On the first day of March 2004, two Indian boys were found dead in a snowy field outside Ronan, Montana, in the geographical heart of the Flathead Indian Reservation. The boys, Frankie Nicolai and Justin Benoist, were 11 years old. They’d been missing for three days, ever since they skipped out of their sixth-grade class after lunch on Friday afternoon. They’d drunk themselves to death.
The deaths were stunning, even on a reservation where death by alcohol is hardly a surprise. It was the boys’ age, of course, that slapped us in the face. At the Missoulian, which covers all of western Montana, we responded pretty predictably. Our reporter on the reservation, John Stromnes, wrote several straightforward news accounts of what had happened, and we waited for additional investigation.
There was obviously more to be done, but we weren’t sure what. I was assigned to figure out what should come next. At first, we thought we’d do a weekend piece, maybe an article to be published two weeks out. Photographer Tom Bauer and I headed up to the boys’ funerals three days after the deaths to start scoping things out.
Although our presence was tolerated, it was pretty clear we weren’t all that welcomed. We lucked into meeting Frankie’s dad, Frank, paid our respects and came home. That afternoon, I told my boss, Cal FitzSimmons, that we probably weren’t going to have a weekend story. The only story I could really see getting quickly was maybe an in-depth look at how the investigation into the boys’ disappearance was proceeding, with perhaps some poignant details from the funerals.
It would have been a decent story, but pretty hollow, given the enormity of the tragedy.
Instead, we opted to back off. If we were going to tell this story, we needed to tell it in all of its complexity. This would mean a heck of a lot of reporting time and also immersing ourselves in a system of government and a way of life that, shamefully, we knew little about.
Nearly four months later, in late July, “Lost Boys of the Flathead,” written as a series of stories, appeared in each day’s Missoulian, stretching from one Sunday to another. “Lost Boys” was the result of a luxury we rarely get at small- and mid-size newspapers—time. While extremely frustrating, the fact that it took us two weeks of lobbying the tribal council for access to various officials, documents and studies also taught us something.
To report this story well, we needed to slow down. I don’t mean that we needed to work slowly; we just needed to understand that some of what we needed to tell this story was going to come when it came.
Seeking to Understand
That was never more true than with the families. Frankie Nicolai’s family was fractured, divorced and somewhat impoverished, but they are also solid, dependable people. I could make arrangements to spend time with Frank and know he’d be there. Justin Benoist’s family was a human train wreck. As we quickly learned, Justin wasn’t even the first son of Norma Lefthand Fox to die from alcohol. His 14-year-old brother, Tyler, had died just three months earlier, passed out drunk in a trailer that caught fire. The boy’s father had died years before, a drunken suicide.
Dealing with Norma was difficult at best. Learning about her life was like trekking into an undiscovered place, foreign and nearly unknowable. The first day Tom and I spent with Norma was a revelation, as she recounted a history marred from birth by alcohol, death and abandonment. She told her story in the flat, monotonous tone of a prisoner with no more appeals; in many ways, she had always been a prisoner of a past shaped by alcohol, violence and tragic misjudgments.
What happened over the next few months is that I just spent time with Norma whenever I could. Often I’d arrange interviews with tribal officials, police officers, alcohol counselors, and others, and then just drop in on Norma. We had numerous scheduled interviews, but often I’d just stop by unannounced, hang out for a while, and then leave. I hardly ever took notes, though I’d jot down a few things after I left. Mostly I just watched Norma live.
Outside the interviews with family, we had to learn about the history of reservations, of alcohol and Indians, and of boarding schools and government intervention in the lives of Indians. I spent time with cultural leaders and elders. I went to meetings that didn’t really have anything to do with the boys, just to watch tribal government in action. I spent many hours with health and human service officials, trying to comprehend the difficulty of the struggle they faced in trying to undo the tragic past. I read thousands of pages of reports on Indian drinking and substance abuse, and I sought guidance from some of the nation’s most prominent sociologists.
Tom and I went to rallies and to forums designed to address the problems of juvenile drinking. Sometimes after a rally, I’d stop at a bar where Indians drink and just watch. I needed to understand what the stereotyped image might look like, so that I could avoid it. Tom was making his own trips, finding what we needed photographically; we traveled together quite a bit, but often he needed one thing and I needed another, so we’d work apart.
Telling the Stories
For whatever reason, our bosses felt like we were using our time wisely.
At about the time I had everything I needed to write—after about eight weeks of reporting—another boy died. Joey DuMontier was 15, and he drank himself to death at his girlfriend’s house on May 1st. And so we started over again. Another family, another round with police and tribal officials. More rallies. More agonizing on the reservation.
Worst of all, another funeral.
By the first of June, I was ready to write again. Tom was still gathering pictures, but I knew he’d have what we needed because he always does. For a solid week, I sat in this weird little closet in the newsroom and read my notes and interviews. (Our administrative assistants had graciously transcribed miles of interview tapes.)
I’ve written lots of project stories, but I’d never had this much stuff. I often found myself thinking about a private coaching session I had with Poynter Institute’s Don Fry many years ago, where he stressed organization. Don likes note cards that summarize the grand themes of a project, but he also likes highlighters. I took that route, using five or so highlighters to sort things into big topics. I also typed a list of every quote that seemed useful.
Along the way, I saw the holes that needed to be filled and did the necessary follow-up. Finally, I wrote. I tried to write about 30 inches a day, but several days I wrote almost nothing. On other days, the story just rolled out. I wrote as if the whole thing would be published at once. I needed to pace the story so that my words could bring the reader with me as we traveled what would eventually be a very long way.
Often I found myself calling a few of my best sources to ask them if what I was saying sounded right from the Indian perspective. And I had as many as 10 people in the newsroom read the stories, in addition to the regular editing process. I also sent the stories out to a half-dozen people on the reservation, including some sources. Finally, I gave the stories to both Norma and Frank and invited them to be our harshest critics. I needed to know if my words sounded like their lives.
Some might find this objectionable, but it seemed like a no-brainer to me. These people had invited me into their lives at the worst possible moment; I needed to know whether I was telling their stories as they knew them. On the other hand, I told them I wouldn’t change things simply because they didn’t like what I wrote. But if I was wrong, or if I explained a thing in a way that wrongly portrayed Indian life, I needed to know.
In the end, we changed very little, often just a word here or there. In every case, someone else’s reading of the work was helpful.
Hearing the Response
The response these stories received was overwhelming. I received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls. Because of the Internet—the stories ran on several Native news sites—reactions to them arrived from all over the country. People sent money to give to the families. They offered to come to Montana and help counsel families. They offered to come and just be here. The most heartening personal responses came from Indian people who thanked me for simply listening to their stories.
I was humbled by the whole experience.
Most importantly, the tribes restructured the way they deal with children. They turned their child-welfare system upside down, placing children at the top of a priority list previously focused more on parents and overall family structure. Every tribal department was heavily scrutinized, and both personnel and structural changes occurred. A system of checks and balances was erected inside tribal government, so that when one agency comes into contact with a child, other agencies that might eventually deal with the child or family are notified.
County government also took a very aggressive stance toward the adults who’d played a role in the boys’ deaths by providing alcohol. Not long ago, a man was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in the death of Joey DuMontier.
Michael Moore is a reporter at the Missoulian. This article is adapted from a piece Moore wrote for Lee Enterprises’ Writing Matters. “Lost Boys of the Flathead” won the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism in June 2005. The series also won his company’s highest award for news and several first-place prizes in regional journalism contests.