A thirst to understand his Ojibwe heritage and a passion for reporting local news have landed a Pine City native the assignment of his dreams.
Chris Aadland, a 2009 Pine City High School graduate, was recently selected to serve as a Report for America (RFA) corps member. A national service program, RFA places talented emerging journalists into local news organizations to report on under-covered issues and communities.
Aadland, son of Ralph Aadland and Denise Fedder, will spend the next year, possibly two, covering Native American issues for the Star-Tribune in Casper, Wyoming. He was one of 50 journalists chosen from among nearly 1,000 applicants in a highly competitive national competition.
“Surprised, shocked, really happy,” said Aadland of his reaction to being selected. “I got the email on April 25, just as I was going to bed. It didn’t quite feel real that they deemed me qualified enough.”
The achievement not only marks a milestone in his professional growth, but for Aadland it’s an opportunity to learn and connect with his own heritage. His dad is a member of the Chippewa Tribe, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, in Minnesota.
“Growing up, I knew I was Ojibwe,” Chris said, “but my dad was adopted as a child so it was never a large part of my background.”
His first venture into learning about Native American culture came when he was a journalism major at the University of Minnesota.
“There is a language requirement in college,” he said. “When I saw they offered Ojibwe, it was a no-brainer for me to take it.”
His interest piqued, Aadland took additional classes in Native American history and culture.
“I started to hang out at the American Indian Student Cultural Center on campus, got to know people who share my background, and wanted to learn more about it. I didn’t know it would end up leading to a deeper involvement.”
His college internship at the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison led to a full-time general assignment reporting job at the paper. For the past two years, he’s covered everything from breaking news and feature stories to local government.
“I knew I wanted to take the next step in my career,” he said, “and I’ve had a desire to cover Native American issues. The timing worked out perfectly…. Report for America posted these openings, and the beats they were hiring for… it was a perfect fit.”
Aadland described the application process as rigorous and the competition as somewhat intimidating.
“I felt I was a long shot,” he said. “The others who were in the running are pretty heavy hitters….”
After completing the application forms and providing references, Chris was chosen for an interview with one of the Report for America judges. He was selected as a finalist and paired with four different newspapers, all in western states.
“I interviewed with all four newsrooms once or twice. The Casper paper was one I talked to twice, and they ended up making me an offer.”
Aadland’s first day at the paper is June 3. He’ll spend a short time learning their systems and procedures before being flown by RFA to Houston, Texas for a one-week ‘boot camp.’ His home will be Riverton, Wyoming, a city of 11,000 near the Wind River Reservation, where the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho tribes reside.
“Luckily, at least at first, the paper has story ideas they haven’t had the resources or the time to cover,” he said. “I’ll start by meeting with elders, community leaders, tribal government officials, and let them know we’re not just parachuting in and leaving. I will be there for a year, maybe two, dedicated to telling their stories, bringing light to issues that affect their lives. Hopefully, I can earn their trust, and it will lead to better, more thoughtful and nuanced coverage than the reservation has had in the past.”
Some of the topics he expects to cover are access to health care and issues around poverty and substance abuse.
“There are tensions in the area regarding water access. There are concerns with drilling and how much control the tribes have on their lands. They are trying to re-establish a natural bison herd out there, and some of the nearby ranchers have concerns about that.
“A topic that’s near and dear to my heart is what the tribes are doing about language revitalization and preserving their culture, making sure it gets passed on to the next generation.”
As a journalist, Aadland is honored and excited to be part of RFP’s mission: To strengthen our communities and our democracy through local journalism that is truthful, fearless, fair and smart.
“Local news is so important to the lives of people in any community, whether it’s Pine City, Madison, Riverton…,” Chris said. “After my one or two years are up, I hope people who live there aren’t quite as skeptical when a reporter comes to the reservation. I hope I can gain their trust so they believe we do care…. Growing up with a foot in the native and non-native worlds, I often heard the questions…. Why does the tribe want to do that? Why do they care about that? I hope, with the help of my reporting, the people of Wyoming won’t have to ask.”
“This is a big deal for us,” said Joshua Wolfson, editor of the Casper Star-Tribune. “Until now, we’ve never had a reporter devoted full-time to writing about Native American communities in our state.”
“Chris checked a lot of boxes for us,” he said. “We saw a talented young journalist with room to grow and develop…. He’s thought a lot about how Native American communities should be covered, and we think he can bring important nuance to the stories he’ll be writing.”