During the Rocky Boy Pow-wow this week, native voices will be heard loudly on Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation, from the announcer’s box, in the bands performing and the crowds cheering for dancers. But one native voice will sound above the rest, the voice of KHEW 88.5 FM, Rocky Boy radio.
KHEW is celebrating its first anniversary during the powwow, after first broadcasting at last year’s.
Everyone involved with the station seems amazed at what they have been able to build over just one year and eager to see what possibilities the future holds.
Michael “Big Mike” Corcoran has become the head announcer at the station, reading out the information — event times and locations, tribal meetings, public service announcements — that he said has become one of the most important parts of the station.
“There’s a lack of media and information, ” Big Mike said. “It’s always been word of mouth, a lot of rumors. ”
For the past year, however, one reliable source of information has been beamed across the reservation, into the radios of cars, homes and computers. And Big Mike has seen the community notice.
“Our round dances were packed this year, ” Big Mike said. “The whole community shows up to everything we announce. ”
Big Mike said that he once slipped up while speaking on air and an elder called in to correct him. After the call Big Mike realized that this elder must have been listening to the hour-long hard rock set he had just played, and realized just how universal the station is.
Pete Sutherland, known to listeners as “Retro Native, ” almost single-handedly staffs the air over the weekends. His biggest hit show, Retro Sunday Night from 7 to 10 p. m., draws some of the station’s biggest audiences with classic rock and country music.
He also hosts a contemporary Christian music show, Morning Grace, on Sunday mornings from 8 to 10 a. m. and does some freeform DJ’ing on Fridays and Saturdays.
Listeners frequently call in for a shot at a modest cash prize, to announce a birthday or dedicate a song. Sutherland once had a request for some Bob Seger come in from Floweree.
Those sorts of calls, and that relationship between station and audience, help the station draw listeners for the important information they broadcast, like news or a regular educational segment teaching people a Cree word or phrase of the day.
“It helps us stay current, information-wise, ” Retro Native said.
Frank “Superfuzz” Stiffarm, who hosts a metal show on Wednesday nights from 10 p. m. to midnight, said he recognizes the “connection to the outside world” that the station has become for many reservation residents — ”it’s a lot easier than making one thousand phone calls” — but the music is just as important.
“It’s a pure thing. Music has healing power, ” Superfuzz said. “There are a lot of times I’ve been down and out and a couple of songs or an album really help me. I don’t know where I’d be, in my mind, without it. ”
How it began
The music, the connection to the world, almost didn’t make it to the reservation.
The station’s studio was erected quickly last summer to beat the deadline on a program that helped set the station up, just in time for a live broadcast from the powwow’s grand entry.
The studio is built across two rooms of the reservation’s Tribal Water Resources Department.
Chippewa Cree Business Committee member Joe LaFromboise, who is also on the KHEW Board of Directors, said Water Resources Department Director Jay Eagleman stepped up to get the station going, becoming the station manager.
Big Mike said that, starting out, they received some technical advice from the engineers who set the station up, but a lot of the training came through googling.
Friends lend hands
Eagleman said that the key to their success has been all of the advice and assistance they’ve received from the staff of KGVA 88.1 FM, the Fort Belknap radio station.
Gerald Stiffarm, KGVA’s manager, said that there were three reasons the relationship has worked so well.
The first was the ease and necessity of their collaboration as native public radio stations. The two reservations, and respective stations, are bound culturally.
Another reason is the existing tie between Rocky Boy and the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. Their proximity and cultural ties have led to a strong connection, through generations of socializing and marriages, between the two reservations’ four nations, the Chippewa, Cree, Nakota or Assiniboine and White Clay or Gros Ventres peoples.
The last reason Stiffarm offered was the humility with which KHEW has approached KGVA for help.
“We get to mentor them, ” Stiffarm said. “They’re humble enough to always seek assistance, to work side by side well beyond the call of duty. They were so eager to learn, it conveys the honor of the Chippewa Cree. ”
The collaboration continues this weekend, as both stations work to broadcast the region’s major cultural event to as wide a native audience as possible, even possibly working with KSUT, from the South Ute Indian Reservation’s station, in southwestern Colorado.
As the collaboration continues, both are geared to grow and strengthen the presence of native public radio on the Hi-Line.
Big Mike described KHEW’s attempts over the past year to get involved in as many activities as possible, broadcasting powwows, rodeos, basketball games and cultural events.
And looking back on this year of experimentation and expansion, LaFromboise is excited about what the possibilities the station holds.
“We are just scratching the surface of what we can do, ” LaFromboise said. “Just imagine once we learn to fully utilize this tool we have.
“There’s no limit. ”