"Defining a new oral tradition: American Indian radio in the Dakotas"

Fri Mar 5 12:29:01 UTC 2004

Seen in the SANTEC Weekly Newsletter* (March #1, 2004).  DZO

Defining a new oral tradition: American Indian radio in the Dakotas

Bruce Smith & M. L. Cornette
University of South Dakota

As the camp newscaster and bulletin board wrapped into one, the eyepaha of a
traditional Lakota Sioux community was the person who circulated through the
camp sharing information about the day's plans. This oral tradition continues
today through the operation of community radio stations owned and operated by
American Indians.

Michael Krauss, director of the Alaska Native Language Program at the University
of Alaska Fairbanks, once likened western media to cultural nerve gas,
destroying the cultural identity and language of indigenous communities. For
generations, powerful AM stations from distant communities were the radio voice
that reached the rural areas where many Natives lived. They transmitted English
language programming together with western culture and values into Indian
homes; little was related to Native culture or Native concerns.

The first Native-owned radio stations began appearing in 1971. Today, there are
more than two dozen Native American stations on the air across the United
States, and one or two new stations are launched each year. In the Dakotas
alone, there are six community radio stations representing Indian reservations.
KINI, KILI, and KLND-FM all speak to the Lakota Sioux while KSWS-FM serves a
Dakota Sioux reservation. KMHA-FM represents the three affiliated tribes of the
Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa nations and KEYA-FM serves a Chippewa

On the air since 1983, KILI-FM is a typical Indian radio station in the Dakotas.
It broadcasts to the Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Reservation, a large
territory (50 by 100 miles) in central South Dakota. "The Voice of the Lakota
Nation" is the slogan that motivates KILI's small paid staff of six and a dozen
on-air volunteers. The station programs ambitious coverage - often live - of
major events on the reservation, including tribal council meetings, powwows,
government hearings, and sporting events.

KILI considers itself an important partner in the preservation of language and
offers much of its programming in the Lakota language. Sometimes two cultural
contexts are presented together, as depicted by the announcer of the "Morning
Wakalyapi (coffee) Show", for example, who uses Lakota more than half the time,
English the rest of the time, but offers an entirely Native American
programming blend of music and information.

"To be master of one's media is to be master of one's fate."  The history of the
Plains makes KILI's location a symbolically significant site for the
affirmation of local culture. It is only a few minutes north of Wounded Knee,
site of the 1890 atrocity by the US cavalry against a band of 350 men, women,
and children of the Minneconjon Sioux. More than half the Indians were
massacred. The Plains Indians never again offered serious armed resistance to
the colonizers until the siege in 1973 by the American Indian Movement (AIM).
AIM was founded in 1968 in Minneapolis to protect traditional Indian culture,
hire legal counsel, and assist Indian communities with issues relating to
treaty and aboriginal subsistence (hunting and fishing) rights.

AIM's seizure of Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1973, raised awareness of the
power of radio and television among Indians. The group's leaders became
convinced that Indians needed their own media voices. Canadian researcher
Marianne Stenbaek addressed this goal of indigenous broadcasting when she
wrote, back in 1980, "To be master of one's media is to be master of one's

Leonard Bruguier, Director of the Institute of American Indian Studies at the
University of South Dakota, says the value of Indian radio is that it ties back
into the big family. It not only informs people, it helps to maintain and
validate Indian language and culture. Bruguier says

Indians have a strong oral tradition, and American Indian radio has become the
new "voice of the people."

All six stations in the Dakotas serve the role of eyepaha, binding listening
communities together with their stories of the day's events. While
appropriating modern technology, the indigenous people of the Dakotas are
adapting community radio consistent with the oral traditions of the people it

Who's who?

The states of North and South Dakota are part of the vast prairie that occupies
the north-central part of the United States. They are home to many Native
Indian nations who occupy reservations or tribal territories that are largely
self-governing. The largest indigenous population is made up of Lakota, Nakota,
and Dakota Sioux Indians. They represent most of the indigenous population in
South Dakota. North Dakota has a more diverse population of Indians, including
Mandan, Arickara, Hidatsa, and Chippewa, as well as Lakota Sioux.


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