When We Experience Freedom

An Interview with Loris Ann Taylor by Jenny Toomey

Loris Ann Taylor & Jenny Toomey

Changing media policy has affected and will continue to shape how art is made and distributed, whose voices are heard, and who has access to those voices. To take an angle on this multifaceted subject, we invited two articulate media experts into a conversation about their work—work that has profound implications for artists and for social justice activists. Jenny Toomey, executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, interviews Loris Taylor, executive director of Native Public Media. They envision realignments that can extend freedom and self-determination to groups that traditionally have been left out of media.

Loris Ann Taylor and Jenny Toomey escaped the icy hotel corridors of the 2007 National Federation of Community Broadcasters conference in New Orleans and met for scoops of unbelievably delicious ice cream at the newly restored Louisiana landmark Angelo Brocados.

Jenny Toomey: What's your favorite kind of ice cream?

Loris Taylor: Oh my goodness. Oh, I've always been so conservative. I like strawberry and vanilla. (Laughter) I mean—yeah, nothing really exotic; although I can be persuaded.

Jenny Toomey: That's right. I saw you dipping in a little bit to my dolce de leche.

Loris Taylor: Yeah—I have this feeling like there can't be anything better than just having vanilla and strawberry. I didn't grow up with a whole lot of chocolate.

Jenny Toomey: Really, why is that?

Loris Taylor: Well, I was raised in a really small village where we had no running water and electricity. And we certainly didn't have chocolate candy bars. If they came to the only local trading post, that was like, oh gosh, close to two miles away, the candy was usually stale. It traveled from God knows where to the Hopi reservation and so I never really had a taste for chocolate. I do like milk chocolate once in a while.

Jenny Toomey: I like it when it's mixed with something, but I don't like—

Loris Taylor: Yeah, I do too. Yeah, some of it is much too sweet, I think.

Jenny Toomey: Chocolate and nuts. Chocolate and (Laughter) orange—

Loris Taylor: (Laughter) There you go.

Jenny Toomey: On to more important (if less delicious) business: What's the biggest misconception about tribal sovereignty that you run into running Native Public Media?

Loris Taylor: I think the biggest misconception about tribal sovereignty is that people think it's something different from what they initially understand, when it's really quite the same. I think we have a lot in common in terms of vision and values with the rest of the Americans in this country. The struggle of Native Americans in this country has been a struggle for freedom, which I see as the same struggle as the one expressed by those people who sailed across the ocean to come here and the same struggles that are currently taking place in Darfur and other corners of the world.

If you were to look back at Native America from a historical perspective, the commonality across the tribes was that they wanted the freedom to be left alone by a dominating and encroaching non-Indian society. They wanted to live a life as they chose on their own homeland. They wanted the freedom to pursue their own ideas of what their future should be like. They wanted to have the freedom to remain separate and apart from the larger society, to maintain their own tribal homelands, to have their own tribal governments, and to practice their customs and religion.

I think that non-Natives also struggle for those very same principles but in a different context. And I think that's why it's a misconception that tribal sovereignty is considered something completely different from their experience when it's really just talking about the same freedoms we all desire.

Jenny Toomey: What does tribal sovereignty have to do with media, arts, and culture? Why should these grantmakers who are focusing their portfolios on all sorts of media, arts, and culture projects care about tribal sovereignty? How does it intersect with their mission-driven work?

Loris Taylor: Why should they care? The landscape for social justice work offers us new combinations of opportunity. In media justice work, for example, I believe we're in a revolutionary period. There are regulatory and legislative changes occurring and there are major shifts in media ownership and media structures. And tying all this into tribal sovereignty or nation building for Indian tribes gives us a tremendously powerful frame through which to process this change. I think the one thing that we've learned is that there are no guardians of democracy other than ourselves. We have to tell our own stories in order to keep our histories, our cultures, and our languages alive. This is the test and I'm always reminded by what happens to Native cultures if we become complacent about our democratic guardianship.

I had a grandfather who was a leader on the Hopi reservation during the 1800s. Lololma journeyed to the east and came back and told the Hopi people that we needed to get educated because that was how we were going to survive in the future. And he gave this really long, wonderful speech that is constantly being retold generation to generation at Hopi but it has never been captured in the history books of the U.S. So I think the moment that we take the pen from the one who is writing our history and we start to write it ourselves, I think that's when we experience freedom.

I think those are some of the intersections that people who are non-Native are also experiencing. They know that there's an intersection between the freedom that they're seeking and the ability to exercise their own self-determination. To be able to determine your own destiny is a really huge deal and I think a lot of people are looking for that—Native and non-Native alike.

Jenny Toomey: How is the American Indian community distinct from other communities, and how does this impact the policy and advocacy work of Native Public Media?

Loris Taylor: Native Americans in this country were nations even before the pioneers came across the ocean. They had their own governments. They had their own judicial systems where they decided how conflicts would be mediated. They had economies that brought them different revenue streams and food production. They had art, history, music, and stories. Tribes were self-governing nations.

If you read through the U.S. Constitution they refer to Indian tribes as nations, and as a result what followed was this unique relationship that developed over time between the federal government, which is a sovereign on its own, the state government, which is also a sovereign, and tribal governments, who are also sovereign. So you have three sovereigns that Native Americans have learned to embrace as part of their universe.

In modern context today, we have tribes that are developing tribal courts or have had tribal court systems for a very long time. They have cultural institutions, colleges, and law enforcement. They pretty much have what other city governments have. The only thing that tribal nations can't do today is raise armies and coin money, which is left to the federal government.

So in this context, when you have tribal governments who are recognized as having sovereign authority over their own land, people, and resources, it results in a unique government-to-government relationship between the three sovereigns. And so because of this distinction, Native Americans are different from other minorities, like the Hispanic community or like the Asians or the Blacks, who look to the state government for their own social service or welfare—their own personal welfare in terms of healthcare, education, and other services. There's a real distinction and an advantage that is codified in tribal law. For example, there's a clear connection between tribal nations and Congress when legislation is considered that is specific to tribal governments and tribal nations. As a result, media plays a role in the nation-building of tribal nations.

Jenny Toomey: Can you tell me more about how this distinction impacts your policy and advocacy work? What are the practical implications of this distinction that Native Americans have due to sovereignty?

Loris Taylor: I am often asked, “How are you going to achieve long-term transformational systemic change in terms of the media landscape serving Indian country.” And that's a tremendously important question.

To begin with, I don't think that you can make any real change in the media landscape of Indian country unless you include policy, unless you have a voice at the table. And we're not just talking about our voice over the air waves—we're talking about our voice at the table when people are talking about net neutrality, when they're talking about media ownership, when they're talking about limits on how many applications an applicant can file in the upcoming FCC Non-Commercial Educational filing window. All these issues are extremely important to Native media.

We may be small fish in the ocean, and that's precisely why we can articulate concerns about inclusion, parity, and equity. If the little people are not heard in the important policy discussions that are going on in this country, if they're not consulted about issues of infrastructure, such as tower siting on tribal homelands, or about intellectual property rights over the different avenues of communication highways, then we've lost, I think, the inclusion of what media reform is supposed to be all about.

I think that's why Native Public Media's work is extremely important. Our sovereignty gives us standing and our experience articulates the necessity of inclusion. We bring that important, often excluded voice to the table whether it's in the halls of the FCC, before Congress, before tribal governments, or before the communities we serve.

Jenny Toomey: You and I once discussed common phenomena where activist communities address inclusion or parity or “media justice” issues using a framework of guilt or tokenism as opposed to a sense of strategic import. Why do you believe it is so strategically important to create this Native Media Blueprint? It's clear that the Native American story is a very strong one that articulates exactly what media reform is supposed to be doing. But beyond that, what are the practical or strategic reasons why having successes in the Native community can lead to successes in other communities as well?

Loris Taylor: I was just reading a report this morning that talked about podcasts and satellite radio and all these new, different technologies and platforms that are supposed to help all of us communicate better, to exchange information and to participate more fully and to be engaged at a greater level. In terms of pragmatic and realistic applications of technology for Native people, radio has traditionally been the most important medium. We currently have thirty-three public radio stations serving Indian country. These are all based on tribal homelands except for one, which is based out of Anchorage, Alaska.

I think sometimes we forget that even in this country, which is the richest and the wealthiest and the most technologically advanced, that there are still isolated pockets of people who are not on the communications highway—any highway. And they are underserved and underrepresented, and so if it remains that way, they just fall increasingly behind. A few years ago, a Navajo girl won a contest and the prize was a computer. It made the headlines in northern Arizona because she was unable to plug in the computer because she didn't have electricity and she didn't have access to telephone service either. So she couldn't get onto the Internet highway.

At Native Public Media, one of our visions is to offer opportunities where we can leapfrog over the digital divide. I mean, technology is moving so fast that what was not possible even ten years ago is more possible today with the new generation. So what if we don't have telephone service, there's technology today that can connect people without having that wired technology on the reservation.

Traditionally, we used to wait for the technology to come to us. We'd say, “One day we're going to have a T-1 line so we can have tele-medicine in our healthcare system.” Today wireless technology is making it possible for us to get medical attention way out in isolated, rural communities and on Indian reservations.

Deploying new technology is really an important part of Native Public Media's mission. How do we connect people today using the technology and platforms that are coming down the pike or that are available today—to bring our own stories, our own history, our own languages to people that have not traditionally been recipients of this type of information, over a system that is uniquely theirs?

Jenny Toomey: I think that's tremendously smart because there are countries that are poorer than the United States that are leaping past us technologically simply because of that. When you go to parts of Africa that are rural and everyone has cell phone service because they didn't have the resources to implement the physical infrastructure that supports the older media model…It's the same thing in Korea with Korea's tremendous adoption of cell phone and wireless technology.

So I love what you are saying because you're marrying both things: the responsibility that we have as activists to not leave these cultures and communities behind, but also the opportunities that we are presented by these communities' sovereignty and lack of infrastructure. These are valuable areas for experimentation: areas with tremendous need, areas without some of the bureaucracy and without the competing existing infrastructure. If Native communities did find ways to move forward with, for example, wireless alternatives, you would be able to move forward much more quickly. Then this work would be the template that other communities can model.

Loris Taylor: Right. Our work in the trenches of Native American communities ties directly to what's happening with policy making in this country. Sometimes it seems like our work and policymaking are two ships in the night. There's a running joke in Indian country, and it's probably the same in other ethnic communities, where if you see one Native you've “seem them all.” That used to be the template for policymaking for Indian country by other people who were non-Native. A one-size-fits-all approach.

What we're saying is that the blueprint project will customize the media infrastructure, its deployment, and its use specific to a tribal community. The Sioux people may have something completely different in mind than the Hopi people, than the Chickasaw. There are many different tribal nations. So what we're trying to say to the tribal nations is, “We respect your tribal sovereignty. We respect your right to determine your own media destiny. We're here to help you but you're going to help us to determine what that's going to look like.” And it's also going to depend on what the media landscape looks like right now. Some of our tribal communities are in saturated markets for radio. Some of them are completely locked out where there are no frequencies available for them.

So the blueprint project is not about throwing our hands up in the air and saying, “Well, geez, we're so sorry that you're in a locked-out or saturated market. There's not much we can do for you so good-bye.” What we would rather say is, “That may be the situation at this moment in time, but because there are new technologies and new platforms, let's take a look at what those new technologies and platforms can do for your community so that you're as equally engaged as those people that might have access to terrestrial radio.”

So in that way, part of Native Public Media's work is not just about having our feet grounded in our tribal communities but also really trying to keep our hands on the pulse of what's happening with the media industry in America. What's happening with conglomeration? What's happening with diversification? Because both of these forces really have important implications for the future of Native media.

On the other hand, media conglomeration and diversification could offer opportunities for participation if we're kept in the loop. I mean, there's so many ways to exclude people. I'm finding this out as I work in policymaking. (Laughter) It's incredible the power of a pen to paper. So I think expanded participation is one of our goals. Strengthening the systems that we currently have and really just making sure that we're included in the room where media discussion takes place.

Jenny Toomey: With Native Public Media at the table, how are you planning to advance media access, ownership, and control for your community.

Loris Taylor: Well, before 2004 there really wasn't a central voice for Native media out there. There were thirty-three radio stations working in isolation from one another. My station was one of those stations. And so since the birth of Native Public Media in December of 2004 (we're a little over three years), the question has been “How do you transform your environment?” I was reading Jim Wallace the other day and he said the real practitioners of social change like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi understood something very important. They knew that you don't change a society by merely replacing what one wet-finger politician does. (Those who put their fingers up to see which way the wind is blowing with another.) You change society by changing the wind. Change the wind, transform the debate, recast the discussion, alter the context in which political decisions are being made, and you will change the outcome. And so I was like, wow, that speaks to me.

So I think some of the things that we're trying to do are both from the outside in and the inside out. The inside is working with our communities on the blueprint project and building capacity in media. Making sure that we have more storytellers, more programmers, more station managers, more engineers, that sort of thing. But we're also on a national scale advocating for Native media ownership. I would love for the FCC to hold a media ownership hearing specific to Indian country because of our distinction from other minorities and because we have tribal nations that have self-governing powers. I think they need to hear from us about how media ownership in this country is affecting our voice on a larger scale.

Jenny Toomey: Do you think they're going to do that?

Loris Taylor: Well, I'm certainly pushing for it constantly. (Laughter) I'm that noisy, little squeaky wheel that's just not going to go away. We all want a voice and so Native Americans are no different. We want to be heard in this really important discussion about media ownership.

The second thing we're trying to do is to make sure that Native Americans in this country are aware that the FCC NCE [Noncommercial Educational television] window has been announced. We have six months, a very short time, to get over 562 tribal nations in this country to participate or engage or at least be aware that this is happening. We also need to make sure that the Alaska Natives and the Native Hawaiians are included in this process. It's not a whole lot of time. Native Public Media is only three years old, so people are just getting to know us. And so the challenge is really to get out there—it's really the gospel of ownership that's going on right now from Native Public Media.

We're calling up tribes by telephone. We're doing mini frequency searches to make sure that if there's a frequency available in their neighborhood they're aware of it so that they can be able to go to the next step. We've located engineers and attorneys who can help respond to their immediate needs. And we're also looking at post-NCE window activities like financing, making sure that they have their construction license in order, making sure that they have the resources; so long-term there's a lot of work to be done. We're also responding to some of the public notices that are coming out of the FCC, whether it's about broadband or net neutrality or whether it's about broadcasting specific Notices of Inquiry—we're trying to respond to those as they are announced. And so we have our hands full trying to make sure that we're on record as speaking up for Native America and making sure that we're also being considered.

Further, we hope to get a tribal title into the 1996 Telecommunications Act Rewrite. A tribal title acknowledges that there are tribal nations in this country. And it specifically recognizes the jurisdiction and the authorities of tribal government. And so we're working on that tribal title. We know that the rewrites to the Telecom Act might be a really long, long process. In 1996, when the Telecom Act was passed, all the areas that pertained to tribal law and tribal government were stricken. So they never made it into the '96 Act.

Jenny Toomey: That's amazing.

Loris Taylor: Today we're much better positioned. We're more fully engaged today and more aware of the legislative and regulatory changes that are being proposed, albeit there are so many. And so I think Native Public Media is positioned such that we're helping to navigate those murky waters of media regulatory and legislative changes on behalf of tribes. It's a big task but someone's got to do it.

Jenny Toomey: Yep, and that's you.

Loris Taylor: Yeah, it keeps me awake at night because I'm constantly asking, “What's going on? Who's doing what? Who are the players? Where do the interests intersect? Where do we conflict? Where do we need to negotiate probably some time in the future? What do we need to park in our parking lot and go back to and study more?” All these questions are quite consuming and comprehensive in nature. So that's another thing we're trying to do.

We're also trying to make sure that we're talking with our tribal constituency out there. There's an economic summit coming up in May and this is where the tribal leaders are convening in Phoenix and they're talking about tribal economies and how they're going to advance the development of economic systems on their tribal homelands and off-reservation as well. And they're talking about a full range of economic activities from corporations to financial literacy to telecom. And so Native Public Media needs to be there because we are a part of their economic system. We provide employment. We help in building the communication highways. There are new businesses that are emerging because of telecommunications. And so that's part of our job. What's important about this particular convening is that they're going to develop long-term policy goals for Indian country across tribal nations. It's quite a unique convening and pretty powerful, I think.

Jenny Toomey: Any final thoughts?

Loris Taylor: I would like to include something about how all this work connects directly to the people themselves. Media establishes our sense of place and our sense of who we are. It's about validation and about our place in this world. It's about what culture, history, and language is all about. It's about the songs that we sing and the stories that we tell, and the public safety networks that we have. It's about the rule of law. It's about civic participation and engagement. It's about democracy and the freedom to be who we are—the freedom to remain Hopi, the freedom to remain Pequot, Zuni, Aleut, Sioux, or Hawaiian. I think that's what media means to us. And that's the connection back to the cultural aspects of a community.

Jenny Toomey: You couldn't have said it better.

Loris Taylor: Sometimes we lose sight of that. We think about media as being entertainment or just informational. We forget that there are real people behind the networks and the system.