When director of Indigenous studies and sociology professor Janice Forsyth came across a forgotten cache of cardboard boxes in the Faculty of Social Science four years ago, she knew she struck gold.
Inside the boxes sat audio recordings of Smoke Signals, the CHRW Radio Western show produced and hosted by Elders Dan and Mary Lou Smoke. Forsyth then invited Marni Harrington, associate librarian in 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 audiotapes contained nearly 30 years of Smoke Signals shows, featuring interviews with several notable Indigenous authors, musicians, scholars, leaders and politicians. Throughout the broadcasts, 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 those tapes and how unique they were, we immediately said, ‘Yes,’ to doing whatever we could to preserve Dan and Mary Lou’s commentary on events as they were unfolding from the early ‘90s through to the mid-2000s,” Rothbauer said.
The result is the Smoke Signals Radio Show Archive, a project led by Harrington and Rothbauer, which organized and archived the recordings in an open-access database.
A website, featuring the now digitized shows, transcribed materials and samples of the 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 to Indigenous studies.
The online digital repository and archive showcases selected episodes from the 1990s to the 2000s. “That is a unique archive period,” Rothbauer said, noting the 1995 Ipperwash Crisis where Dudley George, an Ojibwa protestor, was killed by an OPP acting sergeant. “Mary Lou and Dan were reporting on and reflecting on that together with their listeners as those events unfolded.”
Rothbauer is excited by the “rich content” that puts listeners in dialogue with the past, potentially through the lenses of present-day activism and social justice movements.
But ultimately, the project is “an act of reciprocity,” Rothbauer said. “It’s a way to honour the many contributions Dan and Mary Lou have made over the years – not just at Western but across and beyond southwestern Ontario as activists, storytellers, teachers and community leaders.”
From 15 minutes to 30 years
When the Smokes were first invited to speak on CHRW in 1991, public interest was heightening around the Oka crisis, a 78-day standoff between Mohawk protesters, Quebec police, the RCMP and the Canadian army. The station was looking to offer an Indigenous perspective.
“They gave us 15 minutes to say whatever we wanted to say,” Dan said at the website launch reception. “Mary Lou and I wondered how we were going to fill the time. But we took the 15-minute offer and within about three shows, we said, ‘15 minutes is not enough.’”
It wasn’t enough for the listeners either. Program director Mario Circelli soon offered the Smokes an hour (and later, two hours) to host and produce their own show.
“We didn’t just say, ‘Okay we’re going to do this,’” Mary Lou said of their decision to take to the airwaves. “We went to the Elders first, and they told us, ‘You take the opportunity to talk about the Native people. Tell them about our ceremonies and about all the good things that happen in our communities because there are so many stories that are so negative and derogatory.’”
“They told us it was time to tell our story,” Dan added. And they’ve done so with great success, with their awarding-winning show becoming Canada’s longest running Indigenous radio program. It is still being broadcast on Radio Western every other Sunday from 6:30-8:30 pm.
The couple credit the show for giving them the opportunity to learn more about the culture and traditions of their communities, a dream they discovered they shared on their first date.
“It’s been amazing,” Mary Lou said. “If we hadn’t done Smoke Signals, we wouldn’t have gone to the ceremonies and we wouldn’t have met all these people. Now other people can learn from what we had to go on the road to learn.”
That includes the undergraduate and graduate students in information and library science, media, journalism and communication who have been part of this initiative. In addition to developing technical and research skills related to digital archiving, the students were also asked to reflect on what they learned.
“Listening to our students reflect on what they didn’t know is one of the most powerful parts of this project,” Rothbauer said.
Hearing these tapes is really empowering because they were going through the same thing we’re going through thirty years ago. It really connects you because this has been something decades in the making and our resilience is decades in the making. – Serena Mendizabal, BA’20 (Smoke Signals Radio Show Archive 2020)
The level of impact they can continue to have on Indigenous and non-Indigenous listeners through the project is gratifying for the Smokes.
“Our life has been learning about our Nations, and about our culture and traditions, and we had a platform to share it,” Mary Lou said. “When I was a little girl, my mom always said, ‘You have to help our people.’ This is what we are doing. And everyone who also contributed is also helping our people.”
The Smoke Signals Radio Archive project has received support from the Faculty of Social Science, the FIMS Undergraduate/Graduate Fellowship Program and the FIMS Initiative Funding program.