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Indian Media is a Sovereign Right

Joseph Orozco
4/10/11

Thanks to the budget-cutting fervor sweeping Capitol Hill, the Public Telecommunication Facilities Program could be zeroed out this year. The PTFP funds 75% of the construction of new stations; more than 30 new Native radio licensees were expecting PTFP public radio funds in the next two years. The death of PTFP would end Native radio as we know it, and tribal governments need to take a stand before it’s too late. The National Congress of American Indians needs to take a stand as well.

Tribes should pressure NCAI to persuade Congress to provide public funds to Native broadcasting as a sovereign right. NCAI and the FCC made the case for broadband service in Indian Country and Congress gave it proper attention through special funding initiatives. Billions of dollars were put on the table and many non-Indian media companies offered services to tribal communities.

A few tribes received the funds to build broadband centers, which was good for the tribal recipients, but such initiatives still don’t address the basic need for Native community owned and controlled media. Why the oversight? One has to follow the money. In Hoopa Valley the only telephone service is operated by Verizon of California. In 2004 Tribal Radio KIDE-FM asked Verizon for ISDN lines, so we could create a regional radio network. Together with non-Native radio stations in our regional biosphere, we wanted to simulcast important live town hall meetings that addressed common issues such as water, roads, health and housing. Verizon refused us ISDN service. They said they were phasing out the ISDN technology to go forward with more wireless technology. However, Verizon offered no guarantees that the new technology would come our way anytime soon.

Verizon and the other big telecommunication companies balked at putting wireless technology in rural areas. Their argument was that it cost too much, and so the rural American public became known as being on the wrong side of the digital divide. After much discussion about this inequality Congress and the president began an effort to close the gap.

Sure, rural America deserves broadband. Native communities are the most rural and should not to be left out. In effect, though, Congressional funding simply provided the big telecoms free infrastructures to increase their customer base. Their stalling tactic worked.

Thus, fiber optic cable is running through some reservations. Consequently, some tribal people may begin independent businesses, and tribes may start wireless internet provider services. However, who will get larger profits? Verizon, AT&T, Southern Bell and others, because Native communities need the telecoms to link up to the rest of the world. Broadband service in rural America is good: We all need better technology. But the question that needs to be asked is this: If Congress can put up the grub stake for big media companies to expand broadband into Indian Country, why can’t it also acknowledge the need for the most basic media services that can be owned and operated by Native tribes, as a sovereign right?

Congress is not alone in this oversight. Tribal governments need to view Native radio service a tribal sovereign need.

Acknowledged treaty rights for water, hunting, fishing, education, medicine, and housing were established long before the telegraph and railroads were built. Federal, State and local governments negotiated right-of-ways with tribes to put in telephone lines, highways, irrigation systems, sewer systems and power lines. (Of course, a primary motivation was to allow non-Native companies to build profitmaking infrastructures to extract resources from Native lands).

Some tribes negotiated self-governance compacts with Congress in order to receive funds for maintaining their homeland services for education, water, roads, clinics, resources management, public utilities and tribal administration. Back then basic media was not included, but it should be now.

Basic media services are necessary for public safety. Tribes should demand that communications is a sovereign right. We need to provide parity in basic media accessible to every tribal member. Newspapers can be read by anyone and local radio can be heard by anyone without having to purchase an internet contract, or a personal computer. People rely on local media for local news and safety information. Tribes that have broadcast media use it on the local level for language restoration programs, health information, public notices, job notices, local government notices, local weather forecasts, emergency alerts, and highway conditions.

While Congress threatens public media at the national level, Native media should not be cast away in the process. Native media—and only Native media—serve a land based people. No other non-native radio station can make that claim. We have the right to speak for ourselves as an act of tribal sovereignty. Native media should be a line item in tribal compacts. Congressional funding of Native media creates media jobs and enhances local Native economies. A strong and well-informed Native economy, as with Native sovereignty is not just good for tribes, it is also good for our neighbors and the country as a whole.

Joseph Orozco is the Station Manager of Hoopa Valley Tribal Radio, KIDE-FM. He co-founded the Indigenous Communication Association, and the 7 Rivers Radio Network. He has served on the National Federation of Community Broadcasters Board of Directors, and was a founding council member of the former Center for Native American Public Radio, now Native Public Media. He is running for re-election to the HVT Election Board.

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