Laura Waterman Wittstock walks on at 83

Laura Waterman Wittstock, a leader in the local Indian community, a pathfinder and pathbreaker for Native American journalism, a co-founder of MIGIZI Communications, and former president of the Minneapolis Library Board, walked on at 83, according to an announcement from MIGIZI.

Laura Waterman Wittstock. Photo: KFAI

Waterman Wittstock was a mother, grandmother and wife, and a citizen of the Haudensaunee Seneca Nation, Heron Clan. She led MIGIZI for nearly three decades.

MIGIZI started in 1974 as a Native American news collective. It evolved over time. It now focuses on Native youth development. It “acts as a circle of support that nurtures the development of Native American youth in order to unleash their creativity and dreams – to benefit themselves, their families and community,” its website says. The organization “puts youth first, supporting youth-driven activities that fully engage youth in a self-directed path to holistic wellness and to success in education and employment.”

MIGIZI means “eagle” in Ojibwe.

(Last year, MIGIZI’s new building was destroyed during this summer’s uprising over George Floyd’s death. Leaders plan to rebuild.)

MIGIZI’s email included a link to a 1978 presentation Waterman Wittstock gave to the “establishment media” and faculty at the University of Minnesota Journalism School. It provides a window into her formative years and how much difficult, frustrating, and groundbreaking work she did.

Native American journalists had ridiculously few opportunities to work for the establishment press, Waterman Wittstock said. She recalled that WTCN TV Channel 11 ran an Indian news program during the unenviable time slot of 8:30 a.m., Saturday morning. WTCN controlled the content. It had low production value; it was taped in one 30-minute take without editing.

“In 1969, people who were publishing tribal news — anything from a newsletter to a tab-sized newspaper — got together and formed the American Indian Press Association,” said Waterman Wittstock, who was one of its directors.

MIGIZI spun off of that work. “There was practically nowhere for us to go except for each other, for reinforcement, for training, for access to opportunities to practice the craft we had chosen,” she said. MIGIZI became a “training ground” and “sounding board” for Native American journalists.

In the 1970s, the U.S. Department of Labor had one-time money for telecommunications training for Indians. MIGIZI applied with the Lac Courte Oreilles Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin and got a grant. Their plan was to hire six to eight interns from the reservation community, bring them to the Twin Cities, and begin developing a training internship program. The hope was the youth would return to the reservation and use their communications skills.

From Waterman Wittstocks’s 1978 talk, it’s not clear how that program fared; they had just received the funding. The fact that MIGIZI is still a vital organization today speaks to Waterman Wittstock’s determination to promote Native youth development and journalism.

According to that speech, Waterman Wittstock also worked for three years in Washington D.C. as the editor of the Legislative Review. The publication covered national legislation affecting tribes. Even though Indians were a small part of the population, they were “practically legislated to death” because of all the land they controlled, she said.

“Being the Watchdog of Congress, and being a Chihuaua relative to the lobbyist St. Bernards, we had a seven-day-a-week job,” she said.

At the time, Legislative Review journalists weren’t able to get White House credentials and some of the other perks they needed, she said. It taught us “anything we are going to do as a group, we have to do on our own.”

Waterman Wittstock was president of MIGIZI Communications from 1986 to 2004, according to a story in The Alley, written by Elaine Salinas, then MIGIZI’s president. MIGIZI’s first initiative was First Person Radio.

At the time of First Person Radio’s founding, the one hundred plus Indian newspapers that were being published around the country were suffering slow deaths, victims of the rising costs of paper and printing and the plummeting revenues from advertising. First Person Radio was seen by its aspiring group of founders as a viable, alternative way to get reliable news about Indian country out to Indian people and non-Indian people alike via the airwaves, a profound leap in thinking at the time. First Person Radio, in fact, became the first nationally-distributed Indian radio news program in the country with the help and assistance of other key contributors including Gary Fife, Michael Dalby, Andy Marlowe, Bill Parker, and others. …

First Person Radio trained a generation of fearless young Indian journalists whose early and selfless contributions to Indian radio ignited a flame for breaking the mold and contributing back to community. Included among this group was Hattie Kauffman Wing, who became a national news correspondent; David Larsen, an educator and former Tribal Chairman for the Lower Sioux community; Reid Raymond, the first Indian attorney employed by the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office; and Jackie Dionne, the youngest intern with First Person Radio now serving as the American Indian Health Director for the Minnesota Department of Health.

The Alley

FIRST PERSON RADIO folded in 1992 because of rising production costs, Salinas wrote. After retiring from MIGIZI, Waterman Wittstock revived the program in 2010 on KFAI Radio. It was a one-hour Indian community affairs program. It ran until 2018.

Waterman Wittstock helped chronicle the history of the American Indian Movement (AIM). She collaborated with photographer Dick Bancroft on “We are still here,” a book documenting AIM’s early years. She wrote two other books, including Ininatig’s Gift of Sugar: Traditional Native Sugarmakings.

Waterman Wittstock served as Minneapolis Library Board president and worked on developing the new downtown Central Library, the Star Tribune reported in 2008. She received several awards, “including the American Indian Honored Educator of 2005 and the Human Rights Award from the Minnesota Lawyers International Human Rights Committee.”

She also served on the Endowment Committee for the Tiwahe Foundation, according to her LinkedIn page. The Tiwahe Foundation invests “in American Indian leadership to support individuals, family and community,” its website says. (“Tiwahe” means family in Dakota and Lakota.)

Waterman Wittstock also was president and CEO of her own consulting company, Wittstock and Associates.

According to an email from MIGIZI’s current president Kelly Drummer:

Laura’s passion was in journalism, writing and making the world a better place for all of us. Her legacy can be found across Indian Country. Her love for the community lives on in the many organizations and people she touched along the way.

In honor of Laura’s legacy, the family will be creating a fund in her name in support of journalism, writers and education. We will be posting details over the coming week.

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