Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
September 9, 2000 - Issue 18

Tribal Radio Making Its Mark on the National Level
by Dorreen Yellowbird columnist Grand Forks Herald
When sound waves from KABU (90.7) bounce over the broad back of Devils Lake, travelers new to the area might do a double take at the drum sounds that fill their car. This low-powered radio station is only one of some 40 Native stations throughout the nation and Alaska. That drum music only -- barely -- begins to tell us what Indian radio is.

I have some idea. I managed KMHA radio at New Town, N.D., for the Three Affiliated Tribes for some eight years, sat on some of the boards that helped put together stations and programming. I also pounded on tables of federal agencies for the right to provide that voice. Each station has to have air space approved by federal telecommunication agencies.

When I read a national wire story about "Native America Calling," (one of the programs our radio group helped developed for Indian radio) memories of those days when we struggled to bring our voices to the air, came back. It was like turning the volume knob on the radio slowly to loud.

We began to develop our small Native radio group in Phoenix about 15 years ago. We met in place after place to try to get funding and the ear of the proper agencies. We met in Washington, D.C., Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Rapid City, S.D., Minneapolis, Seattle, Nashville, and Washington, D.C., but we always seemed to return to the Capitol for more talk. Our negotiations were with the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, (the largest funders of public radio), the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, National Public Radio and federal telecommunications agencies.

Indigenous radio stations have been a difficult birth. Some tribal stations have looked over that edge of a chasm so many times that they have worn a path to the rim. Radio is a complex and costly endeavor set in communities that have little funding for frills. For many of the tribal radio stations, especially those on reservations, it was difficult to support stations the traditional way -- through advertisers. Few advertisers were willing to pay for a media that was specifically aimed at a certain community and some didn't accept the stations as part of their community.

When I was involved in "Indian radio" there were about 19 radio stations. The national programs were being formed. One of the national forums that is as widely listened to as Howard Stern or Grand Forks' Scott Hennen, is "Native America Calling." They are making their mark on the national scene. The format is something similar to that of Hennen and Stern. You have a person on who has some expertise on a subject, and then you open up the phones for comments.

I was a guest a couple of times several years ago. They were just babies then. Today they tackle subjects like "Who is an Indian?" blood quantum, repatriation, sovereignty, water rights and casinos and so on. The reservation's casinos have been helpful in providing some funding that was almost non-existent prior to the tribal casinos development.

When I read a story about "Native America Calling," I realized that I hadn't heard the program for several years. I moved from the radio habit to newspapers, television and even the World Wide Web. Radio is a driving media for me. I do listen to the Spirit Lake, Turtle Mountain, Three Affiliated, Standing Rock and Sisseton Wahpeton tribal stations, but only when I'm in their area. Unfortunately, their broadcast time rarely coincides with my drive time. It has been good for me to reconnect with the program.

"Native America Calling," is unique. When we fought so hard for funding for our public radio stations, the purpose was to provide communications on the reservations. That communication was for people who sat in wheelchairs, for elders sitting beside the radio beading or for youngsters so they could hear the sounds of the language or our drum music.

Today young people are concerned about issues from who is an Indian to the policies of the Republican and Democratic parties -- something that reservations rarely participated in back then.

The programming has taken a giant step in moving the people to a better position of understanding and dealing with their communities on the local and national levels. It has become a hand that reaches out, grasps, shakes, educates and entertains in a way we didn't suspect when we were hounding the national powers for a chance for radio stations.

Yellow Bird's e-mail address is or she can be reached at (701) 780-1228.



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