Updated: 6:20 p.m.
Alfred Walking Bull isn’t a morning person. Still, for nearly a year now, he’s been waking up before sunrise on Friday mornings to host Grand Entry on KFAI, a community radio station in Minneapolis.
“I don’t hear a lot of Native music on the air,” Walking Bull said. “Particularly pow wow music.”
Walking Bull is one of several volunteer hosts of Native programs at KFAI. He grew up on the Rosebud Reservation in western South Dakota. He didn’t hear pow wow music on the radio back then because there were few Native-owned stations at the time.
The Voice of the Lakota Nation
Programs — and crucially, Native owned and operated radio stations — have grown in the decades since the 1973 siege at Wounded Knee. Walking Bull says a drive from Rosebud to Pine Ridge reservation revealed the difference between stations.
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Walking Bull is one of several volunteer hosts of Native programs at KFAI. He grew up on the Rosebud Reservation in western South Dakota. He didn’t hear pow wow music on the radio there either.
“The radio in Rosebud in the 1980s was run by the Catholic church,” Walking Bull said. “It was Top 40 during the day. Mostly country in the evening. Then at 10 o'clock, there was the rosary … You pray the rosary and you went to bed.”
Things changed when Walking Bull climbed into his father’s 1976 Ford LTD and the family headed west to visit relatives on the Pine Ridge reservation, also in South Dakota. As the Catholic radio station began to fade, another radio station — this one from Porcupine, S.D. — could be heard inside the car.
“By the time you get to the other side of the ridge, that’s when you’d get the signal for KILI and he’d switch over,” Walking Bull said.
KILI, “The Voice of the Lakota Nation,” is a Native-owned and operated station on the Pine Ridge reservation. That station, likely the first Indigenous radio station in the Midwest, was a big influence on Walking Bull. When his father heard pow wow music on KILI, his reaction was strong.
“Sometimes he’d say ‘Hoka!’ which means now we can party,” Walking Bull said.
‘We own it’
Today, there are more than 50 Native-owned radio stations in the U.S., according to Native Public Media, a New Mexico nonprofit. There are several in Minnesota including Bois Forte Tribal Community Radio, Niijii Radio at White Earth and KOJB the Eagle in Cass Lake, owned by the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.
Native radio is a critical source of information for people living in rural reservation communities. “[These] stations are your communication, are your link. They were your internet before the internet,” Walking Bull said.
In the early 1970s, Native radio was rare. There were only a few Native-owned and operated stations in the U.S., mostly in North Carolina and Alaska. When the standoff at Wounded Knee ended, Pine Ridge residents made that — and opening a medical clinic — a priority.
Bill Means attended that meeting a half century ago. A member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), he is president of KILI’s board of directors. Before joining AIM, he was a U.S. Army soldier fighting in Vietnam. While serving, Means read about AIM in the newspaper.
“I immediately thought to myself I’d rather be there with my people,” Means said. “If I could just survive this damn war.”
After the war, he returned to South Dakota and attended college. During Wounded Knee, Means says he raised money for AIM’s legal defense fund and one night, smuggled in weapons. Two Native Americans died at Wounded Knee in 1973.
When the siege ended and outsiders left, Means stayed and got to work on projects the community agreed to. A medical clinic opened first. The radio station opened in 1983. The tribe offered to let KILI broadcast from tribal-owned housing, but KILI refused. Its independence was important from the beginning.
“That way we own it,” Means said. “Nobody can kick us out. Nobody can tell us what to do.”
Oglala Sioux council meetings are broadcast on KILI. That’s something longtime station manager Tom Casey said they’re committed to.
“It’s meaningful to be part of the community and have an impact on the community,” Casey said. “It’s meaningful to be able to share: Share people’s stories, share people’s lives, share way of life, share the culture.”
It airs all kinds of local things: announcements about schools and jobs, along with music, pow wows and sports.
Alfred Walking Bull tunes in when he can. Every time he does, it reminds him what makes KILI special.
“In Lakota, kili means something is kinda fancy, an exhortation,” Walking Bull said. “Every time we switched it over to KILI, we knew we were listening to Indian radio.”