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April 30th, 2003 Nathan Dinsdale | Music Stories
 

Radio Free RezRadio Free Rez

In the heart of the Warm Springs Reservation, a unique station beams smokin'

     
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KEEP THE TRIBE ALIVE: Wayne Gilbert and Mary Sando-Emhoolah work magic with KWSO's threadbare equipment.
IMAGE: stephen voss
Road 3 is not where you'd expect to find 50 Cent.

The faded blacktop meanders through sagebrush-scented canyons and table-top plateaus in the rolling, high-desert hills of Central Oregon. Craggy Cascade snow cones jut into the blue canopy over the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.

Yet there it is, 50 Cent's mega-hit "In Da Club," thumping from the car stereo. The 25-year-old bullet depository's thuggish thesis on shorties, parties, shorties at parties and the social ramifications thereof makes an odd soundtrack for this Ansel Adams-in-Technicolor day.

"Thank you for listening to 91.9 FM, KWSO, your station on the reservation," a soft voice intones after Cent's soliloquy concludes. "It's time for the news."

A quilt raffle. A pep rally. Big antique show in Redmond. The latest carnage in Iraq. Then, powwow drums thundering in unison. A half-chanting, half-wailing chorus rings out, exploring sweet peaks and mournful valleys of human vocal range.

If this sounds like nothing else on the radio, that's because KWSO is unlike any other station in Oregon. The Warm Springs Reservation's official station, 3,500 watts beamed from a squat, peeling-brown building a few hundred yards from Kah-Nee-Ta Resort's casino, is one of the last lines of defense against the cultural evaporation of Oregon's biggest Native American community.

"We have become the modern smoke signals," station manager Mary Sando-Emhoolah says.

KWSO's hybrid of popular hits, tribal music, and local and national Native American news links 3,700 people scattered across the reservation's 1,000 square miles. The station spins Clapton and Coldplay, the Doors and the Donnas, Norah Jones and Nas. Traditional powwows and drum circles share airspace with Native American rappers and rockers. On-air language lessons breathe life into the embattled ancestral tongues of the reservation's three confederated tribes, the Warm Springs, Wasco and Paiute.

"In essence, the radio station has become the town crier," Sando-Emhoolah says. "Our information is tailored to our community because there isn't anybody else out there meeting our needs."

Needs? In the home to nearly half of Oregon's Native American population, unemployment hovers at 40 percent. One-third of families with young children live in poverty, and there are a lot of children. The average age is 23.9 compared to 36.3 state-wide. More than 70 percent of the Rez's residents are under age 35.

As the tribe grows younger, centuries of tradition fade. "When I was growing up, our traditional teaching was incorporated into our lives every day," the 45-year-old Sando-Emhoolah says. "Now it's a challenge to get our young people to have that traditional lifestyle. This is the computer-connected generation, wired from birth. We're just trying to make some of those connections cultural."

Yet instead of freezing out 21st-century pop culture, KWSO eagerly pipes it in. Implicit in the station's M.O. is the idea that tribal members can simultaneously live modern lives and keep their heritage alive and thriving. If Aerosmith and Avril Lavigne can help, so much the better.

"You could call it subliminal messaging," Sando-Emhoolah says of the station's pop content. "I wouldn't say it's a necessary evil, because part of our mission is to entertain our audience. Our main objective is to emphasize the cultural aspect, and in doing that, we want to reach the largest audience possible, which is the youth."

"It's an intuitive balancing act," says Rudy Clements, the reservation's director of tribal relations. "The station tries to reach as many people as it can with the cultural and educational stuff, and you can help do that by entertaining, either with old-fogey music for people like me, or that rap stuff for the young people."

As a teenager, Wayne Gilbert, KWSO's 24-year-old music director, practiced his microphone craft by mimicking the station's DJs. He eventually translated a summer job running the station's duct-tape-and-coat-hanger equipment into a full-time vocation. Along the way, he's seen the mixed success of using popular music as a gateway to native culture.

"I know some young people who like the native music as much as the popular stuff," Gilbert says. "I also have friends who, for whatever reason, turn off the radio when traditional music comes on."

For Gilbert, the station's cultural mission is paramount, but he also sees the value of serving as a lifeline to the wide world for his isolated desert community.

"Hearing Kris Kross was a big thing for me when I was a kid," Gilbert says. "There wasn't really anything like that on the radio around here, and so I knew I could listen to music I liked on KWSO. A lot of what we play can help people like me remember our culture."

"We're like salmon swimming upstream," Sando-Emhoolah says. "We've made a lot of progress, but we have to continue moving forward. The elders tell us that nobody is promised tomorrow. We want to make sure that if there isn't a tomorrow for me or you, there will always be a tomorrow for KWSO."


The Warm Springs station is bankrolled almost entirely with tribal funds.




In the Sherman Alexie movie Smoke Signals, the station KREZ plays a central role.




Two- year- old KYNR, AM 1490, the Yakima Indian Nation station in Toppenish, Wash., uses a similar format of pop music interspersed with programs from the national American Indian Radio on Satellite network.
 
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