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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Harlan McKosato, Sac and Fox, once estimated he’d hosted more than 3,500 one-hour radio shows on Native American issues, covering everything from crime, the environment, education, and homelessness, to history, culture, and elections.

He was the long-time award-winning host of a national Native American radio call-in show, a journalist, actor, writer and multimedia producer.

He credited his success to growing up among his mother’s people on the Iowa Reservation in Oklahoma and to being close to his father’s Sac and Fox relatives an hour’s drive away.

“It [his success] goes back to my family, my upbringing. They were just the type of people who encouraged me…we had our problems, we had dysfunction, but the overall theme was that they were very encouraging and always told me that I could become whatever I wanted. And I believed them,” McKosato told Vincent Schilling on Native Trailblazers, an online music and talk show, in 2010.

“I knew I had a support system. I knew that if I ever failed, that I could always go home,” McKosato said. “So having that support system, knowing’ll never actually fail is something I always think back on and think about.

“I’d like to say to all the parents, all the uncles, aunts, grandmas, the grandpas out there in Indian Country, you can make a difference in a young person’s lives [sic] with encouragement and through love,” he said on the show. “They will realize their potential if they know they have your support.”

McKosato died July 21, 2020 from complications from liver disease, surrounded by family and friends in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was 54.

McKosato’s sister Shelley McKosato-Haupt, older than him by a year, said they grew up in a small country town, Perkins, Oklahoma, where no one carried a house key, everyone knew everybody else, and everyone watched out for the kids.

“We could eat with anyone,” she said, and, “you could get in trouble at anybody's house, [with] all the aunties and uncles and grannies, grandpas, and cousins running all over.”

Photo courtesy Koahnic Broadcast Corp

Photo courtesy Koahnic Broadcast Corp

As McKosato’s health declined in recent months, he heard from hometown friends.

“All the people that worked with him, all of his high school teachers have been calling, middle school teachers, grade school teachers, all of his friends from high school, his high school bros came out, stayed for two days with him,” she said. “I was just amazed at that.”

McKosato-Haupt said McKosato showed an interest in journalism even as a child. “When…I was in seventh grade, he was in sixth grade, we said, ‘let's go to college,’ which no one talked about doing in those days…‘we’re going to get a van and we're going to turn it into a media van and we're going to travel all over. That's it! Let's go meet all the Indian people that we don't know and all these others, you know, in the states!’”

“And he said, ‘yeah, let's do it!’ That's us talking in the seventh and sixth grade,” she recalled. In high school McKosato played basketball and was a quarterback. He played basketball in college too.

The two siblings went to college and majored in journalism and communications. She took a different path but he went on to live out their childhood dream.

McKosato got his start in radio while working at University of Oklahoma public radio station KGOU in 1986. He told Schilling, “I wanted to be on the radio. So I’m working but not on the air.”

He was the only person at the station when an announcer called to say he’d been in a car crash and that McKosato had to do his 5-minute sports show. Years later McKosato said he first thought, “'Five minutes, piece of cake.’ You know what? It was not a piece of cake. I was sweating it out, putting out that five minutes.”

A few years later, McKosato got a job as a research assistant at Native America Calling, and in the next two years was promoted to producer then to producer-host.

He said initially the show was being carried by maybe a dozen tribal stations and was still in its formative stage. (The show is now carried by nearly 70 stations in the United States and Canada). McKosato said he and other staff wanted to keep the focus on contemporary Native Americans and to avoid painting Natives as victims. They decided that Native America Calling would promote Native rights and Native people.

He said when it came to promoting tribal sovereignty, which was a foreign concept at the time to many people, “I think people were respecting where we were coming from. We weren’t trying to hit people over the head with it.”

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He figured, “If we just tell them the history of treaties, tell them the story, level-headed people would figure it out and see that we had a story to tell.” He also didn't shy away from topics such as the use of blood quantum as a measure of “Indianness” and appropriation of Native art and traditions by non-Native “wanna-bes.”

McKosato said growing up he often was ashamed of being Native American because of the racism he experienced and negative portrayals of Natives in movies and the classroom.

His sister said during their childhood, in addition to love and encouragement, they were also surrounded by alcoholism in their family and community.

In November 2003, after being arrested for drunk driving and being held on domestic violence charges, McKosato, on air, said, “I apologize for letting you down, letting my family down and letting myself down.” He talked about the work he was doing, taking a moral inventory and other steps, to stop drinking. However, fighting the addiction was a struggle to the end.

In April 2004, Harlan McKosato resigned from Koahnic for personal reasons. He became the director of NDN Productions, an Albuquerque-based multimedia company, wrote news articles and op-eds and emceed events.

Yesterday, Native America Calling issued a statement saying it joined others in mourning McKosato.

“He was a giant in Native broadcasting and he was instrumental in establishing our flagship daily talk show Native America Calling,” the statement read.

“Harlan had a natural ability to connect with listeners. On air, he was just as adept at taking on career politicians as he was engaging artists about their inspirations. Harlan was a talented person who brought so much to the broadcasting world. Our thoughts are with his family, his friends, and his listeners," said Jacyln Sallee, Inupiaq, president and CEO of Koahnic Broadcasting, the parent company of the call-in show.

When describing the outpouring of phone calls and social media messages the family has received, McKosato-Haupt said people were not just responding to “Harlan's writing or his athleticism or his brilliant mind, or his kind and generous heart, or his matter-of-fact questioning, his interview skills or his writing, journalistic skill... those all stem from who he was as a person who has God-given ability.”

“I think it's his character as being funny and humorous, you know, he had emceed so many, like [the Native] Roots and Rhythm [performing arts festival in Santa Fe], pageants, and the first National Native [American Hall of Fame] Awards,” she said. “So he emceed a lot of things, you know, when he just had that ‘it’ factor. He just had that voice. He just had Indian humor. And he especially had that intelligence where he could talk straight with anybody across the board.”

The family said McKosato had a unique storytelling ability. “He communicated with his heart to personally connect with audiences and had educated many on a vast number of tribal issues.” They said he also inspired and mentored many young people to enter the field of journalism.”

Monica Braine, Assiniboine/Hunkpapa, is a senior producer for Native America Calling. “Harlan taught me about radio and was even my supervisor at one point. He always challenged me to think outside the box and loved to tease me for being too sensitive,” she wrote on social media. “Rest in peace, Harlan.”

Another former colleague, Paul Ingles, on social media said he had known McKosato for approximately 25 years starting in the mid-1990s, when Ingles was production manager at KUNM, where Native America Calling is produced. “For many years he was the vibrant hard-working host of that still vital program. When he was on top of his game, he was a truly gifted broadcaster and host.”

Sharon McConnell, Athabascan, also worked with McKosato at Native America Calling.

“Harlan truly cared about the national Native community and worked hard to bring attention to issues facing Native people. He really listened to what folks were saying and was very thorough in getting the whole story out to the listening public,” she said. “I know I enjoyed co-hosting shows with him several times — never a dull moment. He will be missed.”

He is survived by his son Nekon Che McKosato, his brother Kenneth Robert McKosato, his sister Deanna Lynn McKosato, sister Shelley Magdalene McKosato-Haupt, and extended family members.

The family is planning to soon hold a traditional ceremony for him in Oklahoma.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today and a longtime Alaska journalist.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the cause of death.