ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO — Up on the third floor of Oñate Hall, the broadcast center for radio station KUNM-FM at the University of New Mexico, a pungent, distinctive aroma hangs in the midday air. It seems out of place in the halls of what looks like a nondescript college office building.
"Did you smell the burning sage when you walked in? It has a calming effect on me," says Harlan McKosato, who’s about to race into Studio 49 at KUNM for the latest live installment of Native America Calling.
For the last seven years, McKosato, 37, has hosted this five-day-a-week "electronic talking circle." The hour-long, often-controversial program covers topics ranging from college sports teams’ Indian mascots to pumping groundwater from beneath the Navajo and Hopi reservations.
The show "comes from our tradition of democracy," says the soft-spoken McKosato, whose tribal roots are in Oklahoma with the Sac and Fox/Ioway nations. "The concept of a talking circle uses an object, maybe a staff with feathers on it or a shell with burning sage in it, something that symbolizes humbling yourself in front of the Creator. Everyone gets a chance to talk ... but at the same time (we) recognize the protocol not to talk too long."
The show airs on some 45 public and tribal stations in the Western United States and across Alaska; health care, education and land preservation are among its most popular issues. "How we tap into natural resources, that’s always a big one," McKosato says. He’s done several programs on the Bush administration’s energy bill, a proposal that he says "has caused a lot of division among the tribes." The legislation, which would allow greater tribal control over energy development, has its defenders in Indian Country because it would eliminate "all this bureaucratic red tape," McKosato says. "But others worry: ‘Do the tribes have the leadership to enforce their own regulations and be accountable?’ "
McKosato fields phone calls ranging from Ketchikan, Alaska, to Chinle, Ariz. On one recent show on logging in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, a Mescalero Apache listening on the Internet called to offer support to his "brothers and sisters" in the north.
The show allows "the common person on the reservation to call in and speak their minds," says Tom Goldtooth, the executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, a Minnesota-based grassroots tribal group. "It informs Indian Country on some hard-core issues that are not covered in the mainstream media, with an open-mindedness to try to get both sides."
McKosato came to Albuquerque a decade ago to work with a nonprofit group called UNITY (United National Indian Tribal Youth). He began working at NAC shortly after it went on the air and subsequently replaced the first host. He says he aims his program not only at Native Americans but also at non-tribal listeners.
"Growing up in Oklahoma where my best buddies were white guys, I don’t think I have the prejudice a lot of people experienced on some of the reservations," he says. "In a lot of ways, I think I was chosen for this position as bridge-builder between the cultures." That attitude guides his choice of topics, he says: "Is it going to empower listeners in some way about better choices they can make, and does it have an element where the non-natives can feel like they can connect?"
Keith Harper of the Native American Rights Fund says the show’s influence has been "extraordinary and dramatic." Harper, a Cherokee who’s the lead lawyer in the massive lawsuit to force the federal government to turn over millions of dollars in oil and gas, grazing and logging royalties owed to tribes (HCN, 2/4/02: Indian trust is anything but), says the program "really has aided non-Indian people to understand us, and it has aided Indians to know what’s going on in law, politics and society." When he appeared on the show to discuss the royalty case, "we got calls from all over the place," including Canada, where the program sparked discussions about a similar situation in that country.
Unlike his higher-decibel, right-leaning AM-radio talk counterparts, easygoing McKosato doesn’t tolerate long-winded ravings and complaints. "I never did see the benefit of bitching and moaning," he says. "We’ve got to educate people."
McKosato himself has been the subject of controversy, most recently for his now-admitted "struggle with alcohol" that led last year to an arrest for domestic violence and later to a driving-while-intoxicated charge. Anchorage-based Koahnic Broadcasting Corporation, which produces the program, pulled him off the air for two weeks. When McKosato returned, he admitted his problems — and said that he had quit drinking and is in court-ordered counseling sessions. He’s discussed the incidents with listeners and hosted two programs on tribal alcohol abuse. "It was a wake-up call," he says. "It’s something that’s been with me, the struggle with alcohol. But if I screw up again, I’ll resign. They won’t have to fire me. I want to be worthy of being seen as an influential leader."
Back at Oñate Hall, McKosato readies for yet another show, shuffling papers under a single, green-shaded light in otherwise darkened Studio 49. "I still get nervous," he says, and he worries whether guests will show up or listeners will call. But McKosato adds that he always has a sure-fire back-up plan. "Any time I get into trouble, I just open up the lines on the topic, ‘who’s an Indian and who’s not?’ The lines just light up," he says. "It’s the most popular and volatile show we do."
The author writes from Socorro, New Mexico.
To listen to the show online, or to find station affiliates, visit www.nativeamericacalling.com.