Intro from Jay Allison
Jesse Hardman and Maura O’Connor recently drove around the southwestern United States visiting some of the 33 Native American reservations that have their own radio stations. They said it became clear that “radio, often dismissed as outdated for the Web 2.0 era, was the most essential medium of communication in Indian country.” Airchecks from these stations sound alive and connected, peopled by a real range of characters. On Transom, Jesse and Maura put together a report, full of photos and audio, and we also created two radio pieces. One is an NPR-style news magazine piece. The other is a Transom-style collage. Listen to both. Tell us what you think. On our discussion board, we’ll be joined by some of the staff of the tribal stations and they’d like to hear from you.
About Tribal Radio
This past May, we spent nine days driving around the southwestern United States visiting some of the 33 Native American reservations that have their own radio stations. We knew before the trip that tribal radio would be unique but there was no way to predict how much so. Every station we visited was a different mix of professional old hands, volunteers, elders, youth, tradition, and innovation. The more community members we spoke to, the more clear it became that radio, often dismissed as outdated for the Web 2.0 era, was the most essential medium of communication in Indian country, whether it was serving a reservation the size of a small European country or one just a few square miles long.
By the end of the trip, several things were patently clear. To begin: Fry bread is pretty tasty. Sure the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that a single serving of the crispy dough with soft, warm innards contains 700 calories but when you’re driving and working from sunrise to long past dusk it’s exactly what you want and it’s ubiquitous in Indian Country; people sell it in parking lots, restaurants, or out of their homes.
Also: Don’t believe people who warn you that Indians are reticent and won’t talk to outsiders. Time and again 20-minute interviews turned into hour long storytelling sessions about personal histories, community traditions, and tribal legacies that could have lasted through the night. The whole “shy” thing quickly began to seem like some kind of ruse.
Finally: Thanks to a meeting with Harvard economist Joe Kalt, a native of Tucson and the co-director of Harvard’s Project on American Indian Economic Development, we were given a simple but key understanding of modern Native America. “Real People Living Real Lives…” This mantra sounds simplistic, but it counters the outdated conceptions that many people have about the more than 550 sovereign nations that reside within the borders of the United States. The issues that indigenous people in America today deal with are most often no different than what Americans in general face: Identity, family, health, security, jobs etc.
Kalt also explained that tribes today are very focused on asserting their independence and the fact that they have their own constitutions, governments, courts, and police forces. This notion extends to tribal radio, as most native station managers we met said that being on the airwaves is about one basic thing: Sovereignty. Tribal radio stations remind the local community and the outside world that the tribe is alive. KIDE Station Manager Joseph Orozco in northern California told us, “We are voicing the essence of who we are, and the importance of why we exist. I think that is the point of the station, to bring that local voice. Any time you use that medium, to do anything, it is an act of tribal sovereignty.”
Our journey through tribal radio country started with Sial Thonolig, or “ST,” the dread-locked manager of KOHN on the Tohono O’odham nation in southwestern Arizona. ST had kindly called us up before our departure to explain that we better bring our own lunch, as there were not any real “lunch type places” on the rez. He picked us up at the one gas station in the tribal capital of Sells, and we drove to the radio headquarters, a lone building in a desert of saguaro cacti reaching up towards the sky.
ST grew up in an isolated, very traditional “TO” village—the entire reservation is the size of Connecticut—and speaks the native language fluently. But he also hosts a two-hour music show on KOHN called “Zound Clash” and estimates his collection of music to contain some 30,000 songs. ST is a walking encyclopedia of reggae trivia and can recall not only the first reggae song he heard at age 13, but the second and the third ones as well. He heard them, of course, on the radio, from a station beamed onto the reservation all the way from Oklahoma.
Sial’s first three reggae songs:
Sial explained to us how, “In the old days each village had a group of young men that acted as messengers for the village. They would carry messages from village to village. And that’s the way we see ourselves, and that’s our role, to be the messengers of the nation.” Sial said when he goes on the air one of his goals is to give tribal members a variety of local, national, and international information so they can “better feel their place in the world.”
As we traveled back to Tucson from the TO reservation, we came upon one of the more modern symbols of Native America, an enormous sign that read “Casino of the Sun.” While the casino looked big, the reservation it stood on certainly wasn’t. The Pascua Yaqui pueblo is just a handful of square miles in diameter. Sitting in the shadow of the casino is KPYT, the tribe’s radio station, delivered via a low-powered FM transmitter. Station manager Hector Youtsey joked about the limited reach of his station: “The drive home is only like five minutes, we should call it the drive to the Circle K (a local convenience store).”
The radio station might not be heard past the highway turnoff, but it does cover its mandate to inform the descendants of the Pascua Yaqui people, a group that numbers around 14,000 registered tribal members. The Yaqui’s are a diverse group, integrating aspects of Yaqui, Spanish, Mexican, and Arizona culture on the pueblo. At the station we heard everyone from the cleaning lady to the local medicine man speaking variations of English, Spanish, and Yaqui. Indeed, KPYT serves as a kind of local archive and laboratory for local language, culture, religion and tradition, teaching people about their heritage, and also experimenting through its programs on a manifestation of what it means to be a present day Yaqui.
On Friday nights listeners can turn into KPYT and hear Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne, and Motorhead thanks to “Uncle Jojo,” a full-blooded Yaqui and self-described “freak.”
We went to the local library and met Amalia Reyes, a tribal member with an impressive wealth of information and insight into the tribe’s history. Reyes hosts her own show on KPYT called Tribal Legacies, where she interviews elders and young people and engages them in storytelling.
During the day listeners hear about the present condition of the community, including social events and government announcements. They even have a program dedicated to one of the tribe’s more pressing problems, the skyrocketing diabetes rate which is twice the national average. Reyes noted the diabetes program as particularly valuable to the community, a sort of remote “house call” to people who are intimidated by the topic. “Pretty soon it’s a safe subject,” she said. “Not a taboo subject anymore. People will listen and they can do it at home.” She described it as “education and prevention at the same time going out over the airwaves.”
We headed north from Pascua Yaqui pueblo, chasing the sun into the northern canyons and mountains of Arizona. Travelling along Indian Route 2 past mesas that rose out of the barren landscape like massive icebergs, we finally arrived at KUYI 88.1, a Hopi-owned, Hopi-produced station begun in December of 2000. The station’s headquarters was a doublewide trailer next to the tribal police station. Breathing in the desert air we had an amazing view of the oceanic-sized valley and its semi-barren landscape, dotted with scrub brush, like something out of the movie Tremors.
Inside the trailer, Merwin Kaye sat in the studio and scanned the list of birthday dedications he was about to read on air. “Derrick, Happy Belated Birthday. Wishing you many more to come. Very extended love to you from the voice of Tewa,” said one. Tewa is one of the dozens of villages scattered on top of the mesas there, some of which have been inhabited by members of the Hopi tribe since the 12th century A.D.
Birthday requests are among the most popular programs KUYI airs for the roughly 7,000 Hopis who live on this reservation, and all day the phone was ringing with dedications for children, grandparents, uncles, and cousins. Behind Kaye—a self-described farmer of watermelon, corn, beans, and squash in addition to being a volunteer DJ—were shelves with hundreds of CDs ranging from Al Green to traditional Hopi ceremonial music.
“For Hopi, music is part of our religion and culture,” said Kaye. “We sing those real old, old, old songs that have been with us for a long long time. We have song keepers, and song makers.” But Hopis have distinctly modern tastes in music as well, attested to by the numerous Michael Jackson and Skid Row posters on the trailer’s walls.
“Wednesday night I’m here, doing the Honky Tonk Round Up show. Thursday night I’m here doing the Rez Rasta Rhythms show,” says Kaye. Punctuating the point, he puts Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” on the air, the song requested for Derrick’s birthday.
As we drove south towards Apache territory that night and listened to KUYI, Merwin gave us the greatest honor bestowed by a DJ by dedicating a song to us for a safe drive; Toots and the Maytals singing “Reggae Got Soul.”
9-1-1 of Indian Country
Loris Ann Taylor is the executive director of Native Public Media, a non-profit that works to support and strengthen tribal radio. She grew up on the Hopi reservation but now lives in nearby Flagstaff. She met us in the town square, where the sound of trains heading west made a perfect backdrop to the night as the sun went down and the cold air rolled in. She said from Wisconsin to Alaska, remote populations rely on locally relevant radio. “I hear from the Inuits and the Tlingit who say, ‘We hear from the radio station whether the men that are out fishing in the cold waters off the coast are safe.’ We’re the 9-1-1 of Indian Country.”
While we would have preferred to jump on one of the passing trains to get to our next destination, we were forced to be more mundane and headed to Northern California by plane, then rented a car to reach the remote Hoopa Valley, trading mesas for redwood trees and rivers. This beautiful valley is home to the Hoopa Valley tribe, which has run its radio station, KIDE 91.3, for 28 years. Joseph Orozco greeted us with a cup of coffee and proudly stated that the tiny town of Hoopa has three coffee options: The grocery store, a drive through trailer, and a coffee shop.
Orozco is the general manager of KIDE and he keeps an eye on what the most important topics are for the local population. He does a live broadcast of the local fish fair, an event meant to highlight the local Trinity river and its importance to the community. He also produces programs like “Public Life,” hosted by tribal member and recent journalism school graduate, Allie Hostler. Her show attempts to answer some of the more pressing questions about what it’s like to be a Hoopa Indian in a modern world. In one program, for instance, Hostler tackled the controversial subject of blood quantum, a process which determines who, exactly, can qualify as a tribal member.
Managing the airwaves
Impressed by what we saw and heard while driving around the reservations, we also began to feel a little biased and decided to find out what some of the negatives aspects of tribal radio were. We discovered that most tribal stations are still seeking a model of sustainability that will give them both independence and funding. Though many closely resemble the public radio model in the U.S., we were told by Native Public Media’s Loris Ann Taylor that certain aspects—pledge drives, for example—are impossible to replicate.
“If you’re in a really rural country where there is a 33 percent unemployment rate,” said Taylor, “and you don’t have the presence of major industry, pledge drives simply don’t work. It’s not a model that fits certain communities and for us to try and subscribe to that model is, in short, setting ourselves up for failure.”
In these situations, tribal governments often support the stations as is the case with KPYT in Tuscon. Such arrangements can also be problematic, however. At KNBB 88.1, the White Mountain Apache radio station, unemployment is high, tribal government budgets are strapped, and the station lacks funding for staff or training. Sylvia Browning is the 52-year-old programming director and one of the DJ’s at KNBB, but said she never received basic training, from running the sound board to technical production to journalism skills.
Government oversight also can create trouble for tribal stations, especially when it comes to what information goes on the air. Not all tribes have strong First Amendment rights in their constitutions, and some station managers worry about covering sensitive topics like tribal membership, land rights, and more.
Radio managers also have to manage the sharing of information that is sensitive at a traditional level. Native Public Media’s Taylor said free speech sometimes clashes with unique cultural considerations.”If you have a manager that is not as astute to the community needs or doesn’t know about the cultural implications that you could have run-ins, and not even understand the magnitude of what your actions might mean to that community.”
Taylor said that federal telecommunication policy has not been updated to serve the growing media needs of tribal communities. She said federal policy has traditionally limited the potential of funding opportunities, access to new licenses and implementation of new technologies like broadband. “One of the really interesting things we’re doing is trying to establish our own metrics. Most public radio stations, if they are large enough, are measured by the Arbitron survey. We’re too small for Arbitron. We’re trying to figure out, ‘What’s our impact? How do we want to quantify what our impact is?’”
Long Distance Dedication
Everywhere we went in Indian country our tribal radio friends were there to take us bahanas (Hopi equivalent of gringos) somewhere interesting. Thank you for all the warmth and generosity…
About Jesse Hardman and Maura R. O’Connor
Jesse Hardman is a reporter with more than thirteen years experience. His work has been featured on National Public Radio, This American Life, Marketplace and a host of other public radio programs. Hardman has a Master’s degree from Harvard University where he researched free press and journalism development. He has served as a Knight International Journalism Fellow in Lima, Peru, training professional reporters and teaching journalism at the Peruvian University of Applied Sciences(UPC). Jesse spent the last year and a half working in Sri Lanka where he trained local reporters as a field coordinator for a humanitarian information project called Lifeline.
Maura R. O’Connor is a freelance journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Time.com, The Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, The Times of India and The New York Post, among other publications. She was born in Boston, Mass. and graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2008.
Editorial assistance from Jay Allison.
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