The Bakken oil boom brought more than just economy to northeastern Montana, it also increased the amount of human trafficking on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Bronte Wittpenn, a current senior, realized this when she took Native News last spring and wanted to try to tell that story. However, her research revealed that the trafficking was related to the larger issue of domestic and sexual violence, which had been prominent on Fort Peck for generations.
Wittpenn’s resulting multimedia story, “A Brutal Tradition,” recently won 9th in the Hearst Awards’ Multimedia II and News category. Her video and photos accompanied a written piece produced by her reporting partner Jesse Flickinger, who traveled with her to Fort Peck. During interviews, they had to ask their characters challenging questions, asking to them to talk about personal experiences with sexual assault.
“It was something we’d never done before on a journalistic level — it was very intense,” Wittpenn said. “But it was also like, wow, this woman is so strong. She’s letting us in because she wants to use this traumatic event as a tool to help heal people and to advocate for victims.”
Wittpenn discovered the story’s main character, Toni Plummer-Alvernaz, when she was working for the Montana Native Women’s Coalition and trying to generate more awareness of the issues and resources for the victims. Plummer-Alvernaz’s mother, also a victim of domestic abuse, supported her emotionally but didn’t enter the activism arena. The story of three generations came together with Plummer-Alvernaz’s daughter, who has been following in her footsteps, determined to break the tradition of abuse.
Flickinger’s written piece was a finalist in the Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence Awards for the in-depth reporting category. And while Wittpenn’s excited to receive recognition for her multimedia piece in the Hearst Awards, she appreciated the enthusiasm of Plummer-Alvernaz and her daughter once they saw the finished project.
“Toni even said that the multimedia piece allowed for some donations to come through the coalition,” Wittpenn said. “So I’m under the impression that the piece did some good, and as a student, as a journalist, that makes me feel good.”
“Bronte has a good talent for visual narratives,” Lurgio said. “She built a strong story from something that wasn’t inherently a visual story and made it compelling.”
Wittpenn’s most recent multimedia project, “Living Under A Lawsuit,” has been entered into next years Hearst Awards competition. She produced the story as part of the Pollner Seminar, taught by experienced editor and photojournalist Sally Stapleton.
“I think that the critiques you get from the professors here are really valuable,” Wittpenn said. “Really intimate critiques, sitting down eye-to-eye, is something that I realize gets harder and harder to get once you graduate.”
After graduation in May, Wittpenn hopes to get her EMT license and volunteer locally before taking her camera on a South American adventure in the fall. Her previous travels include Morocco, France and a year abroad in Barcelona, Spain. Wittpenn said those experiences have helped her become a better journalist by making her feel comfortable adapting to situations where things don’t go as planned.
“In your heart, know that it’s okay for things to change,” Bronte said with a laugh. “You gotta go with the flow!”
By Jana Wiegand