MISSOULA – “Being a Native journalist, you know you’re going to cover those kinds of stories,” said University of Montana alumna Luella Brien, “You just know.”
Brien, a member of the Apsáalooke tribe, has experienced the challenges and pain that often come with covering the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons crisis in Montana, but she’s never been afraid of pushing for the truth.
With strong ties to the community and journalistic expertise, Brien serves as a key voice in the docuseries “Murder in Big Horn,” now streaming on Showtime.
Growing up in Big Horn County, Brien developed an interest in journalism during high school, but it wasn’t until she won an essay contest that the profession started to look like a viable career path.
Former UM journalism Professor Denny McAuliffe presented her with the award.
“He said it was a hard choice between first and second place,” she said with a chuckle. “I had won first, and my friend won second, and I actually wrote her essay. So they gave me her prize as well.”
Brien made the decision to pursue a bachelor’s degree in journalism at UM while building experience as an editor for Reznet, a site that gathered Native news from across the country.
“You take a very broad range of everything, so you get kind of a sampling of the world,” Brien said of her time at UM. “It really opens up your perspective.”
After graduating, Brien spent time at the Ravalli Republic and the Billings Gazette. She took a step back from news for a few years, working as a media consultant, teacher and in community outreach.
In 2019, she put her journalist hat on again, this time for the Big Horn County News.
Throughout these experiences, Brien wanted more freedom to pursue the stories that mattered to her community, including stories about missing and murdered Indigenous women. The best way to accomplish that she decided was to create her own platform called Four Points Press Media.
“I always wanted my own website. It’s something I’d been toying with for years,” Brien said. “I resigned, and by the end of the week, I had my domain name. Two weeks later I was publishing.”
Four Points Press provides meaningful stories and vital information to the communities it serves. For Brien, that mission is as personal as it is powerful. That’s why she was initially hesitant when she was approached by “Murder in Big Horn” director Matthew Galkin to participate in the docuseries.
“We had a lot of national media coming in looking for background information,” she said. “It’s never my cup of tea to provide that information, because a lot of times they come in, write their headline, they don’t get the nuances of the community. They just get their headline and they head out.”
Brien avoided Galkin and his team’s advances until he showed up in town hoping for a meeting. She did some background research of her own, watching Galkin’s previous work “Murder in the Bayou.”
“The interviews he got from people were not the kind of interviews you get when you just parachute in,” she said. “So, I thought ‘OK, well maybe this is someone I could at least meet with.’”
They built a rapport slowly over a few separate meetings. The crew continued to make visits to Montana and each time met with Brien to get another glimpse into her life and process as a journalist.
“It just kind of organically grew into what it became with me in the vast majority of the series,” Brien said.
The three-episode series looks at the cases of several Indigenous women who went missing or were found dead on or near the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Reservations in Big Horn County. Brien provides context to the media coverage and community response to those cases.
She believes her role as a journalist is to inform and not sensationalize – something she feels the series accomplishes.
“It really does capture the emotion of the time,” she said, “but I think the community will feel validated in that it goes into the explanation of all of the factors that come together to create this perfect storm that creates the opportunity for women and girls to be exploited the way they are.”
Brien hopes viewers will approach the series with an open mind, and for those who feel called to take action, she encourages support of Independent Indigenous media and Indigenous resource organizations, as well as calls for state and federal policy change. She’s hopeful about the results of these stories being seen on the national stage, but ultimately, she’s telling these stories for her own community.
“It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to team up with Showtime to tell these kinds of stories,” she said. “I really do hope that my community is proud of the work that I do in the series. I want them to know the work that I do as a journalist is not for me, it’s for them.”
“Murder in Big Horn” premieres on Showtime on Sunday, Feb. 5. It is available to stream online Feb. 3.
Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659, firstname.lastname@example.org