Maria Stoian has been working on Expos√?¬©: America's Investigative Reports since its inception in 2006. She has also worked on a variety of documentaries distributed by IFC, Discovery Health, TLC, Investigation Discovery, and NYTimes.com. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
Justine Simonson lives in Brooklyn, NY. Besides three seasons of hard work at Expos√?¬©, her credits include The Undertaking (Frontline), The Revolution and Russia: Land of the Tsars (The History Channel), Inside the U.S. Secret Service (National Geographic), Doctors Without Borders: Life in the field (The National Geographic Channel) and the independent documentary film I Had an Abortion. Justine holds a Bachelor's of Science degree from Syracuse University's S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Expos√?¬©: What was it like working with the reporter?
Stoian: As we were researching and producing this episode, the reporter Michael Riley was busy covering the U.S. Senate race. When we met Riley and the rest of his colleagues at The Denver Post, we finally understood how busy they really were. The impact of downsizing was obvious just by looking at the many empty desks in the newsroom. Despite the daily pressure of story deadlines, Riley and his colleagues were extremely helpful. They shared with us all the information and visuals that we needed, until we completed the show.
Expos√?¬©: What appealed to you about this story? What surprised you the most?
Simonson: It was exciting to have the opportunity to share a different side of the Native American experience. I think most Americans see the historical relationship between the United States government and the Native American tribes in a similar way to slavery - it's a terrible part of our nation's history, but it happened a long time ago. In making this film, we learned that that history has a legacy and that there are modern day ramifications that impact the lives of people living on Indian reservations.
When we first approached the story, the most surprising thing was that this legal system even exists. In so many ways, the tribes are thought of as sovereign nations. But in this very important area, they are dependent on the United States government. It would be like the U. S. government depending on Canada for criminal prosecution.
On a personal level, I was most surprised by the level of poverty we encountered on the reservation. I think we were mentally prepared for it before heading to To'hajiilee, but seeing it first hand was something of a shock. The most poignant image I took away was a group of children who approached us. They were using an electrical cord as a leash for their dog and had made toys out of whatever materials were available to them.
Expos√?¬©: What difficulties did you face interviewing the victims of crimes on the reservation?
Stoian: Before arriving in To'hajiilee, we went through a long process of getting permits from the Navajo Film Office and the Navajo Police. It felt as if we were going to a foreign country. Once we arrived, we realized that, without help from a local, we couldn't find anybody. The roads were unpaved, with deep grooves in the mud that had recently dried. We hardly saw any street signs. We had heard that most residents of To'hajiilee either did not have phones or were living in areas without cell phone coverage. We found out that many were also reluctant to speak to outsiders like us. Luckily, we received help from Racquel Hurley, the legal secretary for the tribal prosecutor's office, who convinced several victims to grant us interviews.
Expos√?¬©: Part of this project included filming on the reservation. What did you find there?
Simonson: We felt it was important to hear these stories directly from the people whose lives have been impacted by this legal system. Once we were out there, we met some very determined people who have dedicated their lives to seeing justice served.
The staff at the To'hajiilee prosecutor's office, Vernon Roanhorse and Racquel Hurley, showed an uncommon dedication to their work. They work long, chaotic days with tight schedules and little downtime. A fair amount of their work includes following up on the status of years-old cases.
The police officers who serve To'hajiilee, Sgt. Johnson and Officers Pam Hurley and Tom Vandever, also talked at length with us. They told us about their eight-hour patrol shifts, the lack of jail space and the strict laws governing alcohol consumption on the reservation. The Hurley family was particularly inspiring for us. Racquel and her siblings have all returned to the reservation after college and military service to work in various aspects of law enforcement. They say there wasn't an effective police presence during their childhoods and that their father spoke them often about the value of serving their community.
Alex Apachito and Ben Francisco, both victims of violent crime, were just as determined. Both live in remote corners of To'hajiilee and were difficult to track down - neither had a phone. Ben raises sheep and Alex is the caretaker of a Baptist church on the reservation. But despite their isolated and simple lifestyles, both had a solid understanding of how the justice system had failed them.
Expos√?¬©: How did you become a producer?
Stoian: It's been an arduous process. During my formative years in Romania, I studied to become a teacher of English and French. On the side, I freelanced as a radio talk show host, a translator, and a newspaper reporter. While living in the United States, I have helped with the writing and editing of several books. I like this producer job because it allows me to draw on all these interests that I have cultivated over the years.
Simonson: I studied television, radio and film production in college. After graduation, I started my career working with a well-known documentary cameraman in New York City. Over the past six years, I freelanced on various documentary and non-fiction projects as a production coordinator and associate producer. Besides my work in production, I also had a short stint working as a fundraiser for a non-profit organization. My main goal in approaching my work has been to seek out projects that would highlight injustice and contribute to making the world a better place.