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Protest broadcasts displeasure with KILI radio : Activists want 'voice of the Lakota nation' to return to programming rooted in Oglala Sioux traditions.

August 31, 1992|DAN BAUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PINE RIDGE LAKOTA INDIAN RESERVATION, S.D. — The reservation's radio station is surrounded. For nearly four months, a camp of protesters has laid siege to KILI, "the voice of the Lakota nation," demanding the resignation of the station's white manager and a return to programming rooted in the Oglala Sioux tribe's language and traditions.

Half a dozen tepees stand at the bottom of Porcupine Butte, from whose slopes rise KILI's studio and 100,000-watt transmitter. Another tepee looms at the crown of the butte, where activists watch to prevent the arrival of Tom Casey, the station manager. A hand-lettered sign counts off the days since the occupation began on May 6.

KILI, one of the nation's first independent American Indian radio stations, was founded in 1979 by members of the American Indian Movement to keep alive the language and traditions of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) tribe and to broadcast information the tribal council--which is supported by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs--might want suppressed, said JoAnn Tall, an original KILI board member.

Porcupine Butte stands barely 10 miles from Wounded Knee, S.D., the site of the three-month AIM uprising in 1973, and on this highly politicized reservation the KILI protest is focusing a broader philosophical debate about the direction American Indian society should be taking.

One of KILI's early objectives was to give voice to the reservation's "treaty people," who hold that the Lakotas' 1851 and 1868 treaties with the U.S. government--which granted the Lakota far more land and sovereignty than they now enjoy--are sacred documents that must be honored.

Treaty people tend to have contempt for those who cooperate with the U.S. government, such as tribal council members and employees. They also resist development schemes that involve sacrificing either land or sovereignty. The debate between the treaty people and those who say their first priority is bringing jobs and income to this desperately poor reservation--where unemployment tops 80%--is the fundamental political struggle here.

"The pressure to sell out our traditions and way of life for money is intense," said Emily Iron Cloud, one of the protest organizers. "There are a few people who are still resisting, and that's what KILI represents."

So when Casey, who is white, became station manager of the non-commercial public radio station in August, 1990, KILI supporters were suspicious. Since then, they say, he has reduced Lakota programming, introduced more and more rock 'n' roll music, fired popular broadcasters and skewed public affairs programming to support development projects.

After repeated petitions and letters of protest were ignored, the protesters say, they resorted to their symbolic blockade of the station's driveway. The station continues to operate, but Casey has largely stayed away.

Sitting at the cluttered kitchen table of his mobile home 10 miles away, Casey said KILI should reflect a broader range of views than just those of traditional elders and treaty people.

A rotund man of 43 with long bushy hair and a chest-length beard, Casey has lived on the reservation with his Lakota wife since 1975, teaching social science at the tribal college and announcing basketball games on KILI. He said he was named manager after a series of disastrous business blunders--which Tall and other KILI supporters acknowledge--nearly bankrupted the station.

The Pine Ridge reservation makes up what has for years been the nation's poorest county, which makes it susceptible to development offers wealthier communities might not consider.

In 1990, the Indian Health Service, the BIA and private pharmaceutical concerns offered the tribe $2 million to allow 1,000 Lakota children to be injected with an experimental hepatitis vaccine. After heated debate, the tribe turned down the offer. It also turned down a plan to place a huge solid-waste dump on the reservation.

But in June, the tribal government allowed--over the protests of traditionalists and environmentalists--the BIA and the federal Department of Agriculture to use a broad swath of the reservation to test an experimental pesticide. It is also considering a proposal to mine zeolite, a porous mineral used in fertilizer and industrial filters, among the fragile formations of the Badlands. Opponents say the mining would fill the windy air here with carcinogenic dust and insult Mother Earth. That last argument still touches even the most assimilated Lakota.

Casey says he has offered to resign, but that the station's board of directors won't let him. As long as the protest continues, he says, he'll manage KILI from home. He defends his decision to promote discussion of development projects. "I live in the world we have," he said. "It ain't great, but it's the one we have."

Tall, said Casey's attitude reflects his essential misunderstanding of the Lakota way. "Every spring when the thunder comes back we would have a c eremony to put an eagle feather on top of the station's tower," she said. "For the first time this year, lightning hit the tower."

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