CHEROKEE, N.C. – In a room at the Cherokee Youth Center is a studio with three microphones and a table-length soundboard. Gray foam lines the walls to block the sounds of other after-school activities. This is the home of Cherokee Youth in Radio, a media program for native youth in this community, nestled in the North Carolina mountains.
Cherokee Youth in Radio is one of several programs in the area centered on giving voice to young adults of Native American heritage. About 9,000 members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee live here in the Qualla boundary, or land trust, in western North Carolina.
Shawn Crowe, the director of the program, says Youth in Radio gives young people, ages 8 to 16, a literal microphone, and allows the teens to be part of something they can take seriously, since their work will be broadcast on air. About 12 youth are currently involved.
“It’s a way to make them feel good about themselves and to encourage them to be the best they can be,” Crowe said.
The perfect medium
Youth in Radio started in 2006 with a grant from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation and has since produced local news broadcasts, oral plays and stories of Cherokee legends.
Madison Crowe, 20, who came through the program four years ago, said the experience helped her become more confident in her own voice. When she participated, she rotated as a director, producer and reporter for the weekly news show, which aired each Saturday morning on WWCU 90.5 FM.
“Even though you’re like a shy person and not so outgoing, you can come into a radio program and no one is sitting around watching you, judging you. It’s not public speaking, but it is,” she said. “You can still get your voice heard through the radio.”
Madison now attends the University of North Carolina at Asheville, majoring in art therapy and art education.
Madison said the radio program also helped her connect deeper with her community as they broadcast news from their local newspaper, the Cherokee One Feather. The news show has been on hiatus due to funding, but Crowe said he hopes to start it back up again.
The youth also produce their own public service announcements on topics they think are important for their audience to hear, like drug and alcohol abuse, which is a big issue in the community, Crowe said.
In 2012, the teens in the program made a video PSA about rising above the influence, and won an award for it from the kids’ TV network, Nickelodeon. The message of the video was that they rose above the influence of drugs by writing, scripting and editing for their radio show.
In addition to letting teens find their own voice, Crowe said the program aims to connect them with their history and identity. And he said radio is the best medium for that connection.
“Our history is an oral history, our culture is an oral culture, our legends are oral,” Crowe said.
The program’s latest project is for a radio program called “Stories of Mountain Folk,” in which teens record traditional Cherokee stories. The show is broadcast every Saturday morning at 9 a.m. on WRGC Radio, 540 AM.
Taelynn Pheasant Crowe, 13, recorded a scary Cherokee legend, “Spearfinger,” this past Halloween, and said her favorite part of the program is to learn about these stories that have been passed down. “I was kind of nervous at first, but people liked it, so that boosted my confidence a little,” she said.
In the past, teens have been able to interview elders in their community and record the Cherokee language in their studio.
“With these stories and getting these elders to come in with our kids, we’ll be able to preserve that part of the culture that we hope will never die out,” Crowe said.
Youth empowerment a focus
Down the street from the radio program is home base for another youth initiative, the Cherokee Youth Council. This youthled organization, which is made of 25 young adults from the ages of 12 through 18, aims to train leaders who will contribute back to the tribe.
Sky Sampson, 25, program manager, said the group allows youth to develop a voice that will not only impact their community but extends outside the Qualla boundaries, as well.
“A lot of times they don’t know that they have it, and they don’t know how to use it,” Sampson said.
The council provides leadership training in skills like public speaking and event management, but at the core of their work is the Cherokee notion of “Ga-du-gi,” which means “helping hands” and “working together.”
“We’re starting to incorporate the traditions of how we treat each other,” Sampson said.
The council makes decisions based on a consensus model, which is rooted in traditional Cherokee Grand Council meetings, where everyone — whether the chief or a child — had equal say.
Each year, the council creates a community service project after identifying a key need in their community. Several years ago, the teens recognized how teen pregnancies were affecting their community and created a documentary by interviewing teenage parents.
This month, the group launches a weeklong anti-bullying campaign called “Braves Don’t Bully.”
Grayson Cotes, 12, one of the council’s newest members, helped put anti-bullying on the organization’s agenda and will speak at a school assembly about his personal experiences.
“I was bullied and still am. It’s hard because you don’t know what to do,” said Cotes. “We want to touch people’s hearts so they can understand.”
Simon Montelongo, 16, said being part of the initiative helps him to feel like he’s part of something bigger than himself.
“Our opinions do count, and we are the future,” Montelongo said. “The things that are being set [now] are being set for us.”
Connecting to heritage
Crowe, of the radio program, said it’s important to focus on giving the youth a voice in a community that has struggled with identity for hundreds of years.
He hopes his radio program and its effort to connect youth with preserving their Cherokee culture and heritage will make a difference in the lives of young people today and tomorrow.
“That’s our tribe. That’s our future right there,” Crowe said.
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