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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


January 26, 2002 - Issue 54


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Listening to Indian Country


National Native News Logo

In the beginning, there was light, but that was about the size of it.

OK, so there was electricity. Plumbing and heating, too. Also in that shared, second-story office space was a metal desk, a chair, a phone "and a phone book, I think," recalled Gary Fife, original host of "National Native News." No computers, no fax, no recording equipment that didn't have to be borrowed. All this and a budget that, in those days, would cover maybe three seconds of Super Bowl commercial time, pennies which, in the frugal world of public radio, had to stretch three months.

The mission was a tall order: to cover a segment of the American population, coast to coast, that had never been seriously covered by radio, the exception being the occasional "dance or dysfunction" story, as Fife put it. Native Americans were starved for real information -- stories about education, employment, poverty, resource development, housing, the economy.

"My ambition was to change America's thinking about Native people," Fife said. He also wanted Native Americans "to hear the voices of people who make so many heavy decision about their lives."

Persuading station managers in the Lower 48 to carry such a program -- which at the time was offered free -- should have been a cinch. It wasn't. Fund-raisers would give their pitch, then hear things like "Sounds nice but we don't have any Native Americans here."

Nevertheless, on Jan. 5, 1987, with that original three-month, $60,000 grant and some 30 stations agreeing to give it a try, public-radio listeners heard for the first time: "This is National Native News:' I'm Gary Fife"

Even Fife didn't expect the program to last.

"At the time, I figured the life of a project like this was about one grant," he said.

Fifteen years later, the nation's first daily Native newscast is heard on 256 stations and repeaters across the United States and Canada. The current host, Bernadette Chato, has resources Fife could only dream of: a full-time reporter in Washington, D.C., an assistant producer, an intern.

"National Native News" has an office of its own, a small digital production studio, and even a competitor, Independent Native News, founded by an award-winning team of "National Native News" veterans, including former hosts D'Anne Hamilton and Nellie Moore.

Through the years, the program has not only helped keep Natives and non-Natives informed, it's widened the circle, connecting Native communities across the nation.

"It makes me feel more a part of Indian Country," said Tom Arviso Jr., director of the Navajo Times, a weekly newspaper with a circulation of 18,000. "We are not alone; a lot of the time you think you are."

Mary Annette Pember, president of the Native American Journalists Association, says the same. "(National Native News') helps connect you to the world."


Why here, in Alaska? End of the road, in a time zone all its own?

Because, at the time, the Alaska Public Radio Network had a satellite uplink and no Native stations in the Lower 48 did, explained Diane Kaplan, former president and chief executive of APRN and a major force in National Native News' creation. Launching the program was one thing. Then came the job of sustaining it.

"We were basically living month to month not knowing whether the program was going to continue," said Jaclyn Sallee, president and chief operating officer of Koahnic Broadcast Corp., which assumed management of "National Native News" in 1995.

Sallee was an intern at APRN back then. One of her first assignments was to write a grant proposal seeking funding for "National Native News." She got it, too.

That grant, from the Northwest Area Foundation, helped keep the program afloat for the next three years.

Another whose commitment was unfaltering was Susan Braine, on the APRN board at the time, now national program manager for Koahnic and executive producer of Koahnic's "Native America Calling," a nationwide call-in show produced in Albuquerque.

"She was my stalwart support," Kaplan said of Braine. "She knew the Indian stations in Lower 48 and how much they needed the program. She was very good at convincing from the heart, which makes a big difference in getting people to write you a check." In those early days, "National Native News" provided a five-minute newscast, followed by a five-minute feature segment produced by Hamilton.

Only the newscast survived the roller coaster of funding. The newscast is broadcast live five days a week from a studio in the basement of the APRN building on Eighth Avenue. Chato has about 20 reporters she can count on to jump on breaking stories, and many others are available when needed.

Fifteen years ago, the number of Native journalists Fife had to choose from was "zilch," he said. And he didn't think non-Native journalists understood the issues very well.

"Most people knew more about dead Natives than the ones living down the road. We had one heck of a challenge there."

In some cases he had to start at the beginning, informing reporters that assuming all Natives play the flute is like assuming all Europeans play the bagpipes.

One example was a broadcast by an Arizona reporter who filed a story from Navajo country talking about how beautiful the land was (flute music tooting in the background) and how the Navajo wouldn't be doing the sun dance that year due to some problem or other. The real issue was a land dispute between the Navajo and Hopis, Fife said. Not only that, "the Navajo don't do the sun dance." And the flute music he used was not indigenous to the tribe.


These days, Koahnic's training center does the training, not just in how to cover issues but in the technical end of the trade. These programs draw Native and nonnative broadcast journalists from around the country.

In addition, there are internships, apprenticeships and Koahnic's Alaska Native Youth Media Institute, which offers intensive week-long training for Alaska Native high school students considering careers in media.

Among a new, emerging generation of Native reporters is Joan Kane, Inupiaq Eskimo, with family from King Island and Mary's Igloo.

Kane, a graduate of Harvard University with a degree in English, is pursing a master of fine arts degree in writing at Columbia University. A New York City stringer for "National Native News," she recently filled in for Chato as host of the newscast while home on break from school.

Fife would have been in seventh heaven if he'd had access to that kind of experience. In those days, he was one tough guy to please.

"I don't mind carrying the description of being the grouchy old hard-ass because what I was after was realized," said Fife, who's now in public relations with Anchorage Municipal Light & Power. "We had to be better than everyone else because everyone expected us to fail."

Among those he grouched at was Chato.

"I chewed her backside a few times," he recalled with a laugh.

She remembers, too.

"One thing you didn't want to do is (tick) off Gary Fife."

Chato, a Navajo who grew up in Albuquerque, never imagined herself in broadcasting. She always thought of herself as an observer and listener rather than a speaker. "I didn't really like to talk," she said. Just like her father.

"He told me, That's OK. If you don't have anything to say, you shouldn't talk.' "

Those qualities have served her well as a journalist. "It's not just going out and saying, This is what happened,' " she reflected. "It's also, what does it mean?"

Now an award-winning journalist, producer and trainer, Chato started in broadcasting 20 years ago with an announcement on public radio.

"It said for $5 you can take this radio broadcasting class and learn to be a DJ. It was so unlike me to go, but I thought, for five bucks

"I was a homemaker, raising two kids. I hadn't worked in years. I was going through a lot of personal crisis at the time so it seemed like a good thing to throw five bucks into."

She first went on the air in 1983 when she was asked to fill in for someone at a local station who had called in sick. By the time "National Native News" was launched, Chato had a variety of on-air experience, including reporting and producing a Native American music show, "Singing Wire." Soon she became a stringer for the new program.

"I don't know how to explain it other than it was exciting to be able to hear what was going on with Native people in other parts of the country," she said. "Because you can get very bogged down in the politics of your tribe. It really opened up your eyes, your ears."

Thirteen year later, Chato was asked to fill in at "National Native News" while a search was under way for a permanent host. At that time she was news director at Navajo-owned station KTNN in Window Rock, Ariz. Like Fife, she never intended to stay. Oh, maybe a week or two. But by the end of the first week, she'd been offered the job.

That was nearly two years ago.

"I never imagined," she said.

NNN - Celebrating 15 Years

History of 'National Native News'

  • January 1987 "National Native News" becomes first daily Native news service. Thirty stations sign up to broadcast the program.
  • 1988 NNN broadcast on 100 public-radio stations; premieres a five-minute daily feature after the newscast.
  • 1989 Minnesota Public Radio, the country's largest public-radio network, announces it will begin broadcasting NNN.
  • 1992 First Alaska Native Youth Media Institute takes place in Anchorage.
  • NNN produces a one-hour special titled "A Caucus of One," a look at Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell.
  • 1993 National Museum of the American Indian creates collection featuring NNN archives.
  • 1994 D'Anne Hamilton becomes host and producer of NNN.
  • NNN broadcasts on 178 stations.
  • NNN staff develops first national Native call-in program, "Native America Calling."
  • 1995 NNN produces "Native America's War on Poverty," a five-part special.
  • Koahnic Broadcast Corp. takes over management of NNN and Indigenous Broadcast Center, now known as the Koahnic Broadcast Corp. training center.
  • Nellie Moore becomes host and producer of NNN.
  • 1996 KBC launches "Native America Calling: The Wellness Edition."
  • 1998 NNN staff and consultants conducted the first comprehensive survey of mainstream media and their perceptions of Native issues reporting. NNN adds a Washington, DC, correspondent.
  • 1999 NNN distributes "Native Word of the Day" to public-radio stations across the country for broadcast during Native American Heritage Month.
  • Internet users access "Native Word of the Day" more than 15,000 times in a month.
  • 2000 Bernadette Chato becomes host and producer of NNN.
  • 2001 Eileen Dempsey becomes the first full-time Washington, DC, staff correspondent.
  • Koahnic Broadcast Corp. takes over management of "Native America Calling."
  • is launched. NNN begins providing the audio of each newscast on its Web site
  • 2002 NNN broadcast on 256 stations and repeaters.

Source: Koahnic Broadcast Corp.

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  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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