Voices of long departed Oklahomans once broadcast on the radio are being revived for 21st century listeners. The University of Oklahoma Libraries is opening “Native Voices Over the Airwaves: The Indians for Indians Hour Radio Show.”
It’s an exhibition in tribute to a project that digitized more than 200 hours of airtime for the program broadcast by OU’s WNAD station from 1941 through the mid-1970s. The exhibition opens at Bizzell Memorial Library, 401 W. Brooks St., Nov. 14 with a reception at 2:30 p.m. There will be a free intertribal performance connected to the event that evening at 7 p.m. in the Catlett Music Center, 500 W. Boyd St.
Lina Ortega is the exhibition curator. She’s OU’s Associate Curator for the Western History Collections, Native American Studies Librarian, University Libraries. Ortega explained the significance Indians for Indians (IFI) Radio Hour Show has in the collective Oklahoma memory.
“A lot of Native Americans remember the show with fondness,” Ortega said. “It was extremely popular during its time, especially when it started in 1941 which was still very much the heyday of radio in the USA. There was an estimated listener audience of 75,000 people weekly.”
Many people not only listened but also participated on the show.
“I think that it contributed to the rise of intertribal life in the 20th century,” Ortega said.
IFI featured a wide variety of content.
“The show’s original creator Sac and Fox tribe Chief Don Whistler and the hosts who followed him over the years didn’t have a script or they didn’t dictate to participants what to do on the show,” Ortega said. “People would speak or sing about whatever they wanted to. Some was what we think of as powwow music with round and war dance songs.”
Much of the programming was religious with many different voices represented including Christian denominations and different chapters of the Native American Church. Military service was a salient aspect of IFI. It was mentioned in nearly every broadcast.
“There were dedications and tributes to people serving in the military,” Ortega said. “It was kind of surprising to me that there was also advocacy for tribal governments and native rights. Don Whistler was well aware of what was going on with Federal and state legislation that would affect the tribes. He would often read alerts from the Congress of American Indians which formed around the same time that this show started.”
Pawnee, Concho and Fort Sill Indian school children regularly participated on the show.
“They were a big fan favorite,” she said.
Ortega listened to all of the broadcasts that were digitized from 152 open reel tapes. It gave her an in-depth understanding of IFI. Not all of the more than 1,000 broadcasts were recorded. There’s a lot of static in the sound that have been partially engineered out of the version available to the public starting Nov. 14 at the library’s website under repository.ou.edu. A Council on Library and Information Resources’ Recordings at Risk preservation grant made the project possible.
“Don Whistler was good at fostering a sense of community and IfI acted as an inter-tribal community,” Ortega said. “Not only for people to express themselves sharing their music but also to make announcements for tribal council meetings, birthday dinners and service people’s honor dances.”
Ortega who is Sac and Fox, Seminole and Muscogee-Creek was surprised to hear her own family members mentioned during some of the broadcasts.
“I even got to hear them sing sometimes,” she said.
The exhibition at Bizzell will have wall panels with photos and text detailing themes from IFI, the Whistler family and the OU Sequoyah Indian Club. Sac and Fox Principal Chief Justin F. Wood and Whistler’s granddaughter Donna Williams will make remarks at the reception.
“Several groups will be at the evening performance at the Catlett,” Ortega said.
Curating IFI has been a satisfying experience for Ortega.
“I have enjoyed working with different native communities across the state,” she said. “They’ve answered questions about some of the recordings and helped developing content for the exhibit, along with programming for the opening events. There’s still more work to do. Listening to the content of all those old recordings was incredible. It was a privilege hearing people singing songs whose origins were as prayers oftentimes. That was soothing and meant a lot to me.”