“It gets complicated when you’re Native,” said Mary Jean Robertson. “If you’re not out there doing the work, you’re coming up with new laws or putting all your focus on raising funds for lawyers to get people out of jail.”
Now in her 45th year hosting “Webworks: Voices of the Native Nations,” Robertson broadcasts weekly from the Western Addition studios of KPOO-FM, San Francisco. As one of the station’s original DJs, her show with an indigenous perspective not only forges vital connections between nations, but it also provides a unique opportunity for the rest of us: “To hear from the original majority, from the people who are connected to it,” she said.
Robertson was a young woman working for the phone company when her life naturally intersected with the former student organizers, cultural studies advocates and technologists who founded the station in 1973. KPOO’s devotion to diverse community interests and deep cultural affairs, including Native matters, then and now, can be traced to the spirit of the station’s longtime general manager, Joe Rudolph, who passed away in 2001.
“He’d go up to Humboldt and work with the Hupa who were putting together their own radio station, so there’s always been this interesting tie-in with KPOO and Native people,” Robertson said. “When we first got on the air, the board said, ‘There will always be a Native program on the station.’
“Back then, the program’s focus was on all the work that had to be done, because they were still terminating tribes and sterilizing women, and we needed to have someone talking about it,” added Robertson, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation.
Harrison Chastang, KPOO’s news director for 30 years, underscored the unique role Robertson plays in community radio. “She’s been a tremendous resource as long as I’ve been at the station, he said. “She’s been a mentor to many, many young Native Americans.”
San Francisco Poet Laureate Kim Shuck, who is part Cherokee and among Robertson’s close friends agreed, “Her commitment to others is intense.”
Tune into the show and you’ll hear Robertson running down the calendar for spring pow wow season, enthusing about Native chefs reclaiming indigenous foods like wild salmon and foraged grains and greens and delivering hard news on climate change, the privatization of natural resources and the environmental impact of developing sacred and protected land.
“The Ohlone people, the Pomo people, the Miwok people, people all up and down the coast are praying for the continuation of the world, not just for themselves, but for the world,” she said. “When their ceremonies are disturbed, it’s a disruption of the world, between the souls of the ancestors and people who are alive.”
Even with the advent of internet radio, there remains an urgent need for Native airtime, as well as cause to preserve the art of radio itself, especially on reservations where tribal radio is a primary and vital form of emergency alert communication.
“These are very isolated places in Montana and Oklahoma, dirt roads, not convenient, impossible to get any place fast. There is no Wi-Fi, there are no cellphone towers — it’s too mountainous and there are valleys,” Robertson said. “If a flash flood or fire is coming, you have to be able to get your animals up and out and be sure you’re not there and know where your children are.”
Because of the extreme poverty conditions of reservations, the digital divide disproportionately impacts Native nations. But recruiting the next generation of broadcasters to take on the monumental task of connecting the urban and reservation population has proven to be tricky.
“It takes a special weird personality to keep coming and doing it on a regular basis,” joked Robertson. “It’s kind of a form of insanity.”
She’s currently advocating for commercial radio stations in major metropolitan areas to “adopt-a-station” in an effort to fund reservation radio and train personnel.
“The kind of thing we do best through radio is to continue to point people to existing resources that connect people with their culture,” she said. “They not only need people to run radio stations, they need working transportation. You can donate a vehicle and keep radio on the air on the reservation.”
Robertson is a natural-born broadcaster and news-gatherer; she’s also an expert on Native contributions to radio: Her book, “Radio Active Indians,” is on schedule to publish in 2020, just in time for radio’s centennial in the Americas.
“I didn’t know until I started doing research, I had an aunt who played piano on a radio program,” she said. “Radio is in my blood.”
Both of Robertson’s parents were born in Oklahoma. “My mother’s mother always said, ‘I was born in Indian Territory.’” Her father was among the famous code-talkers of World War II.
“There were also code-talkers in World War I — they were the earliest radio personalities.”
“When I was growing up, my dad would tell me stories of he and his brothers building crystal radio sets. They would see how far across the country they could listen to Will Rogers,” she said referring to the populist radio star, newspaper columnist and vaudeville entertainer of the 1920s and ’30s who was an Oklahoma Cherokee and beloved by Americans from coast to coast.
When Robertson moved to San Francisco from San Jose in 1969 — “on my own personal relocation,” she said — it was just a few months before the Indians of All Tribes began their historic 19-month occupation of Alcatraz in protest of broken treaties. The event forever changed Indian activism with its display of unity among Native nations; it also encouraged groups like the American Indian Movement (AIM) to continue occupying strategies nationwide and helped to heighten media awareness of Indian rights.
“I was pregnant at the time and didn’t go to the island but was certainly aware and in support,” she said. Off the island, supporters connected via Radio Free Alcatraz. John Trudell was its voice, aired by Berkeley’s KPFA and other Pacifica Radio stations for the duration of the occupation.
“We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of the occupation and we’re revisiting the Indians of All Tribes in a way that enhances the women’s voices. LaNada War Jack was among the women leaders on the island. Eldy Bratt was one of the nurses; she brought her whole family with her,” said Robertson, naming off Bratt’s five children including Benjamin, the actor, and Peter, the filmmaker. “Looking back, I wondered why it was always the men’s voices that got heard.”
Though Native women are at high risk in health, wellness and safety among Americans, their voices are presently at the forefront of Native organizing.
“When Mrs. Allard got on the internet and said, ‘They’re about to put a pipeline through my son’s gravesite, and we’re calling everyone to come to Standing Rock,’ we put out her call,” Robertson said in reference to Lakota leader LaDonna Brave Bull Allard.
“Voices of the Native Nations” closely covered water protection in the face of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) from early 2016 “through that horrific day in November,” said Robertson, when water cannons were shot at peaceful demonstrators in below freezing weather. Robertson continues to deliver updates on DAPL along with more local stories, like the desecration of the shellmounds in West Berkeley and the proposed height increase to the Shasta Dam.
“The shellmounds are sacred sites,” she explained. “There were anthropologists who said shellmounds were garbage dumps, and that’s not true. The abalone and other shells were placed as they were as part of an altar, and raised to high heights so people could see out over the waters and watch their ancestors pass over the rainbow bridge and be free.
“When you disturb these shellmounds, it disturbs the connection between the bones and the land, between the souls of the ancestors and the people who are alive,” she continued. “It’s a disruption of the world.”
“We live in Ohlone territory, and San Francisco and its peninsula was a Yelamu village. If you learn one thing about the Native culture here, that’s it,” said Robertson, taking her cues on Ohlone matters from sacred site protector Corrina Gould.
I asked Gould about Robertson working to raise awareness about Ohlone issues, and she replied in an email, “We depend on her reporting and engaging the community in order for us to share with the public issues affecting our community.”
With so many matters at stake, particularly here in California, where development persistently encroaches on Indian land, Robertson’s broadcasts can mean the difference between sustained life or sudden death.
“The White House wants to allow the level of the Shasta Dam to be raised 15 feet higher,” said Robertson of a congressional Republican-backed effort currently in opposition to state law here and opposed by Gov. Jerry Brown for its potential impact on the environment and Northern Californian Winnemem Wintu people.
“It will inundate the site where they do the ritual for the transition from girl to womanhood, on a special rock at a particular time of the year. It’s going to devastate their ceremony,” she said.
As Robertson outlined what the desecration would look like, her face turned solemn and our conversation drew to a close.
“Some of the people there said they will stand on the rock and drown before they will give up their ceremony,” she said. “If they are willing to put their lives of the line, the least I can do is talk about it on the radio.”
“Webworks: Voices of the Native Nations” is from 6 to 8 p.m. on the second, third and fourth Wednesdays of the month on KPOO 89.5 FM or livestream at www.KPOO.com.
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.