits there with me and we edit my articles together and that has been super, super helpful because it helps me be a better writer.

We had some issues with Airbnb, which was a reality check. And I was like, right, everything's not perfect all the time. So I just really was like, I don't want to leave. I want to stay in DC. D.C. is so amazing. It's so multicultural. There's so many different people here that you can learn from and they have so much. There's just so much information in one place. And that's what I like about being here and don't be afraid of coming to a new place because especially here, I'm especially in this newsroom, there's so much support and, and it's also an opportunity to learn how to write nationally, which I think is important. Every journalist should know how to rate national stories. And that's a skill that I have learned on my journey here.

I got to go to IHS headquarters and Rockville, Maryland and I got to meet their of PR staff. I also got to work with congressional members, press secretaries and that's been super helpful and I feel like those connections will definitely help me as I transitioned back to my full time job at the Navajo Times.

Indian Country Today is an amazing newsroom. Hands down. It's so much fun here. And I enjoyed my time here. I learned a lot. 

Question: Besides journalism, what did you do in D.C.?

Pauly: Okay, so in D.C. I did a ton of stuff. I went to like all the monuments. I did like a little loop de loop. I went ice skating, I went to the Newseum, which was the best experience of my whole life. I love the Newseum and I often enough, I feel like I related to it more than going to the National Museum of the American Indians, which is, which is super like wild for me because I went to NMAI. Um, and I mean, I ha I got, oh, got really emotional in the museum just because I saw the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which is on display at the museum. And that was like a, Oh my God. Like I can't believe this, these tiny sheets of paper, if you ever see a treaty, they're written on notebook paper, they're straight up written on notebook paper. And it's so frustrating to see these like important documents written on notebook paper, just like regular, like single so far.

Um, being able to go to the museum and be able to really, you know, be in a space where I think about why I do what I do was super awesome to be able to reflect on the things that I've done in my career and being able to see, you know, in it to be reminded really right. To be reminded of why we do what we do. And that for me was just so amazing. I walked out of there feeling so inspired and I'm like, you know, I, I don't do this for fame for like glory, you know, I do journalism because I feel like it's important. I feel like I have the ability to provide a platform for people who don't normally get a platform, which is why I focus on Indigenous communities and being able to go through these newspapers that are at the Newseum about events that happen in Indian Country.

But are written from a non-Native perspective was just super enlightening for me. You know, I saw like a newspaper of Custard’s Last Stand as opposed to, you know, an Indigenous perspective where it was like the Battle of Greasy Grass.

Question: What else did you learn while being in D.C.?

Pauly: Coming to D.C. is a much better experience than going to someplace like New York City rate. So I did an internship in New York City and I felt so isolated and so alone. And it was really hard to find a native community out there. And being also an a multicultural space, not everyone really knows about Native people or native issues. And so that, that also creates like conflict and trying to educate people and also forgiving them for saying really ignorant things about Native people and misconceptions about native people that they learned from like, you know, greater culture history and, and so that's like how it was in New York City versus coming here to D.C. Where I worked in a Native newsroom. I worked in the Embassy of Tribal Nations, so it's all Native people.

I was surrounded by Native people here in D.C. and it was honestly the best. So it was just so cool to be able to see all of these different places. And then also like, um, my friend my friend Joe, like on the weekends we would go and do stuff. Um, and you know, like having a community of people to like hang out with. And I was like Jourdan took me in. So I was like, what? I was like, my best friend Jourdan took me in and said, I've been hanging out with her. And like, being able to be in a newsroom with her was awesome. And also like a learning experience of like how to manage time and also like, not to talk too much because me and Jourdan could talk for hours. I don't know how it's possible that I've been with her for three full days now and we still have stuff to talk about.

It's just like never-ending. So it was a much easier transition for me and I think there's like a more established, I want to say that there's a bigger Native community, but there's a more established Native community here in D.C. because so many of us are working. And so many of us are part of the organizations that run Indian Country from here third that are based here in D.C.

And I met a Navajo family and I wrote an article on them and I got hugs from, um, their names are the sons names are Nataanii, Ashkii and Nabahii. And there were so cute, I just like could not believe it. They're like growing up in Maryland. When they came up to me they were like yá'át'ééh and they like shook my hand and they gave me hugs and I was like I never want to leave this house.

I was so happy to like be with a Navajo family out here and just talk about like what it's like to raise Navajo kids, uh, you know, over a thousand miles away from our, like where we come from. That was really, really cool. And just to be able to see an example of a parent who is grounding, you know, her children in Navajo culture and Navajo identity and what it means to be, you know, the Diné and still being able to do that away from home I thought was just so amazing and so beautiful. I mean she worked to get "Finding Nemo" in Navajo here. It was in Silver Springs, it showed there for a week. So it's like Navajo "Finding Nemo" out here in DC so her kids could like watch it, you know, on the big screen.

And so there's all of these like really cool stories that I got to be able to do. And I got to meet members of Congress. I did my first interview in person with Representative Xochitl Torres-Small. And I also did an interview today actually with Representative Deb Haaland. And that was amazing ‘cause I actually got to go to the Capitol building, um, and interview her there, which was cool. Um, so there's, it's just being able to see all of these things that you see on TV in real life. And I'm a political nerd and so I watched these fan. I watch all of these like hearings and stuff that happened. Um, and to be able to be in these rooms. Oh, other lesson. Um, these rooms on TV are not as big as they look like. They look huge on TV. Right.

So I went to this hearing room and I was like, I swear I've seen this exact same room like on C-SPAN. And I got in there and it was tiny. It was a tiny room. We were like squished in there. There's all these people. And I'm like sitting there with all these other people like oh my gosh. And it's not as glamorous as it looks on C-SPAN which was another lessons that he learned here. And it's, it's a funny one because I really thought, I was like, oh my gosh, these are going to be nice, like big and like rooms and it's going to be, you know, all glamorous and let's see. And now it's just like chairs in a room and there's a table in front of you and there's members of Congress and you know, the people who are, um, giving testimony.

Questions: What are the lessons for readers and tribal citizens?

Pauly: Okay, so working here I realized that not everything is like black and white, right? And I've learned that everything here isn't like shades of gray. And when it comes to the issues that are happening or when it comes to the people that we're calling out and when it comes to bringing light to issues that are happening within these big organizations, whether it's NCAI, whether it's Indian Health Services, whether it's members of Congress, that there are real people behind all of these institutions, right? So there are people who are like me, who reads your comments, who read your perspectives, and then have to do something, you know, with those comments. Because we are accountable like journalists for all accountable for what we report and what we say and what we do. I think that that also needs to be like expressed to all these other, all these other institutions that are Native serving here in our communities. And we're all trying our best and we're all doing our best.

I guess seeing the faces behind the people who I originally thought were really difficult to work with was an eye-opening experience because I met one of the media relations people from Indian Health Services, and I went back and forth with them on Twitter publicly and then I met him and he's a really nice person and I really, you know, he was so helpful at the meeting and he was like, here are all the things that you need for tomorrow's calling. If you need anything, let us know. Um, so I guess that's like one thing that I learned while here and that was just like my specific example, um, because I was like, wow, this is, I don't think he remembers me, but I remember him and I remember his name. That was like one of the things that I thought was really interesting. 

Question: Any last words?

Pauly: I did so much walking here. That's the best part of living in D.C. is how much you walk. You just walk everywhere. And that for me was amazing because back in the southwest, back in Gallup, New Mexico and Window Rock, Arizona, we don't walk anywhere. We drive everywhere. I don't care if you're going across the street to get a water bottle, you drive there, you don't walk there. It's literally across the street. We don't walk and I think that's been super awesome.

Before coming to D.C., I did track how often I went outside for more than 30 minutes to encourage myself to go outside for more than 30 minutes every day. And here I'm outside all the time. I walk three to four miles every day, just living life. And that's been awesome.

I think there's been so many, I feel like there's been so many health benefits and there's just so many health benefits to being outside and to like walking places. And I realized that throughout this fellowship as well, and it's encouraged me to drink more water. So none of my rings fit anymore because my salt levels are finally evening out thanks to my increase in water. So yeah, that's been a, that's been really cool. That's like the random health benefits to just having to walk everywhere and being thirsty all the time because you're walking everywhere.

Indian Country Today is accepting applications for the tribal media fellowship. The application process is easy: write a letter of inquiry to editor Mark Trahant. You can be an editor, reporter, or producer working for tribal media. 

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