Western News – Archives project preserves iconic Indigenous radio show
When Director of Indigenous Studies and Professor of Sociology Janice Forsyth stumbled upon a forgotten cache of cardboard boxes in the Faculty of Social Sciences four years ago, she knew she had struck gold.
Inside the boxes were audio recordings of Smoke signalsthe CHRW Radio Western program produced and hosted by Elders Dan and Mary Lou Smoke. Forsyth then invited Marni Harrington, Associate Librarian at the Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS), FIMS PhD student Danica Pawlick-Potts, and FIMS professors Paulette Rothbauer and Heather Hill to take a look.
The soundtracks contained nearly 30 years of Smoke signals broadcasts, featuring interviews with several notable Indigenous authors, musicians, scholars, leaders and politicians. Throughout the shows, Dan, a member of the Seneca Nation, and Mary Lou, a member of the Ojibway Nation, also share their Indigenous knowledge and perspectives on local and national news.
“Once we learned what was on these tapes and how unique they were, we immediately said, ‘Yes,’ to do everything we can to preserve Dan and Mary Lou’s comments on events as they unfolded from the early to mid 90s. -2000,” Rothbauer said.
The result is the Smoke Signals Radio Show Archivea project led by Harrington and Rothbauer, which organized and archived recordings in an open-access database.
A website, featuring the now digitized broadcasts, transcribed documents and excerpts from Smokes newspaper articles, was launched in early spring. The project involves staff, students, and faculty, including the Smokes, who are FIMS Adjunct Professors with cross-appointments in Indigenous Studies.
Online digital repository and archive showcases selected episodes from the 1990s to the 2000s. “It’s a unique archival period,” Rothbauer said, noting the 1995 Ipperwash Crisis where Dudley George, an Ojibwa protester, was killed by an acting OPP sergeant. “Mary Lou and Dan were reporting and reflecting on this with their listeners as these events unfolded.”
Rothbauer is enthusiastic about “rich content” that puts listeners in dialogue with the past, potentially through the lens of current activism and social justice movements.
But ultimately, the project is “an act of reciprocity,” Rothbauer said. “It’s a way of honoring the many contributions Dan and Mary Lou have made over the years, not just to Western, but to all of Southwestern Ontario as activists, storytellers, teachers and community leaders.
From 15 minutes to 30 years
When the Smokes were first asked to speak about CHRW in 1991, public interest grew around the Oka Crisis, a 78-day standoff between Mohawk protesters, Quebec police, the RCMP and the Canadian army. The station sought to provide an Aboriginal perspective.
“They gave us 15 minutes to say what we wanted to say,” Dan said at the website launch reception. “Mary Lou and I were wondering how we were going to fill the time. But we took the 15 minute offer and within about three shows we were like, ’15 minutes isn’t enough’.
It wasn’t enough for the listeners either. Program director Mario Circelli quickly offered the Smokes an hour (and later, two hours) to host and produce their own show.
“We didn’t just say, ‘Okay, we’ll do it,'” Mary Lou said of their decision to go on the air. “We went to see the Elders first, and they said, ‘You take this opportunity to talk about Aboriginal people. Tell them about our ceremonies and all the good things happening in our communities, because there are so many negative and derogatory stories.
“They told us it was time to tell our story,” Dan added. And they did it with great success, their award-winning show becoming the longest-running native radio show in Canada. It is still broadcast on Radio Western every other Sunday from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m..
The couple credit the show with the opportunity to learn more about the culture and traditions of their communities, a dream they discovered they shared on their first date.
“It was amazing,” said Mary Lou. “If we hadn’t Smoke signals, we would not have gone to the ceremonies and we would not have met all these people. Now other people can learn from what we had to do on the road to learn.
This includes undergraduate and graduate students in information and library science, media, journalism and communication who have participated in this initiative. In addition to developing technical and research skills related to digital archiving, students were also asked to reflect on what they learned.
“Hearing our students reflect on what they didn’t know is one of the most powerful parts of this project,” Rothbauer said.
Listening to these tapes is really stimulating because they went through the same thing were going through Thirty years ago. It really connects you because it’s been something decades in the making and our resilience is decades in the making. – Serena Mendizabal, BA’20 (Smoke Signals 2020 Radio Show Archive)
The level of impact they can continue to have on native and non-native listeners through the project is rewarding for the Smokes.
“Our life has been learning about our nations, as well as our culture and traditions, and we had a platform to share that,” Mary Lou said. “When I was little, my mother always said, ‘You have to help our people.’ That’s what we’re doing, and everyone who’s contributed is also helping our people.
The Smoke Signals Radio Archive project has received support from the Faculty of Social Sciences, the FIMS Undergraduate and Graduate Scholarship Program and the FIMS Initiative Funding Program..