Niijii radio was able to get on the air thanks to an FCC ruling that gave "tribal priority" in the licensing process, and a grant that paid for the construction of the studio and necessary equipment. After surviving much of its first year with little to no budget, the station got an additional $115,000 "Legacy Grant" from the state of Minnesota, a taxpayer funded program that invests in projects related to the outdoors, clean water, and the arts. That grant will go towards creating new local programs, including a show about local tribal history and one that connects tribal youth and elders.
JoDan Rousu is the program director and the station's producer. He's also on the air every weekday from 6 to 10 a.m. doing his popular morning show, "Cup of Joe." Niijii's first signature program is a mix of tribal music, community news, a native history lesson, a Anishinaabe word of the day, and a song catalog pulled from MP3 players and CDs dropped off by community members that ranges from Elvis to Snoop Dogg.
"The first song we played was the Smoky Hill Boys," says Rousu. "They were in here live, and they did a grand entry song, and they did a veterans war song. We had a smudging ceremony, a prayer and blessing. It was a beautiful thing."
Indeed, the smell of burning sage in the studio is one of the first clues that Niijii isn't your average radio station. The next is a station bumper sticker that features a reference to "Commod Cheese," an inside joke about the federal food subsidies many Indians still rely on. (It refers to cheese in a can.)
Rousu, who has spent most of his 32 years on the White Earth Reservation, says the new station slogan is "Independent News for an Independent Nation." He has learned to live a traditional Ojibwe life, and he thinks the key to improving conditions in the community is to get more people out trapping, fishing, and gathering wild rice and harvesting maple syrup. He's been using the radio to get this message out to listeners as often as he can.
"The biggest thing that I want to see happen is self-sustainability. That's what I truly want to endorse -- the traditional ways of life -- because we have all the resources we need right here. It's just a matter of knowing how to harness them."
Rousu says he's been trying to change his format lately. He's invited community groups to speak to listeners about chemical abuse, gang violence, and other pressing issues. "We've had many, many people on the reservation actually contacting these programs seeking help. We get feedback from the people who come to talk about it. I do feel like we are helping."
But while Rousu uses his morning show as a mouthpiece to help his tribe move in the right direction, the nighttime programming reflects a different side of White Earth. Late on a Thursday the lights at the station are all on, Tom Petty's "American Girl" is playing, and a couple of members of the White Earth Veterans Association are about to get on the microphones. There are soft drinks, cookies, and potato chips lying around.
The on-air light flashes red and a crew of elders recount a story about an ill-fated bear hunt. It's hard to tell if it's a parable, a joke, or both. When they finish, the initial dead space implies that it's serious. But a moment later, the storytellers burst into raucous laughter. The message to the tens of thousands of potential listeners out there is clear: life on the rez is also fun.