Protesters aim to preserve 'voice of the Lakota nation'

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

July 13, 1992|By Dan Baum | Dan Baum,Contributing Writer

PINE RIDGE LAKOTA INDIAN RESERVATION -- The reservation's radio station is surrounded.

For more than two months, protesters have 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.

A half-dozen tepees stand at the bottom of Porcupine Butte, site of 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 the days since the occupation began May 6.

KILI, one of the country's first independent Indian radio stations, was founded in 1979 by members of the American Indian Movement (AIM). Its purpose was to keep alive the language and traditions of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) tribe and to broadcast political information the federally supported tribal council might want suppressed, said JoAnn Tall, one of KILI's original board members.

Porcupine Butte stands barely 10 miles from Wounded Knee, the site of the three-month uprising by AIM in 1973. On this highly politicized reservation, the KILI protest focuses 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 contend that the Lakota's 1851 and 1868 treaties with the U.S. government -- granting the Lakota far more land and sovereignty than they now enjoy -- are sacred documents that must be honored.

Treaty people tend to hold in contempt those who cooperate with the federal government, such as tribal council members and employees, and resist development schemes that involve sacrificing either land or sovereignty to outside interests.

The Pine Ridge reservation comprises one of the poorest counties in America, making it susceptible to development offers that wealthier communities might not consider: experimental drug and pesticide programs, mining, and a landfill.

The debate between treaty people and those who say their first priority is bringing jobs and income to this desperately poor reservation -- where unemployment tops 80 percent -- 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 Mr. Casey 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 mainstream rock 'n' roll, fired popular broadcasters, and skewed public-affairs programming to support development projects that the station's original constituency opposes.

After repeated petitions and letters of protest were ignored, the protesters say, they resorted to their symbolic blockade of the station's driveway. But the station continues to operate.

Sitting in his mobile home 10 miles away, Mr. Casey said KILI should reflect a broad range of views.

Mr. Casey, 43, has lived on the reservation with his Lakota wife since 1975. He says that 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 the station from home.

He defends his decision to promote discussion of development projects that traditionalists say offend the spirits. "I live in the world we have," he said. "It ain't great, but it's the one we have."

Ms. Tall said Mr. Casey's attitude reflects his essential misunderstanding of the Lakota way.

"Every spring when the thunder comes back, we would have a ceremony to put an eagle feather on top of the station's tower," she said. They still do it, but "for the first time this year, lightning hit the tower."

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