In an unprecedented effort to open new opportunities in the broadcasting field for American Indian Tribes and Alaska Native Villages, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) has adopted an order establishing a new “Tribal Priority” in the broadcast licensing regulatory process
that will promote the allocation and licensing of new radio Tribal and Tribally controlled stations to provide coverage for Tribal communities and lands.
It is important to note, that this priority is not a race-based preference, rather it is legally based on status of Tribes as sovereign entities. Native Public Media (“NPM”) and the National Congress of American Indians (“NCAI”) hailed the FCC’s order as groundbreaking important step in the right direction to solve the pervasive problems of the lack of myriad communications services in Tribal communities. In addition to some of the lowest levels of telephony and broadband internet services in the nation, American Indians and Alaska Natives have been largely invisible in the broadcasting industry on all levels ranging from media access, to control and ownership of broadcast facilities.
The FCC adopted a Tribal Policy Statement in 2000 recognizing tribal sovereignty and the unique and historical legal relationship between the independent federal agency and the over 565 federally recognized Tribal Entities, and outlining goals for the increasing the development of communications services on Tribal lands or “Indian Country”. The FCC has taken significant steps in Universal Service support, tower siting regulations, and commercial mobile radio services regulations, among others. The Tribal Priority is the FCC’s first concrete step to apply these important legal and historical principles to policymaking in broadcasting services.
“Native Public Media applauds the FCC. Of the more than 13,000 radio facilities in this country, less than 0.3 percent belong to federally recognized Tribes. This is the first time in history that American Indian Tribes and Alaska Native Villages are being prioritized for broadcasting opportunities as sovereign entities. Our civil society is made stronger when the voices of Native Americans are included in discourse on-air about the environment, education, politics, and health and the Tribal Priority will strengthen and expand our sorely needed communications network across Indian Country,” said Loris Taylor, Executive Director of Native Public Media, an association of the 35 existing Tribal public radio stations.
Native America Calling Host, Harlan McCasato and Staff
“The NCAI Telecom Subcommittee and its member Tribal Leaders commend and thank the Commission, its Media Bureau, Audio Division, and Office of General Counsel on this vital step to help Indian Country. At its core, the Tribal Priority recognizes and empowers Tribal sovereignty, and has solid legal grounding in the constitutional recognition and guarantees of Tribal sovereign ability. This appropriately agency-initiated action to craft a regulatory licensing priority is paramount in the development potential for Tribal Nations. The FCC has relied rightly on the governmental classification of Tribes in designing a federal mechanism to help Tribes exercise their self-determination. During this important time of increased federal coordination and consultation with Tribal Nations, it will help Tribes in their broadcast efforts to serve their people, to better themselves and Native America,” said Geoffrey Blackwell, Chair of the NCAI Telecom Subcommittee and Chair of the NPM Tribal Advisory Council.
According to James Dunstan of Garvey Schubert Barer, attorney for NPM, “It is vital for people to understand that the Tribal Priority is based on the government-to-government legal relationship between the Federal government and Tribes. Tribes are classified politically, not racially. The Commission’s new rule understands and applies the correct legal analysis to streamline a critical barrier to entry previously faced by Tribal entities in the Commission’s licensing processes. Native Radio stations provide critical connections for local communities in the form of information, dialogue and emergency services. The possibility for Tribes to provide their own radio broadcasting to their own communities will be a critical development that many in more urban areas take for granted.”
Jacqueline Johnson, Executive Director of NCAI, in sharing the views of Tribal Leaders as articulated in their unanimous support for the establishment of an FCC Broadcast Tribal Priority, said “To underscore the relevance of the new Tribal Priority, one must understand that Tribal communications providers and broadcast stations advance their services in a culturally appropriate manner, nurturing the vibrant cultures that sustain Tribal communities and peoples. The importance of the Tribal Priority to provide new opportunities for Tribes to practice their cultural strength in modern mediums–to enter the often previously unattainable broadcasting field–cannot be understated. Literally hundreds of Tribes face the economic and market challenges of deploying modern high speed internet while many in their communities still suffer an enduring lack of basic telephone service. So many modern technologies help bind our daily health and well being, and radio broadcasting is also sorely lacking in Indian Country. The FCC has taken a huge step in the right direction to address this.”
That unanimous support for this Tribal Priority took the form of a 2009 NCAI policy resolution, proposed by NPM, promulgated through the NCAI Telecommunications Subcommittee, voted upon by Tribal Leaders, and conveyed to the FCC by NCAI and NPM in formal record comments in the FCC’s rulemaking on the matter. NCAI resolutions carry great weight and a national scope in Federal Indian policy matters. NCAI is the oldest and largest inter-Tribal Government association in the United States, comprised of American Indian Tribes and Alaska Native Villages from every corner of Indian Country. For over 66 years, NCAI has provided national leadership on issues and federal policy matters facing Tribal Nations in virtually every aspect of governance, health, safety and welfare.
The only organization of its kind, Native Public Media is an association of Tribal radio stations, and is wholly dedicated to building and advancing Native access to, ownership of, and participation in media. NPM’s mission is to promote healthy, engaged, independent Native communities by strengthening and expanding Native American media capacity and by empowering a strong, proud Native American voice. Since its inception as a project of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, NPM has focused on using media as a tool for advancing economic development, preserving language and culture, promoting health and education, and facilitating engagement by Native Americans with the issues that affect Tribes and communities.