Mont. - Gwen Lankford, a Gros Ventre member of Montana's
Fort Belknap Indian Community, is clearly on an impressive track
28, Lankford's already paved the way as the first American
Indian news reporter at NBC affiliate KECI-TV in Missoula. She's
also worked as a presidential appointee at the U.S. Department of
Interior, as a national advance worker for former Vice President
Al Gore, and as a minority-outreach official at the 2000 Democratic
that's only the beginning.
Lankford is completing a graduate degree at the University of Montana's
School of Journalism and doing a prestigious summer internship at
Home Box Office headquarters in New York. In time she hopes to start
her own production company, film documentaries, write books and
screenplays, and work every way she can to help Native peoples become
better understood in the American mainstream.
she gets back from her assignment with HBO, where she's working
in the documentary unit, Lankford says she'll start working
on a half-hour program on Indian education in Montana, which will
be credited toward her master's degree.
can say it's one of the biggest turning points in my life -
finding journalism," she said. "I feel like I'm blessed
to have found my niche."
largely credits her family with giving her the spunk and drive to
push ahead. Her mother, Rhonda Whiting, a member of the Confederated
Salish and Kootenai Tribes, an attorney, and a top director of the
highly successful S&K Technologies firm, has been involved in
state and national politics for decades.
1984 and 1988, Whiting was Montana campaign director for the Rev.
Jesse Jackson's twin presidential bids. Lankford cut her teeth
helping with both campaigns, co-organizing a Jackson visit to the
Flathead Indian Reservation and working to get out the Indian vote.
She also was active as a high school student in the 1992 Clinton-Gore
went on to help organize minority voters for two re-election campaigns
by former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., then in 1995 worked on
voter outreach for Chicago Alderwoman Helen Shiller while observing
Cook County politics for a semester through the Urban Studies Program.
In 1996, Lankford helped organize a Washington, D.C. fundraiser
for Montana congressional candidate and Crow tribal member Bill
Yellowtail, as well as official birthday bashes for former President
Clinton in New York City and other satellite sites. She later joined
Gore's campaign team to work on logistics, constituency outreach
and as a community liaison.
long hours and dedication to the Democratic Party paid off. In 1997,
Lankford was named special assistant to then-Interior Secretary
Bruce Babbitt. In that job she prepared issue reports for top officials,
scheduled many of Babbitt's appearances and did much of his
advance work. The same year she completed a political science degree
- and was a standout athlete - at Colorado College, a private liberal
arts school in Colorado Springs.
confident and stoked with enough energy for at least three people,
Lankford later did some modeling and acting in Los Angeles and worked
nearly a year in Los Angeles at the marketing arm of Columbia TriStar
International Television-SPE. That eventually led to an internship
and the television news job in her hometown of Missoula, where she's
also worked as an assistant producer, editor and fill-in anchor.
says she's been given a lot of flexibility at KECI-TV to cover
a host of Indian issues from around the region. Last year she and
colleague Jim Harmon produced and directed "Blood of the Earth,"
a 53-minute comprehensive documentary on Flathead Reservation water
rights and other tribal socioeconomic and cultural issues. The Montana
Broadcasters Association in late June named the film the top television
program of the year for 2002. Partial funding for the project came
from the nonprofit Greater Montana Foundation.
think the world of Gwen," says Keith Sommer, the station's
vice president and general manager. "I really respect her work,
her work ethic and her desire to succeed. She's awesome. She's
really awesome. Gwen can do anything she wants in life. I wish I
could clone her. I sure hope we can keep her on our team here at
I could offer was some of the things a lot of people didn't
understand," Lankford says of the water-rights project and
other stories she's completed on tribal natural resource issues,
Indian military veterans and on-reservation and off-reservation
development, among many other topics.
Indian, but I spent a lot of my time growing up in Missoula, which
has a mixed population," she added. "Indian people, more
than a lot of other people, have to have our feet in two worlds
now. Because of the struggles we face we must stay in touch with
our culture and also try to navigate in the mainstream."
her strong Native ties, Lankford says she often feels like an interloper
when delving into tribal issues.
so easy to get your head in the clouds," she explained. "But
I just try to remain humble. In my heart what's most important
is my community. I know the things that ground me and allow me to
go forward are Indian. It would be horrible to get to the point
that I wouldn't ask my elders anything. It's never just
me with any of this."
says she makes inroads by being diplomatic, instead of confrontational.
understand what makes things tick in mainstream culture," she
said. "When I'm thinking about the angles to a story,
I also try to remember that we're all human beings. I try to
look at what the threads are that hold us all together."
definitely one of our great successes, and she's still a student,"
observed Denny McAuliffe Jr., a former Washington Post reporter
who now serves as an associate professor of journalism and the Native
American journalist in residence at the Missoula program where Lankford
now, she's my greatest recruiter," McAuliffe says. "She's
the simple reason why we need more American Indians in journalism.
I hope she stays in journalism. I hope (NBC Nightly News anchor
Tom) Brokaw reads this and offers her a job."
just feel that since I've been home, I've really thrived,"
Lankford says. "Home for Indian people is something that's
so important. Being here gives me the strength and the support to
carry on with these big projects I've been working on. I get
lots of support from my family and friends. For a lot of Indian
people, they don't think broadcast television is an option
for them. But I think it's important to keep working with children
to keep perpetuating dreams in them so they can be the next generation
of leaders, whatever they chose to do."