Years before she became editor for the Tribal College Journal (TCJ), Marjane Ambler had already demonstrated her dedication and generosity to the Tribal College Movement.
Ambler arranged for some of the royalty payments from the sale of her first book, Breaking the Iron Bonds: Indian Control of Energy Development (University of Kansas, 1990) to be sent to the American Indian College Fund.
Like the journal’s founder, Paul Boyer, Ambler first experienced the tribal college movement when she attended an American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) conference. “I was hoping that some of the tribal college classrooms could use my book so I caught a ride to the AIHEC conference in 1991,” she says.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ambler recalls that even contacting AIHEC was a challenge. “You couldn’t find a phone number for AIHEC much less find out where the conference was,” says Ambler, now 61 and semi-retired from a rich career in journalism focusing on environmental and Native American issues.
A native of Colorado, Ambler gushes that being editor at the TCJ was “definitely the best job I ever had.”
It was an opportunity that she may have never known about. Ambler had been writing for several years as a freelance writer for the founding editor, Paul Boyer, when she first discovered that the journal was seeking a new editor through an advertisement in the national newspaper, Indian Country Today. When she applied for the position in 1995, Boyer and the AIHEC advisory board were unanimous in their decision to hire her as by far “the best candidate.”
The magazine moved east from Sacramento, CA, and closer to Indian Country to Mancos, CO. Ambler brought an impressive work ethic and track record to the TCJ. She was a published author; had been an editor at the environmental newspaper, the High Country News (now in Paonia, CO); and had received the prestigious Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship to study energy development on Indian Reservations in 1980.
Like her predecessor, Ambler ran the journal as a Spartan operation from her home for over two years after starting in the position of editor. “We used my computers… and we just bought a fax machine and a copy machine,” she says.
RELATIONSHIPS AS CRITICAL AS GREAT STORIES
While the journal continued to operate on a tight budget, its finances were improving. Thanks to a grant acquired by Boyer, the magazine could afford to hire a marketing manager in 1995.
Later the magazine rented office space in Mancos, where it is still published today, and grew into a three-person operation. Still, given that the magazine reflected the precarious state of tribal colleges, keeping the magazine afloat was always a struggle.
“There were several times during those years when there was a big question whether the magazine would continue to exist,” Ambler says. “It was clear that we couldn’t ever be self-sustaining.” The magazine’s advisory board authorized a five-year plan that revealed as much. While the board debated the organization’s budget priorities, the magazine’s value to the colleges was never in question. AIHEC boldly decided to continue to subsidize the operation of the magazine.
“The tribal colleges themselves were struggling to exist so it was a big deal to subsidize this magazine. There were a couple of really heart-wrenching meetings, which were traumatic, where our advisory board and the full AIHEC board were just hashing it out: do we need a magazine, can we afford to support it. It was just so moving when they decided that it was important to them and they were willing to make sacrifices to keep it alive,” she says.
The TCJ Advisory Board adopted a policy of only allowing 40% of the pages to be used for advertising, far less than the norm, which meant 60% of the pages could be used for editorial content. They knew that it would limit income in relation to printing costs, she says.
For Ambler, the journal was more than a publication. The support from the AIHEC Board of Directors represented a spirit and culture of generosity that went far beyond sayings and slogans. “It was just this generosity that I saw over and over again,” she says. And Ambler reciprocated.
National AIHEC conferences and board meetings became opportunities to share this spirit with her family and have fun. Ambler brought her husband, Terry Wehrman, and her parents along with her to meetings and camped along the way visiting the colleges. “We felt like we formed relationships. Every time we went to a conference or visited a college, it was like family in a way,” she says. “We’d take our family vacations, Terry and I (and the dog), to the tribal colleges.”
MANDATE FROM THE BOARD
When Ambler speaks about the important work of the journal, she cites the Student Edition as one of the most important parts of the magazine. An integral element of the magazine’s publishing strategy from its inception, Boyer first created the Student Edition as a separate publication. However, budget constrictions prohibited the TCJ from publishing five issues a year, and the Student Edition was folded into the magazine itself.
“We did a reader survey, and it was so much appreciated. We had a lot of people subscribe just for the Student Edition because they felt that much closer to the students when they read their stories and their poetry,” Ambler says. Because of the publication, student writers have received foundation grants, and some of their works have been published in other national magazines such as the “Potomac Review, the journal of arts and humanities” of Montgomery College in Rockville, MD, according to Ambler.
Another important feature that distinguished the TCJ for Ambler was the relationship between the editorial staff and the board of advisors. While some publications with such close ties to its parent organization shied away from covering critical topics, the journal’s board encouraged Ambler to take on a watchdog role – one that came easily given her journalistic background and insight.
“They didn’t want us just as a public relations magazine,” she says. “They wanted to tackle difficult questions like board /president relationships, accounting, grant accounting, and some of the mistakes that had been made in that. I mean we had a news article in there when someone was charged with embezzlement, which you wouldn’t see in a house of record normally. It didn’t happen a lot; it’s happened once that I’m aware of. They wanted us to tackle difficult subjects.”
With a generous hand, Ambler credits her staff with providing much of the impetus for the magazine’s success during her 11 years as editor. “I always hired younger people, and they always had big ideas. I hired visionaries – Felicity Broennan and Rachael Marchbanks,” she says. One of the most ambitious issues during her career at TCJ was the AIHEC 30th Anniversary issue published in 2003. She credits then Marketing Manager Broennan with the idea for the commemorative issue.
“That about killed us all,” she says, “But looking back it was worth it. We had a timeline of the movement when things happened throughout the years. We got all the tribal colleges involved in it and a bunch of history of the movement. We had a special, longer issue than usual, special binding and design. I don’t know how we survived it, but we did.”
In 2006, Ambler resigned and turned the reins over to the new editor, Tina Deschenie (Diné). During her 11 years of steering the journal and documenting the movement for American Indian higher education, Ambler underwent a surprising transformation.
“When I was hired I was the most anti-religion person that you could ever meet, and I was also very aware how Indians had been ripped off by ‘wannabe’ Indians who were stealing ceremony, and I just stayed away from anything that had to do with spirituality because I didn’t think it was my business,” Ambler says reflectively.
She found that incrementally the more she covered tribal college communities, the more elements of her professional and personal sensibility began to change. The agnostic, muckraking journalist and the staunch supporter of Native American higher education was gently assuaged to see life and “individual people’s belief systems” differently.
“I just realized over the years that I couldn’t cover Indian Country without covering spirituality because it was like every board meeting opened with a prayer, and sometimes there’d be a person there singing a prayer, and it would be in their own language,” she says.
One of her best days at the journal occurred during a summer AIHEC board retreat in Arizona when the president of Diné College asked a tribal spiritual leader to bless the board and the staff of the journal and AIHEC. “We had a ceremony up in the San Francisco Peaks above Flagstaff, and they went out of their way to include the non-Indian staff with the people who were getting blessed that day with corn pollen, and it was a very powerful experience,” she recalls.
That experience was one among decades of reporting, investigating, and writing about a people who have provided her a lifetime of inspiration. Ambler says, “When I tell people that I made my career writing about Indians, they talk to me like it was all about sacrifice. But it wasn’t all about sacrifice at all; it was about seeing people changing lives all the time. It was about hope and optimism and idealism.”
Juan Avila Hernandez (Yoeme/Yoi) teaches Native American History and Media at Saint Mary’s College in the San Francisco Bay Area in Northern California and reports on current topics of importance to the Native American community. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org