Radio Free Cherokee: Endangered Languages Take to the Airwaves

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Arizona's KUYI 88.1 broadcasts in Hopi to approximately 9,000 people. (KUYI)


Loris Taylor, the CEO and president of Native Public Media, still has the scars on her hands from when she was caught speaking Hopi in school and got the sharp end of the ruler as a result. "They hit so hard, the flesh was taken off," she remembers. "Deep down inside, it builds some resistance in you."

Now, she's at the forefront of a movement to revive dead and dying languages using an old medium: radio. As CEO and president of Native Public Media, she's lobbied the FCC and overseen projects to get increasingly rare tongues like Hopi onto airwaves so that Native Americans can keep their ancestors' ways of speaking alive—and pass those ways of speaking to new generations.

"At a certain time, people thought 'We live in a white man's world and have to change our language to make it.' But now we see how wrong that was."

Similar efforts are taking place worldwide. In Ireland, Dublin's youthful Top-40 Raidio Ri-Ra and Belfast's eclectic indie Raidio Failte have been broadcasting entirely in Irish for several years. In Washington, D.C. earlier this month, indigenous radio producers from Peru, Mexico, Canada, El Salvador, and a handful of other countries gathered for the "Our Voices on the Air" conference, organized by the 40-year-old nonprofit Cultural Survival and the Smithsonian's Recovering Voices program.

Following centuries of oppression that have marginalized minority languages, radio represents a modest but surprisingly promising way to reinvigorate the traditions keeping those languages alive. In the Maori community of New Zealand, for example, the combination of 21 radio stations and rigorous early childhood immersion programs have brought Maori-languages speakers from an all-time low of 24,000 in the 1980s to 131,000 in 2006, according to Mark Camp, deputy executive director at Cultural Survival.

"It's not a silver bullet, but it's an important piece," Camp says of radio. "If you don't have some sort of media—and radio is the best in our opinion—to counterbalance the predominant commercial media that is all in Spanish or in English, it makes language less of a modern, living thing. It becomes something that you might do with your grandparents."

As Kaimana Barcarse, the producer and lead DJ for KWXX (FM)'s Hawaiian-language radio show Alana I Kai Hikina, puts it, radio provides a way to ensure "the normalization of our language in our homelands. ... Broadcasting in our language allows us to share our paradigms, our worldviews, and the essence of our being."

The swift and sure loss of indigenous language in the U.S. was hardly an accident. From the latter part of the 19th century to the latter part of the 20th, the Bureau of Indian Affairs systematically sent generations of Native American kids into boarding schools that were more focused on punishment and assimilation than on education. In a piece for NPR in 2008, Charla Bear reported on the terrible conditions that persisted at these schools for a century—how kids were given Anglo names, bathed in kerosene, and forced to shave their heads.

In recent years, the government has taken steps to reverse some of the damage. In 1990, the Native American Languages Act was passed, recognizing the right of indigenous populations to speak their own language. And Taylor's lobbying helped lead to the creation in 2009 of the FCC's "Tribal Priority" for broadcasting and then, a year later, to the establishment of the FCC Office of Native Affairs and Policy, which promotes technology and communication access on tribal lands.

Still, the effects of centuries of forced assimilation run deep. Richard Alun Davis, station manager for Arizona Hopi station KUYI 88.1 FM, says that the disappearing vocabulary creates a "complex tapestry of shame" in the approximately 9,000-person population his station reaches.

"Even if they can speak, they usually do not do it outside of the home for fear of being corrected," he says. Because the Hopi religious tradition is firmly rooted in the language, "It's not only a moment of discomfort with the literacy. It's also showing that you're unable to participate in all the culture."

In 1998, Mesa Media Inc. conducted a survey of 200 Hopi people and found that while people ages 60 and up were 100 percent fluent in Hopi, that percentage diminished steadily as you got younger: 84 percent ages 40-59, 50 percent ages 20-39 and 5 percent in children age 2-19. The survey, which provides the most recent data of its kind on this community, concluded that unless children began to learn Hopi right away, the language would die out completely in a few generations.

Davis, a blond-haired, blue-eyed Brit who fell in love with Native American literature in college and speaks Hopi ("people joke that I've created my own dialect"), believes that radio is the easiest way to counteract these bleak statistics. His station, KUYI, covers three counties, from the border of the Grand Canyon National Park, up to the Utah border, and down toward Winslow. Its programs include a junior and senior high school class that broadcasts in Hopi, a morning Sunday show aimed at small children, and cultural discussions for adults that are held according to the lunar calendar, in keeping with Hopi tradition.

Congress's passage of the Community Radio Act in 2011 means that community radio stations could soon—in Camp's words—"mushroom," which offers a lot of potential for Native American media on reservations, where there is usually little infrastructure and in many cases no electricity (certainly no wifi). In these areas, a low-power FM station that's plugged into the grid in the center of town allows people with battery-powered, handheld radios to listen in to what's happening all around them.

The programming on many of these stations is at least as diverse as you'd find on an all-English community frequency. And like with radio stations everywhere, there are longstanding on-air personalities that attract a devoted listenership. In Oklahoma, for example, Dennis Sixkiller has produced a "Cherokee Voices, Cherokee Sounds" radio show since 2004, and more recently, a podcast as well.

In the July 29 podcast, Sixkiller outlines in a low, Johnny Cash-like drawl—first in English, then in Cherokee—the lineup for the next hour. It is filled with Cherokee songs and stories, and a biography of a community elder. Kicking off his program, Sixkiller plays an old-fashioned country/gospel tune, with the tripping harmonies typical of country churches in Appalachia, sung all in Cherokee. "I tell you what, it sure is hot," Sixkiller monologues between tracks. "I'm sure a lot of you all are going down to the creek to stay cool."

There's weather, gossip, and news, in the mix, like you'd expect. But for Sixkiller, there's also a greater purpose. "At a certain time, people thought 'We live in a white man's world and have to change our language in order to make it in this world,'" he says. "But now we see how wrong that was."