“Not everyone around here has access to television or newspapers,” he said. “Radio is the last free form of media and there’s a good chance you have an alarm clock at home with a radio or you’re driving around and can tune us in.”
Rousu takes the responsibility seriously.
“I realize there are so many people on the reservation sitting at home having their morning coffee with the radio on,” he said. “And that’s the only person that’s coming to visit them in the day.”
White Earth boasts more than 19,000 members, but roughly three-quarters live far from the sparse reservation villages, often 200 miles southeast in the Twin Cities or beyond. Many off-reservation members stream Niijii on their computers.
Rousu’s sister, Maggie, is a trained social worker but became Niijii’s general manager after securing some grants in 2011. She had to weather a six-month stretch when vandalism knocked the station off the air in 2012.
“We’ve never had media that really pertains to just our community,” Maggie, 45, said over lunch at the Umbaywesinin Reztaurant in White Earth. “We get radio from Fargo, Moorhead and Detroit Lakes, but having something specific to our reservation has made a big difference.”
Niijii serves a 70-mile-wide swath of west-central Minnesota, from Wadena to Hawley to Fergus Falls. She estimates that of the 56,000 people in the area, about one-tenth are Native American.
“Media is power and we have the power to change the consciousness of non-Natives across our region, changing people’s stereotypes and improving relationships,” she said.
Dahl, the station’s popular afternoon host and one of a handful of Ojibwe speakers left at White Earth, likes to say Niijii is “an indigenous station that’s non-indigenous friendly.”
He opens each show with the Ojibwe words “baz ii gwe shi moog,” meaning “Get up and dance.”
“Our language has a sound and a rhythm,” he said. “And there’s no where else I can hear us.”
At a community event one summer, an elder sat beside Dahl, 39, and told him: “The first day I turned on the radio and I heard you talking Indian, I sat there and cried because I thought ‘if only my mum was alive to hear this.’ ”
But it’s not just the elders who are moved. Dahl played a hip-hop song on his show called “Happened to Me,” written and recorded by teenage tribal member Jordan Bower.
Bower, 15, said he recorded the song on his bunk bed with a blanket hanging down to muffle outside noise. Getting his music on the radio has infused him with confidence that he lacked to perform in public.
“Our people, we need to get our voice out there,” he said.
Said Dahl: “If it weren’t for Niijii, his music would be on his computer — that’s it. I love this kid and want to share his talent and let our Rez know about it.”
‘This is my reservation’
Back in the White Earth village of Naytahwaush, Goodwin said she never bothered with radio before her tribe launched Niijii Radio. Her husband, Bob, better known as Scrub, purchased a radio for a Christmas gift so she could tune in.