OPINION: The unparalleled legacy of Nellie Moore

Editor's note: The following commentary is based on remarks made by the author at the memorial for the late pioneer Inupiaq journalist Nellie Moore earlier this year. Moore was recently recognized by the Alaska Press Club, which presented her with the First Amendment Award for her decades of service to journalism and her help in promoting Alaska Native voices in the news.

If Nellie Moore were still my editor this would certainly have been shorter, but in her absence you'll have to bear with me.

As I looked at the mountains this morning, I thought about how Nellie and her husband Greg left a large box of groceries on my doorstep after I had only been in Alaska a few months and they were worried I wouldn't do enough have to eat. As I watched birds at the feeder, I remembered walking with Nellie through the parking lot of what was then the Sears Mall. Ravens called as we left the building and Nellie called back. They followed us all over the parking lot – Nellie and the ravens arguing, other people staring at us. It was delightful and impressive.

I know that if the situation had been reversed, Nellie would have been right here to honor and support my family as she did in 2006 when my mother was dying. It was another time in my life when, like today, I felt hollowed out by grief. I traveled back and forth to the Midwest, feeling guilty about living so far away while my beloved mother fought a losing battle with cancer in Wisconsin. Nellie asked for Mom and Dad's address – I thought she was sending a card.

But instead of a simple message to boost my mother's spirits, Nellie made and sent a stunning quilt. Beautiful soft reds and purples. There is a bright red button heart in the middle. It was incredibly soft and warm; My mother had this blanket wrapped around her until she left. Nellie had also written a beautiful letter with pictures of her family, telling her mother how much joy they brought her and how proud she was of them all. She wrote about the important work we had done together and how much our friendship meant to her. I wrapped the blanket around myself when I heard Nellie had left. It helps me feel close to both of them.

I first began working with Nellie long distance in the mid-1990s. I was a reporter and news director at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in northern Wisconsin, and Nellie was then news director for KNBA and the voice at the helm of National Native News.

One day she called to talk about the newscast and asked about tribal issues in the Midwest. She encouraged me to tell her stories as I traveled to tribal meetings throughout Indian Country in the Lower 48.

I felt a little uncomfortable telling her I was white and wondered if that would change the discussion. She assured me that this was not the case and that she was confident that I would do good and ethical work. We both lamented the lack of indigenous journalists in the country, and a large part of my mission at WOJB was to train a tribal member for my job. Nellie and I have discussed how we can support these efforts. Ultimately, that led me to Alaska and our attempts to open a broadcast training center for Alaska Natives to help diversify newsrooms.

These early telephone conversations were the beginning of what was initially a professional relationship between editor and reporter. I learned so much from having her as an editor for the early stories I wrote as a non-native.

All of my previous editors were gruff old white guys—some of them good at their jobs, some of them not so good. Some small newspapers in the Midwest weren't interested in stories about tribal issues or edited them in a way that I couldn't accept because it too often reeked of stereotypes and racism. I took over the story more times than would have allowed them to repeat something I knew was wrong. This made freelancing difficult and I needed extra work to supplement the modest wage the station could offer.

Nellie was the consummate professional and never tried to shape a story in a way that favored the tribal perspective, as some other white editors had tried in the opposite direction. She knew that trustworthy journalism is not about advocacy, but about contextualizing the truth so that people can understand the issue, even when it's not always convenient or you don't want the facts that way.

Telling the truth in our work has always been her aim.

As we discussed the lack of young Indigenous people pursuing journalism, Nellie helped me understand some of the cultural, social and economic barriers and biases, and it further strengthened my belief in justice for all people to use.

I'm not a local journalist, but I am the daughter of a father who was severely disabled, and I have witnessed firsthand the cruelty of people who feel like they can't control someone simply because of their appearance, the color of their skin, or other things Treat people disrespectfully and make them “different” from ethnic backgrounds. Nellie was my like-minded sister.

I remember listening to Nellie speak to students about Native issues both in Alaska and across the country and world.

She has repeatedly taught us that it is not our job to make things look better than they are, even when the opposite has been true too often, such as the poor work of the small town editors I mentioned earlier. She believed in the power of honest reporting, and that belief led us to leave Koahnic and found Native Voice Communications just months after I arrived in Alaska.

It was a great time, we all worked in the offices of Sharon McConnell and Jeff Silverman's company, Blueberry Productions, and the basement offices of Chancey Croft's law firm building in downtown Anchorage.

We covered the annual AFN convention extensively and created a daily newscast called “Independent Native News,” which eventually aired on more than 100 stations across the country and was broadcast online at a time when no one had broadcast-quality news the Internet broadcast.

One of the most important things I learned from Nellie and that I implement in the newsroom where I work today is that we should always take the responsibility for our work seriously, but we should never take ourselves too seriously. She taught me that humor and finding time to laugh together is a crucial way to unwind from sometimes traumatic work. When things got serious, Nellie found a way to lighten the mood in the office, and we shared a lot of laughs over sourdough pancakes at her and Greg's house in South Anchorage.

Nellie embodied the best qualities of a journalist – but more importantly, she was first and foremost a kind and caring person.

She was the first person who helped me feel welcome in Alaska, and when I had only been here a month and we were taking a Christmas break from work in 1999, I remember being there on the last day before we arrived in the newsroom left I felt incredibly lonely and wondered what the hell I had done moving across the country alone to take a job here.

When I arrived at my desk that morning there were jars of smoked salmon and homemade blueberry jam. Nellie had brought me gifts and then welcomed me into her family and invited me to spend time with her, Greg, David and Liz. I had family here at the time, and what I thought would be a year or two in Alaska is now 24 years old.

Nellie had her priorities right and although she worked hard, her family was always at the center of her life. I will miss our long conversations, her delicious wit, her laughter and her hugs. I will wrap myself in the beautiful blanket she made for my mother and remember how lucky I was to have her in my life.

Lori Townsend is news director and senior anchor for Alaska Public Media. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for almost 30 years.

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