Of all things, a question on a final exam in December was an inspiration to East Central University junior Melissa Ellis.
Taking Dr. Tom Cowger’s Native American Studies class final, an essay question was posed along the lines of what culture and policy changes would an American Indian have witnessed in their world over the last 100 years and to project the future for tribes going forward.
Ellis, a resident of Ada and a Byng High School graduate, is pursuing a degree in accounting and was inspired by the question. As a result, Ellis is now one of only 10 college students from across the country that have been selected for the Native American Journalism Association Fellowship.
The Native American Journalist Association (NAJA) serves and empowers Native journalists through programs and actions designed to enrich journalism and promote Native cultures. The NAJA program is a year-long endeavor and will include a conference, July 16-22, in Miami, Florida.
“We had to write an essay in Dr. Cowger’s class as if we grew up from 1906 to now,” Ellis said. “It’s interesting that a final (test) made me more interested. I am Chickasaw and the tribe has given so much to me. I want to be a voice for the Chickasaw Nation and share my experiences with those across the country.”
Ellis looks forward to the trip to Miami as a learning experience and for those from other tribes and nations to come together in unity.
“I would like the tribes to come together. We are so much alike now,” said Ellis. “I feel like we’ve got a really good opportunity to learn and I can bring things back to Ada to share with others. A lot of people forget that we all have different (tribal) constitutions and there are so many that dishonor our constitutions.”
As she attends the conference, Ellis will be mentored by Reggie George, who served as an advocate at the recent Standing Rock Reservation controversy in North Dakota.
The NAJA recognizes Native Americans as distinct peoples based on tradition and culture. In this spirit, the NAJA educates and unifies its membership through programs that promote diversity and defends challenges to free press, speech, and expression.
As part of her preparation for the conference in Miami, Florida, Ellis will prepare a five-page journal, a news article and a video.
“It’s not my specialty, but I’m excited and interested in doing it,” Ellis said. “It should be a great learning experience.”
In addition to her current studies at ECU, Ellis is serving as a rotating accounting intern with the Chickasaw Nation.
She says she is relishing the challenge of integrating her accounting and journalism skills together through this project.
“Melissa is an exceptionally thoughtful and talented young lady who is passionate about her Chickasaw and Native American heritage,” said Cowger. “Not only is this a prestigious national award, it is even more impressive in lieu of the fact she is an accounting major and competed for it against journalism students from across the country.”
Cowger says when Ellis applied for the award, she hinted that she wanted to do more than just work with numbers all day. She wanted to impact people’s lives through Native American storytelling and use journalism to help the world and bridge cultural gaps. With the environment quickly fading and the preservation of Native American lands at stake more each year, Ellis wanted to have a voice, according to Cowger.
“I could not be more proud of Melissa. She will make a terrific ambassador at the workshops for the Chickasaw Nation, ECU and the state of Oklahoma,” Cowger said.