Her colleagues at Phoenix’s Heard Museum know her as Debra Krol. SPJ knows her in a database by a member number. Friends and family from long past may remember her tribal family name, Utacia. Her American Indian heritage identifies her as a Jolon Salinan tribal member. But Krol calls herself something decidedly less human: a bridge.
Unlike infamous Alaskan bridges to nowhere, Krol’s “bridge” is very useful, spanning two cultures and two organizations with vitally important missions.
As a member of SPJ, Krol is happy to gain valuable perspective from 9,000 members who run the gamut of backgrounds and work assignments. But she’s also a proud member of the smaller, more niche-oriented Native American Journalists Association.
“I carry a lot of information back and forth between SPJ and NAJA members. So, you can say I’m a bridge,” she said.
For as much as she’s accomplished and as many outlets that have published her writing, you’d think Krol has been in journalism her entire life. But it’s only been 10 years since she started writing seriously for Arizona Capitol Times, Native Peoples and other publications. Before that, she worked in the electronics industry. After a move with her family from California to Arizona, she went back to school with the intent of becoming a nurse. Call it pure luck or divine intervention, but a poster advertising a writing contest set off a chain of events that took her down a different path.
“At school I saw an opportunity for a writing contest and asked my husband if I should enter,” Krol said.
It turns out her intuition served her well. She won the contest with a creative nonfiction piece inspired by her tribal history.
Re-energized with a love for words and writing infused at age 4 at her grandmother’s insistence, Krol picked up a writing minor and changed her major to biology, aspiring to become a science writer. Remembering her writing that had won recognition, however, she decided to focus on more personal topics.
“I started to become aware of the bad coverage of Indian issues,” she said. “I wanted to help correct misconceptions about Indians.”
That is dangerous territory, though, because, in Krol’s view, Indians and other minority journalists “walk a thin line” or risk becoming “the designated Indian on staff,” reserved to cover, well, reservations.
“[Minority journalists] have to say, ‘I can cover mainstream issues and the issues of my community and still do it from an objective angle.’”
That stance — objectively covering issues of importance to Indian communities — resulted in Krol having a minor tiff with some big-league media players: the White House Press Office.
In April 2006, first lady Laura Bush came to Phoenix promoting her Helping America’s Youth program at the Native American Community Health Center. Krol believed the press office didn’t adequately promote the visit with Indian media outlets, leaving a noticeable gap in coverage. Not one to be deterred, she called the White House and expressed her opinion of why more Indian journalists should have been invited to cover the event.
“I shouldn’t have to beat up on hapless White House press officers just to get credentials to cover a Native event,” Krol wrote in a follow-up e-mail. “Maybe somebody in the feds will see [this article] and invite some Indians into the White House press corps. I can only hope.”
Krol has a tenacious spirit, one that shines through as a reliable advocate for inclusion of Indians in mainstream media. But she hasn’t forgotten her roots, which is why her work with and writing about native issues recently earned her the title of “Woman of the Year” from the Phoenix Indian Center.
That’s quite the title. But call her what you will — Woman of the Year, bridge or SPJ member — there’s one title that, above all, is a badge of utmost pride: American Indian journalist.