Journalist Nancy Marie Spears, a recent University of Oklahoma graduate and contributing reporter for The Imprint, has won top honors from the Native American Journalists Association.
The leading organization for Indigenous media professionals awarded Spears two first-place honors and one second-place prize for her coverage of environmental, health and elder issues in Native American communities. The stories were produced last year by Gaylord News — a Washington, D.C.-based reporting project of the University of Oklahoma — and published in partnership with the nonprofit news website, NonDoc.com, and the news division of Arizona PBS, known as Cronkite News.
Her story for Cronkite News, “Oklahoma tribes prepare to pivot to booster shots in COVID-19 battle,” described the extraordinary efforts of tribal health care providers and local leaders to vaccinate their populations, despite limited federal guidance.
The Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) awarded Spears first place in the small-circulation print and online category for “Best Health Coverage.”
“This is the product of all the self-internalized goals I created for myself as a Cherokee journalist,” Spears said after learning of the award Wednesday. “It means that all the work I’ve tried to do in elevating these communities and their voices has meant something and is being recognized.”
In the awards category for the largest-circulation professional outlets, other winning Indigenous journalists included Allison Herrera of Oklahoma State University’s KOSU, Mary Annette Pember of ICT (until recently known as Indian Country Today), and Joseph Lee of BuzzFeed News.
The Navajo Times took home two top prizes, for its dedication to “upholding freedom of the press, information and transparency on Turtle Island,” and for general excellence. ICT landed the “Best Digital Publication” award. The Indigenous Investigative Collective — a collaboration between the Native American Journalists Association, High Country News, ICT, National Native News and Searchlight New Mexico — took home this year’s top prize for investigative journalism.
“Nancy is an incredibly hard worker and so invested in Native issues and family law. She’s constantly reading and keeping herself so well-informed not just on Cherokee issues but tribal issues all over the country,” said Kimberly Burk, an editor for Gaylord News, noting that Spears was competing as a student with professional journalists for two of her three awards. “These stories she wrote weren’t just the news of the day, they were based on her having great background from constantly keeping herself informed and studying the issues.”
Spears is a first-generation college graduate who received her bachelor’s degree in journalism with distinction from the University of Oklahoma. She is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, who is now writing about Indigenous children and families for The Imprint, a national nonprofit news outlet covering child welfare and youth justice.
Her recent Imprint stories have focused on the ongoing Supreme Court showdown over the landmark Indian Child Welfare Act and recent efforts by the federal government and Indigenous communities to expose and reckon with the long and devastating history of Indian boarding schools.
On a recent assignment in Oklahoma, she spoke with boarding school survivors before they met with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo member from New Mexico and the nation’s first Indigenous cabinet secretary.
“We just want to make sure that our history is being told,” a Seminole Nation council member told Spears. “We want the truth known so we can begin to address the healing process.”
In one of her award-winning stories last year which was co-published by Gaylord and NonDoc, Spears detailed $137.5 million proposed federal legislation which would end a 17-year dispute over Oklahoma Quapaw tribal lands devastated by more than a half-century of lead and zinc mining.
That story took home the first-place award in NAJA’s student division print and online category for environmental coverage.
Karen de Sá, executive editor of The Imprint, noted the breadth and depth of Spears’ talents.
“Nancy is so deserving of this high honor from the Native American Journalists Association,” de Sá said. “As a reporter, she is dogged, dedicated — and above all guided by her compassion for the people and communities whose stories she tells.”