Newswise — Early in April, Mark Trahant received an email from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He had been editing some chapters for one of the organization’s publications, but this inbox ping was not a standard correspondence.
“I didn’t expect it. It was pretty exciting,” Trahant recalls.
The email was a notification that he had just been elected as a new member of the Academy—one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious societies of leaders from academia, the arts, business and public affairs. It’s an honor no other representative of UND—or even the state of North Dakota—has received, according to Academy officials.
“Just knowing the caliber of folks on that list, it’s pretty extraordinary. I mean, how often do you have a press release where you’re in the same sentence as John Legend?” Trahant joked.
Trahant, a current UND Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism, joins other notable members such as founder John Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as more than 250 Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners.
He was nominated by members of the Academy for his body of multimedia journalism—a career that includes writing and editing roles at newspapers, reporting for PBS’s “Frontline” series, and blog and social media commentary on policy and politics surrounding Native American matters.
“Mark’s lifelong service to the path and craft of news communication, his very significant leadership in Native American and Indigenous journalism, and his groundbreaking digital innovation have resulted in worldwide attention and accolades,” said UND Department of Communication Chair Tim Pasch. “His naming as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is an enormously significant honor.”
Culture in classroom
Trahant has developed a robust following on his news blog, Trahant Reports, which includes a weekly column of the current events of Indian country—everything from health issues to elections. He can also boast more than 6,000 Twitter followers, who check in for updates and daily news poems (a craft he enjoys on the side). Trahant was recruited to UND in 2014 to pass his special mix of expertise to students.
“We wanted to build a Communication journalism track that would be really responsive to the needs of Native students. That was compelling for him,” said College of Arts and Sciences Dean Debbie Storrs. “He brought a distinguished record of journalism, connections to Native communities and the Native news through social media—and I also knew he was a great teacher. He was the whole package.”
Along with leading a course on writing feature and opinion pieces, Trahant bridges the past and present with a revitalized Media History class—one he is especially proud of.
“This year I proposed to teach it as Native Media History, zeroing in and really looking at it with a 10,000-year lens, starting in ancient North America all the way up through social media and digital platforms,” Trahant said.
Standing in front of his April 18 class, he prepared students for a multimedia experience of video, illustrations, and songs—all focused on how the Native American story is shared. “Today we’re going to talk about a different type of digital enterprise. You can take your choice of comic books or graphic novels,” he told them.
Seth Skjervheim was among the young scholars scribbling down notes as video interviews explained how comic characters like SuperIndian are trying to change the cultural narrative.
“He’s very passionate about Native American issues in particular, and he really incorporates that into his course,” said the junior history and communication major from Langdon, N.D. “It’s interesting getting that different perspective.”
Storrs said that what distinguishes Trahant as an instructor is that he is a professional journalist.
“What he brings to the classroom from his work in newspapers and news organizations are things that many academics can’t, and he thinks differently as a result. And he’s helping hone that way of thinking in students as well,” Storrs said.
As Trahant prepares for his formal induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in October, he’s had a chance to reflect on his career.
“I’m incredibly lucky and have had ringside seats to some amazing stories over the years,” he said.
One of the most rewarding experiences Trahant has had during his time in North Dakota was covering the turmoil of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests on Standing Rock Reservation.
“It’s an international story in our neighborhood. I think it’s still one where there’s a lot to learn from it,” he explained. “It was such a pivotal moment, and one that has so many lessons ranging from how it was handled to how social media changes the ability to get stories out.”
Trahant will continue to teach and blog, but his work in the coming months extends to writing a book, speaking to young people about opportunities to make change in their communities, and now—a call to action to serve the Academy through projects and publications.
“We should be really proud not only of his accomplishments, but also the fact that he is willing to join us at the University of North Dakota. For him to make a commitment here really says something about the institution,” Storrs said.
And the fact that Trahant is now a distinguished member of the Academy is not lost on his students, including senior communication major Amanda Menzies. “I think it’s really cool. It’s kind of an honor for us to even have a class with him,” she said.