Tim Giago: The education of Jerry Reynolds

The receptionist for the Lakota Times came back to my office and said, “There’s a young white man out here to see you.”

Now she didn’t say it to sound racist. My newspaper was on the Pine Ridge Reservation and 99 percent of the people that stopped by to visit were Lakota. If the visitor had been African American, she would have said, “There is a young black man here to see you.”

“I think he’s looking for a job,” she added. “Have him fill out an application and bring it back to me,” I told her.

About 15 minutes later this gangly white guy knocked on my office door and handed me his application. I asked him to take a seat and glanced over his application. I saw that he had a degree in English Literature and his claim to fame was traveling around Nebraska and points west with a theater group. “Did you do musicals?” I asked. He nodded his head in the affirmative. This would be confirmed one evening a few years later when, after a cocktail or two, Mr. Jerry Reynolds burst into a song from the Music Man.

Jerry lived with his mother in the border town of Merriman, Nebraska. Border towns in the Indian vernacular are those that border the Indian reservations. He had attended high school in the infamous town of Gordon, Nebraska, made notorious by the incident involving a Lakota man named Raymond Yellow Thunder who was stripped of the bottom portion of his clothing and shoved onto the dance floor of a night club in Gordon. He was beaten so badly by two white cowboys that night that he died the next morning. Several movies attempted to make sense of this atrocity.

Along with his application Jerry had a couple of articles he had written and they were pretty sound. I needed another writer desperately as one of my key writers had just got married and moved away. After questioning Mr. Reynolds I determined that he really didn’t know a heck of a lot about Indians, particularly the Lakota. But, since I would be editing his writing and acting as his mentor, I thought that this was a handicap we could overcome.

The hardest part of working with Jerry, and I found this to be true of many first time writers, was trying keep his personal opinions out of his work. This is called “editorializing,” and as I said, it is a common malady with new writers. You tell them over and over, “That is a personal opinion you snuck into that paragraph because it is not attributed to anyone.” Attribution, attribution. Once they learn the meaning of that word and how to implement it, they usually are on their way to becoming good reporters.

After a lot of work, Jerry turned out to be an exceptional reporter. Most of my staff was Lakota and Jerry did a few things that kept them in stitches. One week he learned that garlic was good for his health as it supposedly protected a body from infections. He took it seriously and began to eat whole garlic bulbs. It may have been good for his health, but it proved to be pretty unhealthy for his fellow employees and to some of the people he interviewed for news articles. We eventually convinced him that the garlic pills were also good and not offensive.

He was driving his mother’s old Beemer when he first started with us, but after a few paychecks he bought a brand new Ford sedan. He was pretty proud of that car. One day a man pulled his pickup truck into the street next to Vesta’s Restaurant, which was next door to the newspaper office, ran into the restaurant and forgot to take his pickup out of gear. The pickup took off down the street, made a complete circle, came back down the street and smashed into the side of Jerry’s new Ford sedan. Well, Jerry was pretty upset, but he collected the insurance for the damage and never did fix the caved in side of his car. It was like a badge of his discontent.

Jerry helped me break some pretty good stories. He investigated the border town banks that were redlining Indian people (charging them higher interest) and he investigated a group in Oklahoma that was selling membership in a newly created version of the Cherokee. In fact he even sent away for a membership card to this fake Cherokee bunch and got a card in the mail.

Jerry Reynolds is now the Washington, DC correspondent for my former newspaper, Indian Country Today. I get a few complaints now and then about how he still gets into the habit of “editorializing,” but for the most part, he took his lumps at the old Lakota Times, learned his craft, and has turned out to be a good staff writer for ICT.

Teaching him to write about Indians and to understand what he was writing so that it would not be filled with the tired clichés’ used my most white writers when they write about Indians was a real chore, but he learned and that is the best one can say for any writer.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He can be reached at najournalist@msn.com.

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