The story of KSUT Tribal Radio is garnering recognition from film festivals in New Mexico and California.
“Tribal Radio,” by Durango-based filmmaker Sean Owen, won Best Native American Documentary at the Santa Fe Film Festival in February. It was also nominated for Best Short Film and Best Short Film Director at Idyllwild International Film Festival, an indie festival, held in March in California.
The documentary about KSUT-FM based in Ignacio, which is one of the first tribal radio stations in the U.S., tells the story of the Southern Ute Indian staff members who established it in 1976 and how it grew into a regional station with two signals – Tribal Radio and Four Corners Public Radio.
“It was important to tell our history,” said Sheila Nanaeto, Tribal Radio station manager. Some loyal listeners have been unaware of its origins, she said.
Tribal Radio broadcasts local news, sports games and national Native American news, which is often not covered by mainstream media. It also plays about 42 hours of Native American music per week, Nanaeto said.
“It’s exciting to be able to serve the communities that we live in,” she said.
The film has been accepted by seven festivals, including American Indian Film Festival, Ethnografilm Paris, Taos Shortz Film Festival and One Nation Film Festival.
The film is politically timely: President Donald Trump has proposed cutting funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports KSUT and many other tribal radio stations, Owen said.
Owen said he is aware of only one other film that documents tribal radio, which is partly what attracted Ethnografilm Paris to his movie.
“It’s a contemporary ethnographic look at native peoples,” he said. “It’s not the same old same old.”
The station invited Owen to film a documentary on tribal radio as part of a grant. But when the station decided not to continue with the grant project, Owen volunteered to do the documentary on his own.
“We are grateful to him for taking on this project,” Nanaeto said.
Owen started making documentaries after retiring from teaching filmmaking. Several of his projects focus on Native American tribes, which is why he was invited to work on the tribal radio documentary.
KSUT started 42 years ago by serving the Pine River Valley but has expanded to most of Southwest Colorado, northern New Mexico and parts of Arizona.
The station recently received two new broadcast licenses and equipment from Cochise Community Radio Corp. in October, which will allow it to expand west and serve the Ute Mountain Ute and White Mesa Ute reservations in Colorado and Utah, said KSUT Executive Director Tami Graham. “We’re really excited about that partnership,” she said.
It also expects to expand into the Navajo Nation in northern New Mexico.
The signal expansion is part of a larger vision for the station. KSUT is raising money to remodel a 5,000-square-foot building on the Southern Ute campus, which would allow it to move out of its aging 1,200-square-foot building.
It has until Oct. 1 to raise $1 million for its capital campaign to receive $1 million in matching funds from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. Thus far, the station has raised $375,000, Graham said.
Once the station moves into its new building, the station can expand its community partnerships and local news programming, she said. It will create more opportunities for native students to be involved in tribal radio.
The station also wants to provide equipment and training to other native communities. It plans to provide space for those working to preserve native languages or who are interested in recording native music.
Ultimately, KSUT would like to be a national training center, Graham said.
Its long-term goal is to set up an endowment fund so that it would be financially prepared if it ever did lose funding from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, which makes up about a quarter of its funding, Graham said.
“If we were to lose that, that would be a huge loss,” she said.
Those interested in watching “Tribal Radio” should stay tuned. The station plans to screen it in the spring at the station, but an exact date has not been scheduled.