Indian-operated radio stations are much more than to hear the latest album from Northern Cree, Michael Bucher or Nataanii Means. While Native radio programming is an important way for many to connect to their roots amid big city hustle and bustle, it becomes even more important in remote rural areas, where a radio may be the only contact with the outside world that some residents have on a daily basis.
“It’s one of the least expensive ways to reach Native people and set up a dialogue so they will have a voice,” says NAJA Executive Director Gordon Regguinti, writing for Cultural Survival.
Radio is vital in the Arizona’s Pascua Yaqui community, where citizens populate 12 of the state’s 15 counties, and members live on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s also relevant for the Tohono O’odham Nation, the second largest reservation in the state, spread out over nearly 4,500 square miles, the size of the State of Connecticut.
Twelve years ago, Sial Thonolig was entrusted with the mission of bringing a Native voice to that vast area. “The Chairman felt it was important that we have a way of communicating with the people, not just for entertainment or emergencies, but to bring the issues of the Nation to the members of the Nation,” he said.
Thonolig, an accountant by trade with no radio background, was a volunteer DJ playing reggae music when the station went on the air in late 2004. Once he received a “find a way to cover the entire Nation” challenge with all local programming, he worked 16-18 hours a day to get KOHN, a 10,000 watt, all-day/every-day, station up and running. Today, there are — or will soon be — four stations to cover much of the Nation’s territory in the U.S. and Mexico.
“We’ve helped out in times of emergencies, working with the Nation’s Emergency Management Office to broadcast flash flood warnings and road closures, but it goes beyond that,” Thonolig says. “We have the ability to talk directly to communities, in their native language, and can advise extended family members to check on the sick and elderly during these times.
“In many ways, our station is a familiar voice to scattered audiences throughout the world via streaming capabilities. That intimacy from the leadership down to the citizenry brings our people together to get a dialogue started and talk about issues. We cover our legislative session gavel-to-gavel and people actively participate via smart phones, texts, and emails.
“You’ll hear council members during these sessions say, ‘I just got a question from one of my constituents,’ so this is real-time and listeners are actively participating. The best compliment I’ve ever had was from a young man living off-reservation, who said: “Listening to our language and our music on the airwaves made me feel O’odham. It reminded me of who I was.”
For the Pascua Yaqui tribe, their low-powered station, which covers a four-square-mile radius and streams on the Internet, also serves its community well. Hector Youtsey has been General Manager from when it went on the air in 2005, with a single microphone sitting in the middle of a little table. “Today we use computer automation and maybe a CD player,” he says.
“We run the national Native News feed hourly, but most of our programming is local in origin and local in content. We have a language show broadcast totally in the Yaqui language. We inform our listeners about festivals and senior center events, as well as announcing carwash fundraisers and job availability at our casinos.”
Funded by the tribe (no commercial advertising), a volunteer announcer staff keeps the community informed in times of need.
Internationally-renowned classical guitarist Gabriel Ayala is a tribal member and a long-time volunteer DJ when he’s not on tour. “We’re like the Town Crier, with messages about car shows and cultural happenings,” he says. “We announce things like regular community meetings and emergency-type reports during the monsoon rainy season when storms are approaching and people need to be warned about the possibility of flash flooding.”
Each DJ can select a preferred musical genre — Ayala’s show is indigenous-based and he plays a lot of Native music that makes the phone lines light up. “My two-hour Indian Time show has been nominated for Aboriginal People’s Choice honors as Best Radio Show in the U.S.”
“Broadcasting is a sovereign right,” says Thonolig, “and for me, a radio station that listens to and speaks to its people is one that is exercising that sovereignty.”