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John Talley: 'Indian World' host for quarter century

PORTLAND, Ore. - In his youth, John Talley was all action and not so much talk. At 70, the Mohawk from Syracuse, N.Y., is understandably more talk than action.

This helps since he's the host of Indian World, the first Native American radio program ever aired in the Portland area.

For 25 years Talley rode the airwaves on KBOO-FM, addressing Native concerns, playing Native music when there was hardly any to be found, and in general, upping the ante on the moccasin telegraph service all along the lower Columbia River Basin from Richland south to Salem, Ore.

His action days are not over. This spring found him on the streets once again, rallying to an Indian cause - this time as a master of ceremonies for a protest over ENRON Corp's potential development of a wind generation facility in the Columbia Hills region of the Columbia River Gorge.

But, Talley says, "You can only march in the streets so long and accomplish anything. After a while, if you kept that up too long, people would look at you and say, 'Oh, it's you again,' and ignore you or make fun of you.

"We found that in order to achieve progress we had to go to the halls of Congress, to the state Legislature and to the churches and to individuals with money and power in order to accomplish anything."

Going to the microphone proved effective as well. In his 25 years as a talk and entertainment show host, Talley says he has covered just about every issue pertaining to Indian country, and then some.

"My goal has always been to be inclusive, to try to include as many different Indian viewpoints and tribes and attitudes as is possible."

The show also provides a lively mix of music, news, interviews, legends, poetry and community calendar geared primarily toward Indian activities.

Talley didn't start life wanting to be a radio host. Although in the early 1930s he found himself on music shows singing in choirs, he never thought about it again until much later in life.

After serving in Korea he ended back up in New York, working as a stamp collector.

Eventually he ended up in Portland. Working in his small shop, containing more than a million stamps in one room, he listened to reports about the takeover of Alcatraz. In his heart he yearned to be active in the Indian movement, but the practicalities of running a shop and making a living curtailed him.

Later he joined a Portland-area effort to run medicine and supplies to the people at Wounded Knee. Met at the Shannon County border by a "small army of BIA personnel, tribal police and County-Mounties, carrying everything from side arms ... to bazookas," he was eventually arrested. Although never prosecuted, the effort whetted his activist appetite.

Moving to Seattle, Talley became local co-chairman of the American Indian Movement.

"After that I ended up sitting on the board of directors of 12 non-profit companies, mostly dealing with Indian people and Indian concerns.

"My life was one long meeting for several years and I finally burned out on it."

Eventually Talley landed back in Portland. There he met a former Black Panther who was program director for the community radio station KBOO. They talked. And the more they talked, the more Talley saw there was a tremendous cultural gap to be filled in radio.

There was no Native American programming at all in the Portland area.

"They understood my heart was in the right place and my head was in the right place and I could handle the media smoothly and not fall victim to their attempts to wheedle things out of me that could be construed in a negative way or in some sensational form," Talley says.

Inspired by the possibilities, Talley accepted the challenge to start a whole new genre of programming in the Portland area. In July of 1976 he started the show "Indian World." Little did he realize at the time his volunteer effort would last so long.

"People say, 'Well, why do you do that for no money?' And I say, 'Because people need the communications. They need the service.' And that's my gift to the community."

More than 1,200 shows later, Talley says it is remarkable how things have changed since he began "Indian World" Native American music has literally exploded. Instead of struggling to find something to play, now Talley struggles to sift through all the new music being produced - a problem in which he takes great joy.

Always on the lookout for new talent, he brings groups onto the show to play their music live. And he constantly scans newspapers and magazines, looking for interesting and out of the mainstream Native news.

"We're about our people today, not what happened 100 years ago," he says. "We, of course, have to reflect upon history. ... Part of the reason why I started this was I did hear a little bit about Indians on the radio. But what I heard about was long ago and far away. They never wanted to talk about the Indians next-door to them, right here, right now, living and breathing unless it was some kind of problem.

"But on the other hand, the positive achievements of Native people and positive efforts were usually ignored."

An insistence on positive programming has more than paid off. Talley says he loves hearing stories about how his show has affected people. One of his favorite stories is about a local Portland Native woman who called in, asking him to play a song for her Iroquois mother back in New York who was celebrating her 83rd birthday.

After thinking about it, Talley ended up dedicating the entire show to her. When he asked the woman later if she had told her mother about the dedication she said, "Why, I had the phone on long distance and played the whole program to her in western New York."

"I thought that was fantastic," he says. " I'm sure that old lady's feet didn't touch the ground for a week. ... It's things like that that encourage me."

With his 25th anniversary show coming up this month, Talley says he has realized, looking back, how productive the show has been and what a difference it made in Indian country. Through a different kind of activism he helped contribute to Native people getting involved in political campaigns and issues from education to economics. He has helped Native artists sell their work, Native writers sell their books and Native musicians promote their music.

Now, he says, he wants to dedicate the show to people who follow the traditional ways and the youths who are his hope for the future.

"One of the things 'Indian World' has tried to do is to take the traditional Indian values and show how they are still valid in this year 2000,"

Talley says. "To respect the earth, don't litter, recycle, preserve things. Respect the elders and take care of the children. ... These things are very important ... and it's very valuable that we maintain perspective in these things and realize the positive things that our people have contributed."