We need to talk about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The Trump administration, in an effort to reduce federal spending by $10.5 trillion over the next 10 years, is considering gutting government agencies, eliminating funding to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and privatising the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) – effectively axing government dollars for public television, radio and online services.
While seemingly trivial – the most visible beneficiaries of CPB funding, NPR and PBS, have said they would be likely to survive without CPB money – the cuts would have significant, negative effects on tribal communities that rely on CPB funding to keep tribal radio stations on the air.
In indigenous communities around the country, where the digital divide is often most pronounced, tribal radio is often the only source for information. Without it, those communities could become even further isolated from the rest of America.
A lifeline for communities
In March of 2014, I wrote a story for Al Jazeera America on the importance of tribal radio to indigenous communities. In Indian country, limited internet access and spotty-to-non-existent cell service have created an environment where radio is a necessity.
At the time, it was estimated that only 10 percent of tribal communities had access to broadband internet. Also, culturally appropriate programming, such as news, music and content produced in indigenous languages, can’t be found anywhere else.
For the Al Jazeera America article, I focused on the Hopi radio station KUYI, 88.1, which is based in the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. This radio station has been the lifeline of the community in times of flooding, wildfires and severe weather, and is still one of the only sources of news for the reservation, providing everything from community calendars to Hopi language programming.
For 2017, Hopi radio’s operating budget is going to be about $286,000, of which more than half, $145,000, comes from the CPB. Without CPB funding, the station would have to cut jobs for production and operation assistants. Language and cultural revitalisation programmes would also be axed, and upkeep and maintenance of their broadcast equipment would cease.
Under President Trump, the Hopi reservation’s single most important source of information, KUYI, would be reduced to bare bones, or go dark, along with nearly 57 other tribal radio stations around the country.
Stations such as KBRW in Utqiagvik, Alaska – the northernmost city in the US; KKWE in Minnesota, on the White Earth Reservation; KGVA, the “voice of the Nakota & White Clay Nations” in Montana; and KLND, serving the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Sioux in North and South Dakota, would all be gravely affected by these budget cuts.
According to Native Public Media – a public broadcasting organisation that serves tribal communities – about half of the nation’s tribal radio stations operate on budgets that are less than $200,000 per year and CPB awards keep most of those stations alive.
This year, the CPB is planning to invest more than $91m in radio community service grants. Awards to tribal radio stations will make up about seven percent of that $91m.
A basic human right
Access to information is a basic human right. Many public and private media organisations around the world have already made a commitment to help indigenous communities to create media outlets.
And under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), it is the right of all indigenous groups to establish media in their own languages and “have access to all forms of non-indigenous media without discrimination” (PDF).
Privatising the CPB could gut one of Indian country's most reliable sources of information, but killing tribal radio isn't just bad policy, it's colonialism.
In Australia, for instance, National Indigenous Television is supported by the government and provides everything from a nightly news programme dedicated solely to aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to an indigenous television channel for children called Jarjums.
The Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation has made it a part of their corporate strategy to strengthen indigenous Sami language and culture by creating culturally appropriate programming, which is broadcast nationally alongside other content. Similar indigenous operations exist in Canada, New Zealand, Ireland and Taiwan.
In other words, many “developed” countries with indigenous populations make a point of supporting and creating culturally appropriate programming by and for aboriginal populations.
However, in the US, media outlets remain generally Indian-free spaces, while Congress refuses to provide any meaningful support to communities disenfranchised by centuries of government policy.
The US attitude towards indigenous media is clearly in contravention of international practice: Under the UNDRIP, states must also take measures to ensure that state-owned media reflect indigenous cultural diversity or should encourage privately owned media organisations to adequately reflect indigenous cultural diversity.
Privatising the CPB could gut one of Indian country’s most reliable sources of information, but killing tribal radio isn’t just bad policy, it’s colonialism – a move that isn’t necessarily out of sync with the Trump administration’s intentions.
Currently, indigenous communities are bracing for a colossal cut to healthcare infrastructure, which is a consequence of rolling back the Affordable Care Act.
Also advisers to the president are hoping to privatise indigenous territories that are rich in oil and gas reserves. And, as President Trump promised, the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline has begun again, despite opposition from nearly every tribal nation and organisation in the country.
On top of all this, remove communications infrastructure and you have a basic recipe to expand American control and power over indigenous people, land, resources and nations.
In the opening weeks of the Trump administration, it’s become clear that Indian country may face death by a thousand cuts; but there is a less discussed, but no less substantial question: Is that what makes America great?
If the nation’s ongoing colonial relationship with indigenous people is any indication, the answer is a resounding yes.
Tristan Ahtone is an award-winning journalist and member of the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma. He serves as Vice President for the Native American Journalists Association.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.