The first KILI deejay spoke in both Lakota and English,
"and the impact I believe that it made that day--
as well as in the last 12 years--I think [was] incredible."
Now there's a sign on the studio wall:
"Play a Lakota song every hour."

KILI-FM's service on the reservation
On the plains, a station that "knows where it lives"

Originally published in Current, Dec. 18, 1995

By Jacqueline Conciatore

In the spring, not far from Wounded Knee in western South Dakota, a man climbs KILI-FM's 300-foot broadcast tower and ties to the top an eagle feather.

The tethered feather floats there in lieu of the usual electrical grounding system, which can cost thousands of dollars, according to station Program Director Buzi Two Lance. "We don't have an elaborate lightning system," he says. Just a feather. The ritual was born with KILI, at the counsel of spiritual leaders who advised other protections as well, such as sage burning in the station every day. This spiritual interlace is but one remarkable facet of KILI, a singular station that strives to be an organic part of life on Pine Ridge Reservation.

With a 100,000-watt signal and six translators, KILI is one of the most powerful native stations in the country, reaching out over 30,000 square miles. Two Lance estimates that KILI's signal reaches 40,000-50,000 people. It covers most of western South Dakota, part of northwestern Nebraska, and the eastern edge of Wyoming. The station not only serves Pine Ridge, the nation's second-largest reservation, but also parts of four other reservations as well. It also has a significant nonnative following.

Members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) founded KILI in February 1983, in memory of a bloody clash between activists and authorities at Wounded Knee 10 years prior. Wounded Knee was also the site of a larger tragedy, the massacre of hundreds of Sioux by cavalry troops in 1890. With few telephones, no newspaper, and radio signals from the outside only, Pine Ridge desperately needed better means of communication. And the residents were frustrated with mainstream media's negative and stereotypical portraits of native people. Good news about Indians "always ended up on page 18, and the bad stuff on page one," says Two Lance--who eight years ago forsook $13 an hour with the postal service for $50 a week as a KILI trainee. "We were tired of it."

Today KILI airs National Native News from Anchorage and the recently launched talk program Native America Calling from Albuquerque, as well as local news and public affairs programs such as Grey Eagles, in which elders discuss issues like water and land rights. It also offers an eclectic blend of music that includes country, rock, jazz, blues, rap and heavy metal. KILI is one of those stations that "knows where it lives," and reflects the richness of its community, says David LePage, who visited and advised KILI while he was with the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. At any given time, a listener tuning in might hear news being read in the Lakota language, a Roy Orbison tune, testimony before Congress, a rodeo announcer, or cheers from a high school football game. The station broadcasts live from pow wows around the country, traveling as far west as San Diego and as far east as Ledyerd, Conn. It also brings in drum groups who perform live.

Because it is owned by a private corporation, Lakota Communications, KILI is not subject to the same unstated strictures that confine some native stations licensed to tribal governments. The independence allows KILI to objectively address volatile issues such as gaming and to fully air controversies involving the tribal council, Two Lance says. Recently, he says, KILI gave complete coverage to the government's decision to approve a new water supply system that voters had rejected. KILI also broadcasts live every tribal council meeting. "We're like C-SPAN for the tribal council," says Acting General Manager Tom Casey. KILI is not pristinely independent, however; always struggling financially, it takes underwriting from the council for election coverage.

About 25 percent of the station's programming is in Lakota--news and public affairs as well as cultural. Like other native stations, KILI aims to preserve and promote the culture and tradition of its listeners. "At the turn of century," says Casey, "the late 1800s, early 1900s, when the reservation was set up, the government, along with institutions like schools and churches, made a concerted effort to assimilate the Lakota people and wipe out their culture. They punished kids for speaking Lakota in the schools. Traditional ceremonies were prohibited. ... [I]t was really geared toward assimilation. Well, [assimilation] hasn't happened, though it definitely had an impact on people over the past 200 years."

"So in 1983, the first [KILI] deejay is on the air, Calvin Two Lance. He spoke in both Lakota and English, and the impact that it made that day--as well as in the last 12 years--I think [was] incredible."

Today, the station begins each broadcast day with a Lakota prayer, followed by the four-hour bilingual "Early in the Morning Wakalyapi (Coffee) Show." On the studio wall is a sign: "Play a Lakota song every hour."

"Some of us keep remembering"

In recent years, KILI has been embroiled in conflict. In some ways it is the same fight over control and organizational identity seen at many community stations that want listeners to feel like owners. But at KILI, the conflict is complicated and intensified by matters of race, culture and its own history. After its founding, KILI moved away fairly quickly--within a few years--from its conception as an arm of AIM, according to Michael Keith, author of a recent book about native radio. Likewise, Casey is quite clear about AIM's role vis a vis KILI. Though founding the station "continues to be one of [AIM's] outstanding accomplishments," KILI "has done what it set out to do, be a community radio station--and the community is not AIM," he says.

For his part, Two Lance says that some people are "queasy" about the station's ties with the radical AIM, but not him. "I don't mind mentioning AIM. Some of us keep remembering, are proud of who put us here. After '73, when AIM came and left, people understood it was OK to be Indian." Suddenly in fact, "it was cool to be Indian. Now everybody wants to be Indian."

But not everybody is, including Tom Casey. In 1992, the KILI board named Casey--a white man then married to a Lakota woman--acting g.m. And then Casey fired a staffer and canceled a show, and pretty soon a few AIM activists were demanding control of the station, according to Keith and Casey. The way Two Lance puts it, not everyone agreed with the notion of a white man running the station. Eventually, some members of the community set up a camp outside the station. After several court proceedings and a mediation effort that failed in the 11th hour, the encampment fizzled. "Time took its toll," says development director Ed Iron Cloud, who doesn't take sides, only saying that the protesters "wanted to see some changes, but went about it the wrong way." Eventually Casey, who stayed away while the camp was there, returned to work. He says that during the standoff he received death threats and that he and his family were attacked. Today, the board occasionally advertises for a native manager, but for now, Casey is back at the helm. KILI is recovering, Casey says. But there was damage to its image, he believes.

Casey says he doesn't mind serving in an acting capacity. He brings up the station's commitment to sobriety. All station staff, volunteers and board members have committed to sober lifestyles, and the station promotes sobriety in programming. It tries to set an example for a community beset by alcohol and drug addiction. "We see [KILI] as a visible model for the community," he says. "The organization is a very visible organization. In the same way, to have a non-Indian person as manager--"

Casey stops mid-sentence. "I don't think I have to explain," he adds.

Throughout the seven-month encampment, "if the board felt my resignation was beneficial to solve the problem, I would have. But they wanted to deal with this in a peaceful manner."

According to Signals in the Air author Keith, Casey has significant support in the community. "Many people on the reservation say, 'He may be a white guy, but he's a great g.m.'," Keith says. Despite all the strife, Keith says, "KILI has been a phenomenally effective station, a kind of model station. I think they have had luck fundraising, getting grants. Its programming has been generally praised by their own congressmen and own people. It's one of those phoenix-type things, despite the fact there may be smoke and ash."

But the station is still struggling. According to Two Lance, KILI recently failed to submit its audit to the CPB before deadline, so the station for now is out of the minority and rural incentive grant program, losing about $100,000, roughly one-third of its budget. Of course KILI has other money-raising venues. It's had success with national direct-mail campaigns, taking in as much as $100,000. But the recent political problems "have taken us away from that," Casey says. KILI also makes $20,000 to $35,000 on a unique yearly fundraiser: WLIB, a commercial New York station owned by Inner City Broadcasting, gives over its air every Columbus Day to KILI for fundraising. (One of WLIB's managers helped construct and wire the station back in the '80s.) KILI also gets underwriting support, does merchandising, hosts benefits and has local on-air fundraisers once yearly.

Casey says the station will never go under. "Whether or not CPB continues, people here will find one way or another to support the station," he says. "It has become a vital element of the community." Even, or perhaps especially, the "bare bones" stuff--PSAs, birth announcements, memorial songs for departed loved ones, announcements that buses are running late--are a lifeline, he says. "And it happens every day."

There is still disquiet at KILI. Two Lance, whose grandmother (who raised him) was one of the protesters--says that if Casey truly loved the station he would work harder to find a native manager. Asked if there is tension between the g.m. and the p.d., Two Lance says, "Always." The cold war seems to have been exacerbated by Casey's failure to submit the audit papers to CPB on time. But Two Lance also says that he and Casey have agreed to disagree. "KILI is the most important thing," he says. "I may not be here tomorrow. The same for Tom Casey, but the station must remain."

There are plans for the future. Two Lance is about to be schooled as a "master trainer" via the Alaska-based Indigenous Broadcast Center. The program will give him the formal broadcast training he never got, to pass on to his staff and volunteers. And, according to Casey, there's the roof that needs to be fixed, old equipment that needs replacing, a grant KILI just got for new recording equipment, gaps in the broadcast signal that need to be filled, and of course, the digital future up ahead. Quite simply, Casey says, "There are a lot of things to do."



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