“People Are Just Infinitely Interesting:” A Conversation with UW First Native American Woman Journalism Grad

    Mary Annette Pember. Photo supplied.

    This piece was produced for Badger Vibes, our collaboration with the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association.

    Mary Annette Pember has had a distinguished career as an award-winning journalist, most recently honored with the prestigious 2018 Native American Journalists Association Medill Milestone Achievement Award. Pember is also the former president and executive director of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA), which “advocates for accurate representations of Indigenous people in media and press freedom throughout Indian Country.”

    For all of her career accomplishments, Pember, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe, can still remember way back in 1985 when she was the first Native woman to graduate from the UW–Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication (or, as faculty and alumni call it, the J-School). Things were a little bit different back then.

    “They used a lot more pens and papers than computers at that time,” Pember recalls. “But it was still the same basic emphasis on newsgathering and commitment to accuracy. It was still the same tenets of good journalism.”

    “When I attended the UW J-School, the professors were all white men,” she adds. “That has changed, too.”

    As an independent photojournalist and writer based in Cincinnati, Ohio, Pember has become well-known for her fantastic photos, and her work has appeared in Indian Country Today, the Washington Post, the National Museum of the American Indian, and more.

    Back in the day, before the rise of digital photography and instant photos, photojournalism was a bit different.

    “There was that lag period. There was that whole process of developing [film] back then. There were some added steps. There was a hands-on craftsmanship element that is not there as much anymore,” she says. “We’re still doing a lot of the same things and it’s expressed in the same language — dodging and burning, etc. It’s the same, but it isn’t.”

    While Pember would later become famous for her photojournalism, she didn’t do the photojournalism track at UW.

    “I did the editorial sequence, and then I sort of did photography on my own in the art department,” she recalls. “I really needed the editorial chops more at the time. To be honest, I always really wanted to write, but I lacked the confidence, and I went into photography. It was always the writing I knew I wanted to do.”

    And that desire to write goes way back. Even before she could actually write, she knew she wanted to.

    “I remember my brothers, who were quite a bit older than me, would go off to school, and I would look out the screen door and want to be with them because I knew they were reading, and they would spell things when they didn’t want me to know what they were talking about,” Pember says. “And I really hated that. I really wanted to know what was going on with all that.”

    Those brothers did help her catch up, though; they gave her a crayon and taught her how to write her name.

    “I soon was making my own symbols for what was happening,” Pember says. “Writing and storytelling was always very deep in me.”

    As an independent journalist focusing on Native American issues, Pember has tackled challenging and important topics such as the high rates of sexual assault among Native women, sex trafficking, health, the impact of historical trauma on Native communities, and environmental challenges on Native lands. In 2017, her series “Living the Life” — about the sex trafficking of Native women — won first place for beat reporting at NAJA’s Native Media Awards.

    She has also written about and taken photos of much lighter subjects. Pember says she loves the storytelling aspect of journalism, but also the adventure of always tackling something new.

    “People are just infinitely interesting to me, too, and I love things that are new,” she says. “I think it was Diane Arbus who had a great quote: ‘It’s a thing that I’ve never seen before that I recognize.’ So, I really love something I haven’t seen before. I love to really embrace that childlike view, if you will, of the world when I see something new.”

    Most recently, that “something new” for Pember was covering the Iowa presidential campaigns and caucuses, which took place in early February.

    “Which I’ve never done!” she exclaims. “Oh, my God. That’s so cool. Now I have to learn more about it. It’s new and exciting and different.”

    Pember has advice for young people who want to pursue a career in journalism.

    “Things are a lot different now than from way back when I first started. But some things are still common. The boss, he or she wants the work done with a minimum [amount] of guidance on their part,” she says. “If you can be reliable and accurate and have a good attitude about it … you are gonna be employed. Having some talent is nice, too!”

    “Those things will all get you in the door. And then you can have fun,” she continues. “From there you get to see new things and meet new people. It’s just so interesting.”

    Madison and the UW, in particular, have changed quite a bit since Pember was a student back in the mid-eighties. Has she been back to Madison lately?

    “I come up to Madison fairly often because I go up to visit family. I can still go to [Memorial] Union like I used to. My girlfriends and I used to sit in this place there and watch men go out of the Rathskeller. That exact same place is still there. It’s fun to go back there and reminisce. It still has the same ambiance.”

    “They are building a lot on campus and in the city,” she adds, “but it still has that same old feel.”

    UW–Madison will always be a magic time for her, she says.

    “I was the first person in my family to go to [college]. I was just really hungry to go outside of myself and enter this world of winnowing and sifting and going outside of my community,” Pember remembers. “I remember just being so excited at the UW. It was really so stimulating and exciting to me.”