Fort Peck Journal staff with Dan Rather. Bonnie Red Elk is seen third from left. Photo from Louis Montclair / Fort Peck Journal
A tribute to Bonnie Red Elk: A champion of freedom of the press
By Clara Caufield With weighty heart, I join with other Native journalists (so few in number) in mourning the loss of our esteemed colleague, Bonnie Clincher Red Elk, founder and publisher of the Fort Peck Journal, Fort Peck Reservation in Montana. She passed away recently, at 63, from stroke complications. I wrestle with this loss, as do many in Indian Country, including our mutual friend and supporter Tim Giago, Native Sun News. Together they blazed many trails and earned many honors, founders of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA). She always encouraged me to join, but as the publisher of a small reservation-based newspaper, always on the verge on going broke, I can’t afford the luxury of those dues. I deal with her passing in my own Tstistsas (Cheyenne) way. She always encouraged me to acknowledge and celebrate that heritage and insight in my writing. “It is powerful. Keep that as your core,” she reminded me when I was often a nuisance, seeking advice and counsel. She was ever patient, noting that we were the only two ‘ornery’ Indian women in the State of Montana determined enough (maybe stupid enough) to own and operate our own tribally-based newspapers, the rest being tribally subsidized. Those she called propaganda pieces. She was right, as always. So here we go. Bonnie, I hope to speak ‘straight and true’, as you did.
Bonnie Red Elk. Photo from Louis Montclair / Fort Peck Journal
The Northern Cheyenne, like our Assiniboine/Sioux kin (Bonnie’s Tribe) believe that we are all spirits, on a long journey to achieve our potential. Each of us existed before this physical life and as one part of our journey we come to earth in order to learn some lessons, striving to become the best that we can be. When we have done that (most often imperfectly), Maheo’o (the Creator) takes pity on us and calls us to the next phase of our journey. Apparently, we cannot even comprehend how far we can go and what might be before us then. That requires faith. Bonnie had that. Bonnie Red Elk, my wonderful mentor, idol, friend and inspiration has now been called by the Creator to “fly the milky way”, following the next step in her journey-going to what the Northern Cheyenne call “The Next Camp.” There she will be reunited with family, relatives, friends and all our ancestors. When it is right, the Creator will entrust her with another mission, relying upon her unique talents and abilities, which are legion. Perhaps we think she died too young. But, we must not question Maheo’o. He decided she had reached her best potential here in this sphere and said “Good enough. Come home to me. I have larger and better things in mind for you. Now you can rest for a little while.” Bonnie was a stalwart champion of free speech for her people on the Fort Peck Reservation, setting a standard for other journalists, never afraid to challenge the actions and activities of elected tribal officials through her free press. Because of that, they distinctly did not like her. She knew that but it did not deter or intimidate her. “We live under oppressive governments and it is up to us to speak out and also give our people that opportunity,” she reminded when I, novice scribbler, was uncertain and even scared. But, they respected and even feared her. Her particular story about conflict with tribal government is shared elsewhere; her bravery recognized and celebrated by fellow journalists, Native and non-native alike. While we believe she is in a better place, it is only human nature to grieve and miss her. When I often described my latest woes/conflict with the Tribal Council, she would laugh in her raspy way, obviously enjoying a long drag from a cigarette to say “That reminds me of the time….” effectively putting my own puny woes into perspective. Much more experienced and grittier in the trials of reservation journalism, she then encouraged me by saying “Get tougher. Don’t give up. You can do it….” Who else will now say that to me? Maybe Tim Giago who is still going strong at 81; maybe Ernestine Chasing Hawk, new editor of Native Sun News or maybe just my own fellow Cheyenne. I hope so, because it would be so easy to quit. Yet, the stories, determination and commitment as a voice for her people of Bonnie Red Elk outweigh mine and many others. That is why I hope the Fort Peck Journal can outlive her, quite possible because she was an excellent mentor to so many, including family members who may carry on her legacy. In the meantime, I will burn cedar. Maybe her spirit will come to me in dreams. I hope for that. (Clara Caufield can be reached at email@example.com) Copyright permission Native Sun News
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