Eight months ago, Michael Tulee, the director of the United Indians of all Tribes Foundation, had an idea. He wanted to champion Native musicians, to give them a platform and increase their presence in their own communities. Thanks to a chance encounter with a local DJ and a lot of work, Daybreak Star Radio was born and is now in its second month of streaming Indigenous music around the world.
Sherry Steele fell into the role of station manager early on when Tulee was still developing the idea of a radio station.
“He came into work one day and said ‘You wanna start a radio station?’ and without thinking, I said ‘Yeah, that’s awesome,’” Steele said.
At the time, Steele was and still is, the accountant for the United Indians of all Tribes Foundation making her somewhat of an odd pick to manage the station. But her profound love and exhaustive knowledge of Native music cast aside any doubts that she wasn’t the person for the job.
“Native music is so meaningful,” Steele said. “You literally can’t have an event or a ceremony without music. Even if it’s just people doing a blessing — it’s almost sung or chanted — there’s usually drumming or rattling or flute. It’s always been that way.”
Steele is an enrolled member of the Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma and developed a passion for music that was nurtured by her grandfather and the rest of her family. She admitted she never really appreciate this fact until she moved away from Tulsa and realized just how prevalent of a role music played in her life.
“It turns out I was exposed to so much music, and so much Native music growing up that I just thought that’s how everybody was and that it was normal,” Steele said.
Often, Native music is its own category, defined only by the fact that someone Indigenous made it. The Juno Awards — Canada’s equivalent to our Grammy’s — has a whole separate category for Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year. Something that Halluci Nation (FKA A Tribe Called Red) acknowledged is a positive thing but pointed out that it lumps all Indigenous musicians together, which doesn’t make much sense.
”With urban Natives moving into city centers, we have adapted and melded the other cultures that we’ve been exposed to,” Steele explained. “[Now] we have Native American rock and roll, hip hop, and classical music…We really want to bring [Native music] out to the forefront and not be erased.”
If you take a look at Daybreak Star Radio’s schedule, you’ll see they’ve got a metal show, a slot for traditional and peyote music, a time for indie folk-rock, and even country.
Harris Francis AKA DJ Dirty Harry, the station’s program director, plays a mix of hip-hop and rock on his daily show “Traffic Jam.” While Steele provides a perspective of someone who grew up enveloped in Native music, Francis offers nearly 30 years of music business and radio experience.
How the former executive producer of KUBE 93.3 for almost 20 years, got involved with this small scrappy team, determined to amplify Native musicians, is kismet more than anything. When Tulee was in the process of researching how to start a radio station, he called in to Rainier Ave Radio to ask for advice, and on that day Harris happened to be in the studio.
The two hit it off and Tulee recruited him to be a part of Daybreak Star Radio and bring his wealth of knowledge of his time spent in commercial radio to the station.
Francis doesn’t mince words when it comes to talking about the future of Daybreak Star Radio:
“I’d love the station to be thought of as the number one Native American radio station.”
Daybreak Star Radio is online for a reason. Besides the fact this meant they wouldn’t have to secure a radio tower it allows them to reach a wider audience — an important element of the station’s mission.
“One thing that the general populace like is to have people of color and Native people put in a tidy little box…,” Steele said. “If you do anything outside the box, you’re no longer a proper Native American — you’re not a real Indian. It can be really hard on musical artists.”
By having such a diverse lineup of shows, they’re redefining what “Native music” means to people.
“Native Americans aren’t only people dancing in a powwow circle — we’re great doctors and accountants and construction workers, and parents, and grandparents and everything else under the sun,” Steele said. “To be put in a little box, and that’s the only way it can be an Indian is not there, right. We want to give honor and respect to all the ways that are to be musically Native.”
Abe Cortez hosts the show “Suave Suavecito,” which he describes as”Latin urban sounds with a little bit of old school.” Like the rest of Daybreak Star Radio, doing this show is about more than just playing music made by and for Indigenous people, it’s about educating others.
“A lot of the young [Native] people, in my opinion, don’t have a clue about their history unless they grew up in a really strong family that took them to powwows and explained that the junk that they see in movies doesn’t fully represent who they really are. They’re not gonna know,” Cortez said.
Daybreak Star Radio may be new and small, but their dream for what they can do for Indigenous musicians everywhere is monumental.
“Music is this national language that brings everybody together,” Cortez said. “It’s the one thing that keeps me alive.”
Here’s a list of Indigenous artists that Sherry, DJ Dirty Harry, and DJ Abe Cortez mentioned and recommended.