Social networking has taken over many of our traditional ways of connecting with people far away -- no more letters, no more faxes, even phone conversations may be outdated soon. But on the vast Indian reservations in rural America, few have phones and even fewer have broadband access, so American Indians still connect a very old fashioned way -- through radio. It’s a means to connect, but for many it’s much more.
On the Hopi Reservation you can drive several miles dodging tumble weeds, navigating long stretches of dusty rugged road before seeing another home. And inside almost every home, the radio is on. Visit any sheep camp or look inside any pickup truck and the radio is tuned to KUYI, which is Hopi for “water.”
"There are people who do not turn their radios off. They’re on constantly," said Richard Davis, KUYI's station manager.
Its 6900 watt signal echoes across the canyons and bounces off the mesas that make up the 1.5 million acre reservation. And often, it’s a critical connection.
In 2010 northern Arizona was plagued with blizzards and floods that destroyed sewer lines and left many people stranded. Davis says it was then he realized just how essential radio is to Indian Country.
"It becomes a lifeline at times," Davis said.
After the floods, it took three days for trucks with drinkable water to arrive, and several more days for portable toilets to be delivered.
In addition to providing urgent information, the station also attempts to preserve language and culture.
Tune into KNDN, where “it’s all Navajo all the time,” and you might hear a complaint about a neighbor’s sheep trespassing or a call to send in funds for a funeral. (The Navajo don’t believe in saving money ahead of time for a funeral, as it could hasten a death.)
The station has an open microphone set up in its lobby where people can broadcast their announcements. People will drive sometimes a hundred miles to get their message out on the radio.
While small radio stations like KNDN and KUYI play a vital role in their communities, the nationally syndicated program Native American Calling plays a different but equally important role. Many people move off the reservation to go to school or to find a job, but they want to remain tethered to their culture.
Harlan McKosato hosts Native American Calling based in Albuquerque.
"When people hear what’s happening in other areas and they’re facing the same problems, but they also hear that they’re still strong in their cultural beliefs, they’re still strong in their ceremonies, it does give people the feeling that they’re not alone," McKosato said.
McKosato has hosted more than 4,000 shows on everything from diabetes to the rights of indigenous people to cultural identity.
McKosato asked listeners during a recent show: "What do you get out of staying Native? Why does it seem that a lot of Native people are reluctant to assimilate into the mainstream of America?"
This day’s topic resonates with many listeners who hold tightly to their Native pride. Despite efforts to teach Native culture and language on the radio, many Native languages are dying with the elders.
Jaclyn Sallee is the president of Koahnic Broadcast Corporation and National Native News based in Alaska. She says radio is a vehicle to record the stories, teach the language and bind a culture.
"It’s really the voice for the people that don’t have a voice," Sallee said.