Arts & Culture

In the ether of radio waves, indigenous talk finds its place

4 min read

Amid the pop music countdowns, the nightly news, and the laugh-show programs, radio waves across the world crackle softly with the voices of indigenous peoples. Their stories — too often unheard — tell of struggles for recognition, enfranchisement, territory, and cultural preservation. For these communities, radio does far more than entertain.

Radio broadcast as a conduit for community agency was the focus of “Cultures on the Air!,” a symposium held in the Tsai Auditorium March 6. The event featured presentations by scholars, indigenous radio communicators, and students.

“Radio is a medium that enables indigenous people to create community linkages … and to revive and invigorate native languages and cultures,” said Luis Carcamo-Huechante, associate professor of Romance languages and literatures, in his opening remarks. Furthermore, he noted, broadcasting is a right.

“Indigenous people have the right to establish their own media in their own languages, and to have access to all forms of nonindigenous radio without discrimination,” he said, citing the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

Despite U.N. recognition, broadcasting the voices and perspectives of indigenous people is not an easy task. In the course of the afternoon, panelists revealed a range of broadcasting challenges, from the difficulty of reaching listeners to threats by political groups.

The first panelist was J. Kehaulani Kauanui, native Hawaiian and associate professor of American studies and anthropology at Wesleyan University. Kauanui produces a show at WESU titled “Indigenous Politics: From New England and Beyond.” She spoke about the show’s format and highlighted the struggle of indigenous people in Connecticut.

“I see my radio show as an intervention of sorts,” she said. “There is a mainstream media whiteout on these issues, and the independent media in this country doesn’t often take up the concept of indigeneity.”

Tiakosin Ghosthorse, of the Lakota people, hosts “First Voices Indigenous Radio” on WBAI. The show, broadcast in New York City, has been on the air for 17 years. Ghosthorse led the second panel, recounting his childhood in South Dakota and the path that led him to pursue a broadcast career. On his show, Ghosthorse said, he works to “maintain a community aspect rather than going into some Western paradigm of how you ‘do’ radio.”

Despite being threatened by a man with a shotgun during his first broadcast, Ghosthorse has persisted in telling the stories of indigenous people.

“Native stations provide strong identity, reinforcement of culture, and the sharing of native languages,” he said. “Listening may begin to open the experience of being human.”

Mario Murillo, associate professor at Hofstra University School of Communication, studies Colombian radio. He spoke about how indigenous broadcasts in the province of Cauca supplement traditional modes of communication and mobilize the community to political action. Murillo noted that the indigenous movement in Colombia has accomplished “major media work.”

“Since 2004 broadcasters have successfully mobilized 40,000 indigenous actors and brought their voices to Bogotá to argue for an end to attacks on indigenous communities,” he said.

Because of their success, Murillo said, the indigenous media have been attacked repeatedly.

“The primary radio station in Cauca is now off the air because the transmitter was sabotaged,” he said. “Media people have been killed. … This is a matter of life and death.”

The final panelist was Eliás Paillán, a Mapuche journalist from Chile. Paillán is the host of “Wixage Anai,” or “Wake Up,” a program designed to strengthen Mapuche culture and vindicate the rights of indigenous peoples in Chile. The show, which is broadcast in Spanish and Mapundungun (the Mapuche language) was first broadcast in 1993.

“The main objective [of ‘Wixage Anai’] was to animate Mapuche culture … giving life to communicational codes such as language, music, and oratory. We wanted to reach … the heart,” said Paillán. The program evolved, however, to “awake a collective consciousness.”

“We wanted to generate a political awareness of our people as a nation and to demand the respect for rights denied to us … to achieve autonomy in the intercultural relationship.”

The Mapuche people have mobilized against investment projects on their territory, such as hydroelectric dams and airports. This social movement has met with extensive judicial and political opposition.

“We have been called terrorists and imprisoned,” he said. “Currently there are 20 political prisoners and many accused. Many live clandestinely and in exile.”

The symposium concluded with a roundtable discussion, led by Theodore Macdonald Jr., lecturer in anthropology and social studies. The discussants included Joanne Dunn, executive director for the North American Indian Center of Boston, and Kelsey Leonard ’10, a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

“Cultures on the Air!” was sponsored by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Provostial Fund for the Arts, the Cultural Agents Initiative, the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, the Harvard University Native American Program, and the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures.