NAYTAHWAUSH, MINN. – Kathy Goodwin fiddles with the antenna on the boxy radio by her bed until the sound of powwow drumming cuts through some static.
The thrumming round-dance music sparks a memory: She was driving her Buick to a tiny village on a crisp November day three years ago when she first heard her White Earth tribal station.
“I was cutting through the woods on the road to Pine Point and I just started yelling; I was so happy,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. We’ve got our own radio station. It was a huge pride thing.”
Across northern Minnesota’s Indian Country that new unifying source of pride is emanating from the old medium of radio. With cellphone service and computer connections often costly and spotty, tribal members on the Leech Lake, Bois Forte, Fond du Lac and White Earth reservations credit new radio stations for preserving their Ojibwe language and strengthening cultural ties since the Federal Communications Commission opened a rare licensing window three years ago.
From creating jobs beyond casinos to spurring hard-hit tribal economies, the FCC sensed radio’s potential to level a history of negative treatment that tribes have long endured.
“We’re kind of a lifeline for residents who don’t have the resources to secure newer modes of service,” said George Strong, general manager of KBFT on the Bois Forte Reservation, who hosts the “Rez Rockin’ Radio” show up near the Canadian border.
Tribes across the country jumped at the chance to get on the air. Thirty-six tribes submitted 61 applications to the FCC in 2007 for new noncommercial FM stations. When all the permits and frequencies were sorted out, four of the 20 new tribal stations sprouted in Minnesota — joining a patchwork of what’s now 53 Rez radio stations from Alaska to Oklahoma.
“There’s a universal hunger to be informed and radio right now is really the primary medium for Indian Country because the rest of the technology isn’t always there yet on reservations,” said Loris Taylor, a Hopi Nation member and president of the Arizona-based Native Public Media nonprofit, which helps tribes secure licenses.
She said most of the stations are “hyperlocal,” mixing community updates with language and cultural programming.
White Earth’s station recently broadcast live its chairwoman’s annual state of the nation speech — with a microphone run through a cellphone. Leech Lake’s station runs segments on Ojibwe history hosted by a tribal college teacher. Talk shows tackle issues from Indian health to proposed new gas pipelines targeted for reservation land.
There are “Ojibwe phrases of the day” spots sprinkled in with eclectic musical playlists, a resurgence for the once nearly dead language. Speaking native languages was once deemed taboo by U.S. government leaders, who sent Indian kids to boarding schools aimed at erasing cultural ties.
At White Earth, Michael Dahl hosts a two-hour show, Mawaniji’ida, which means “let’s visit” and jumps back and forth from singsong Ojibwe to English.
The stations also broadcast national tribal news from the Native Voice One network in New Mexico. When the huge satellite dish used to capture that tribal programming filled with fresh wet snow one recent morning in Cass Lake, Marie Rock grabbed a broom between songs. The host of the “Rez Morning Show” trudged through shin-deep snow to sweep out the dish and keep her community connected.
“This is a huge deal for us,” said Darryl Northbird, who hosts a daily “Voice in the Sky Pow Wow Show” at Leech Lake.
“They’ve taken our land away,” he said. “But the air? We all have ownership of the air.”
Get up and dance
White Earth’s station is officially known as KKWE 88.9-FM, but everyone up here knows it as Niijii, which means “friend” in Ojibwe. It operates out of an abandoned brick school in Callaway, Minn., a town of 200 people on the southern edge of the sprawling reservation.
Every morning, Program Director JoDan Rousu lights some sage in an abalone shell and waves the sweet smoke around him to “help balance myself.” Then he plays music and announces community events on the “Cup of Joe” morning show he’s been hosting since the station started.
“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.
“I just love hearing the Ojibwe language,” said Kathy, 62, “and knowing this is my reservation and this is our radio station.”
Her neighbor across the Twin Lakes, Karen Wadena, recalls pulling into a gas station with Indian drums playing on her car radio.
“You notice someone in the next car has the same station on and we look at each and just smile,” said Wadena, 68.
She doesn’t own a computer. And her family’s array of cellphones are hit and miss. “You’ve got to go outside to get good reception or sit on a certain side of the house.”
But the radio down in her basement by the laundry machine comes in clearly.
When Dahl starts his afternoon show, “everybody runs downstairs, saying: ‘Mike’s on the air, telling a story,’ ” Wadena said. “My grandkids say, ‘I don’t know what he’s saying, but I want to hear the Ojibwe words.’ ”