There was once only one way for members of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe to communicate news with members in isolated areas who spoke only the Ute language: Two of its members would travel to the KDGO public radio station in Durango and spend 30 minutes speaking in Ute to disseminate information and updates to non-English speaking members.
In 1976, however, the tribe decided it needed a more efficient way of mass communication among its members. Members knew they needed their own radio station, one with programming mostly in the Ute language that would focus on community news, traditional Native American music, cultural affairs and even personal messages. Thus, the KSUT station in Ignacio was founded, its signal at the time only covering Ignacio and part of Pine River Valley. It was one of only eight tribal stations in the United States in the 1970s, according to its website.
“It was a good way to cover topics and people who weren’t otherwise getting any coverage on other outlets,” said Tami Graham, KSUT’s executive director. “That’s still one of our goals today because folks are still being left out of the conversation.”
To aid in its mission, the radio station recently received a $235,000 grant from Colorado Health Foundation, through the Community Initiated Solutions program, to fund a new tribal media center. The station, along with the KSJD radio station based in Cortez, also received a $135,000 grant from the Colorado Media Project. The two stations, which share a reporter, wrote the proposal together, and will use the grant to fund future projects over the next three years.
“Our goal is always to ensure an informed populace, to be a very direct line of communication with the tribal community,” Graham said. “Historically, their voices have been left out of traditional reporting, or they’ve been underrepresented, if not completely misrepresented in the media. There has always been a sense of distrust toward mainstream news outlets.”
Graham has many objectives on her itinerary, now that she has the necessary funding.
“We’re looking at partnering with KDUR to bring multimedia training opportunities to the Native American students at Fort Lewis,” she said. “We would like more Native American reporters on our team. We also want to expand our Native Lens (a first-person storytelling project of KSUT and Rocky Mountain PBS) program.”
Graham and KSUT news reporter Clark Adomaitis recently held a panel at a meeting in Denver, run by the Colorado Media Project, that invited all news outlets that had received similar grants. The topic was “Advancing Equality in Local News,” and Graham and Adomaitis’ panel focused on covering Indigenous issues from a broader perspective.
“We discussed the struggles we have as a tribal media outlet in southern Colorado,” Graham said. “We struggle to keep reporters. We struggle to gather information from sovereign Native peoples, so that information may be inaccurate. What is shared in their own communities is not so easily shared with us. We talked about the rural area we’re operating in, and the lack of data one could easily get in a more urban environment.”
Those issues were further amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years.
“COVID news became the most important topic at our station, keeping tribal members informed and updated,” Graham said. “But there’s always a question of trusting the news we are giving to them. One of my favorite expressions is, ‘You have to move at the speed of trust,’ and that really encompasses our unique culture down here.”
Community trust and underrepresented voices were among the main topics of conversation at the Colorado Media Project meeting, and KSUT hopes to establish and build trusting relationships within tribal communities in order to bring those underrepresented voices to the forefront.
Long term, Graham is hopeful that with the grant funding, KSUT can also expand collaboration with other Southwest Colorado news outlets.
“That’s really where we want to focus over the next few years,” she said. “Collaboration. Colorado is a really unique state when it comes to collaboration between media outlets.
“It’s encouraged here, whereas in other states, news stations and newspapers and magazines don’t share information,” she said. “They’re actually discouraged to. In Colorado, there’s more of a sense of working together, coordinating efforts, to deliver the news, and I hope that applies to us, too. I hope we can all form that kind of a collaborative network in our area to ensure every single person in our region is getting the information they need when they need it, no matter where they are or who they are.”
An earlier version of this article did not mention the $135,000 Colorado Media Project grant that was given to both KSUT and KSJD.