Joe Starita holds an endowed chair at the University of Nebraska College of Journalism and Mass Communications. Previously, he spent 14 years at The Miami Herald – four years as the newspaper’s New York Bureau Chief and four years on its Investigations Team, where he specialized in investigating the questionable practices of doctors, lawyers and judges. One of his stories was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in local reporting.
Interested since his youth in Native American history and culture, he returned to his native Nebraska in 1992 and began work on a three-year writing project examining five generations of a Lakota-Northern Cheyenne family. The Dull Knifes of Pine Ridge – A Lakota Odyssey, published in 1995 by G.P. Putnam Sons (New York), won the Mountain and Plains Booksellers Award, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in history, has been translated into six languages and is the subject of an upcoming BBC documentary.
Starita’s most recent book – “I Am A Man” – Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice – was published in January 2009 by St. Martin’s Press (New York) and has recently gone into a third printing. The book tells the story of a middle-aged chief who attempted to keep a death-bed promise to his only son by walking more than 500 miles in the dead of winter from Oklahoma to Nebraska to return the boy’s remains to the soil of their native homeland. En route, the father unwittingly ended up in the crosshairs of a groundbreaking legal decision in which a federal judge in Omaha declared – for the first time in the nation’s 103-year history – that an Indian “is a person” within the meaning of the law and entitled to the same Constitutional protections as white citizens.
In the last 3 ½ years, Starita has given more than 150 talks on Chief Standing Bear, the legal significance of the landmark legal ruling for Native people and why this powerful story still resonates in the 21 at the Miami International Book Fair, the Chicago Tribune Literary Festival, C-Span’s Book Talk, a joint appearance with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor at the Smithsonian Institution, a presentation to 5,000 National Education Assn. members and a speech to more than 500 minority lawyers and judges at their annual conference. Last July, the NEA presented Starita with the Leo Reano Award – a national civil rights award for his long-standing work on behalf of Native people.
More recently, Starita supervised a 3-semester college depth reporting class that produced a 142-page full-color magazine celebrating the vital role that Native women have played in sustaining and enriching Native culture. With no advertising or PR budget, the magazine has sold more than 5,000 copies, has been integrated into Minneapolis, Denver and Portland schools, the Seattle Urban Indian Health Center, an anthropology class in California, used as an inspirational tool at a North Michigan prison and at the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Oklahoma and garnered the attention of two PBS producers. This summer, 20 copies of the magazine will be used to anchor a Beijing University class studying Native Americans. Last spring, a Creek/Muscogee businesswoman from Tulsa called Nebraska’s Journalism College out of the blue. She said she got half way through the magazine and burst into tears. “It’s the first time I had ever looked at something about Indians and could actually see myself in it,” said Ginette Overall. “Usually, it’s always about the men.” She then offered to write out a generous personal check if the college would agree to do a second magazine focusing on the Native women of Oklahoma. The college agreed and so this fall a second class will begin work on Native Daughters II – which also will pay tribute to the ancient Northern Cheyenne proverb: A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women lay on the ground.