Tim Giago. Photo courtesy Native Sun News Today

Tim Giago: Native American media faces a perilous future

Notes from Indian Country
Native American media faces a perilous future

Here’s what was happening in the field of Native American media 50 years ago.

Innovators like Gerald One Feather, former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and Tom Katus, a non-Indian who has worked diligently and effectively in the political arena assisting Indian tribes, teamed up to produce a series of television shows on KOTA-TV in Rapid City, South Dakota

The show called “Red White TV Dialog” was short lived, but it opened the door for other Indians to follow. (Let My People Know by James E. Murphy and Sharon M. Murphy)

Forty -three years ago I produced and hosted a weekly television show broadcast on KEVN-TV in Rapid City called “The First Americans.” At the same time a Hunkpapa lady named Harriet Skye was doing a biweekly show on KFRY-TV in Bismarck, North Dakota. Her show, “Indian Country” was the first of its kind in North Dakota.

Up in Montana a Nez Perce Indian named Ron Holt was producing a half-hour show for the Montana Television Network called “Indians in Progress.” His primary audience was the Crow and Northern Cheyenne tribes.

In Vermillion, South Dakota, home of the University of South Dakota, a young student of Ojibwe/Oneida ancestry named Bruce Baird, was producing a radio show on KOST radio called “The Indian Hour.”

Down in Oklahoma Sammy “Tonekei” White, a Kiowa, was hosting and producing a show on Oklahoma City Educational Television called “Tribal Voices from the Land.”

In Albuquerque, New Mexico. a young San Felipe/Isleta Pueblo Indian named Francis Montoya was public affairs director of KOAT-TV and serving as host of “The First Americans,” a biweekly, Sunday television show that was first produced and hosted by myself and John Belindo, a Navajo/Kiowa man.

In 1953, almost pre-historic times as far as Indians in the mainstream media goes, KGAK in Gallup, New Mexico, a non-Indian radio station, carried about 30 hours per week of Indian programming mostly in Navajo, but some in Zuni to serve the Zuni Pueblo south of Gallup.

The Wassaja was a national Indian newspaper based in San Francisco, California, in the 1970s. Photo by Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

KYBA in Gallup also broadcast about 15 hours weekly in the Navajo language. Up in Taos, New Mexico, station KKIT carried one hour of news every evening, plus music and announcements in the Tiwa language for the people of the Taos Pueblo. In South Dakota KILI on Pine Ridge and KINI on Rosebud were making their early starts. The Todd County Tribune and the Lakota Times were turning out news stories on Rosebud and Pine Ridge in the early 1980s.

The Navajo North Radio Network started producing radio shows and sending out television tapes and feature programs to subscribing stations in New Mexico and Arizona in 1977. Its “Navajo Nation Report” became a popular news and events source for television and radio.

About the same time Frank Blythe, a Santee Sioux, was starting a Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium, an association that is still going strong and producing national Native American radio shows such as “Native America Calling” from the University of New Mexico ion Albuquerque.

Many of us (Indians) in the media were strongly influenced by Rupert Costo, a Cahuilla Indian from California and Jeanette Henry Costo from the Eastern Band of Cherokee. Their monthly tabloid newspaper called “Wassaja” became the first national Indian newspaper of consequence in the 1970s. Rupert and Jeanette are now both deceased.

The Costos were, in turn, heavily influenced by the man they named their newspaper after, Carlos “Wassaja” Montezuma, a Fort McDowell Apache Indian who started a newspaper in Arizona at the turn of the 20th century. Montezuma was given his Christian name by the white people who adopted him and took him to Chicago where he studied and became a physician. His Indian name, “Wassaja” means Smoke Signals.

He returned to Arizona to visit his people and after observing their plight, decided to give up medicine and get into the newspaper business. He did it to challenge the status quo and to take on the Department of Interior, that stodgy organization he blamed for most of the Indians’ ills.

Carlos Montezuma must be considered the father of Indian journalism. He was the first campaigning Indian editor of modern times. He was castigated by the Catholic Church as a heretic and by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as an instigator and provocateur. “Wassaja” rocked the establishment boat long before it was a popular thing to do. He is buried on the Fort McDowell Reservation in Arizona.

Montezuma would probably be scratching his head if he could see where the media in general has gone to day. As I witnessed at the recent Native American Journalist Association Convention in Minnesota, most of the Indian media has now shifted to electronics. With Facebook, podcasts and blogs leading the way that appears to be the direction it is headed. The old hard scrabble Indian journalists wonder if investigative news reporting will disappear with the death of newspapers. News from Indian Country, a newspaper published by Paul DeMain in Wisconsin for 37 years just shut its doors.

Native American media has come a long way in the past 50 years, but in which direction it will head from here is anybody’s guess.

Contact Tim Giago at najournalist1@gmail.com

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