Influencers are everywhere, but across the ages no one has been more influential than the media. On a sunny, warm October day, my 74-year-old mother, Cahuilla Margaret “C.M.” Red Elk, sat with me to discuss the media’s influence on her life. Born in Hollywood, California in 1947, she was shuffled between St. Boniface Indian Industrial School (residential school) and her grandparents’ home in East Los Angeles, California where she was exposed to media on several fronts. C.M. is the mother of ten adult children, a resident of Colorado Springs, and a traditionally trained gold and silversmith. In addition to her artwork, she is a deeply involved American Indian activist and tribal law practitioner. This interview covers the impact of media starting with her early life in Los Angeles, California to her activism across Indian Country. For C.M. the media has changed significantly in delivery, but its messages remain much the same.
The first major newspapers that C.M. recalls were the Los Angeles Mirror Times and the Herald Examiner (neither newspaper is currently in publication). As a child she sometimes “sold newspapers and [she] had to be able to highlight the front-page articles for customers” (Red Elk). She continues to find it important to her activism to be aware of current issues and holds journalists in high regard for seeking to share the truth. This is evidenced in her decision to support her sister-in-law, Bonnie Red Elk, with establishing The Fort Peck Journal. Aunt Bonnie started the paper after she was fired from another newspaper when she began investigating reports of embezzlement by a high-ranking official. C.M. also stressed the importance of being informed and “getting the word to the people” (Red Elk). This is especially significant when you consider the underrepresentation of rural areas in the media and that “news helps the public make sense of important events, political issues, … and unusual happenings in everyday life” (425). C.M. further stressed the need for unbiased journalism coverage with respect to issues like the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee and the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock Reservation. Both events and the people involved were misrepresented by the mainstream media. Throughout her activism, documenting and recording events has been critical to accurate, fair reporting of issues.
In addition to capturing or documenting events, sound recording is a source of entertainment. Some of C.M.’s earliest memories of records where of Fats Domino, she said that she “liked his accent, his style of playing the piano, and the stories he was telling” (Red Elk). Her parents, who loved music and dancing, encouraged her to listen to all kinds of music. In the 1950s, 78-gram vinyl records cost C.M. fifty-cents at the Record Inn in East Lost Angeles. These days you do not hear much about the weight of records or why they are produced in this manner, but “in the early 1940s, shellac was needed for World War II munitions production, so the record industry turned to manufacturing polyvinyl plastic records instead. Vinyl records turned out to be more durable than shellac records and less noisy” (Campbell et al. 98). The first record player she owned was a “Victor RCA” (Radio Corporation of America) that she kept in her bedroom. RCA was initially formed in 1919 to handle radio patents and royalties and was not permitted to run radio stations or make radio components until many years later (Campbell et al. 133).
While RCA goods and services were initially limited, it has had a lasting impact on the media. In fact, “RCA’s most significant impact was that it gave the United States almost total control over the emerging mass medium of broadcasting…by pooling more than two thousand patents and sharing research developments, RCA ensured the global dominance of the United States in mass communication, a position it maintained in electronic hardware into the 1960s and maintains in program content today” (Campbell et al. 133). Importantly, C.M. said that “we lived for radio, it took us to the beach and brought us home” and the only time she had technical issues with the radio was when she was on the reservation where reception was poor (Red Elk). As a young woman, C.M. was part of a musical duo called Sal and Marge who performed cover songs which are songs “originally ‘performed by another artist’” (Campbell et al. 103). By listening to disc jockeys like Nathaniel “Magnificent Montague” on KGFJ she was able to learn the top songs and artists. She enjoyed listening to the top 40s and rhythm and blues (R&B). “Although it was banned on some stations, R&B was continuing to gain airtime by 1953” (Campbell et al. 104). C.M.’s musical interests were fostered by her mother, who was friends with a local disc jockey that hosted radio shows at the Rutland Inn that were also televised.
Televised radio broadcasts and musical variety shows were at the heart of C.M.’s television experience as a young girl. C.M.’s mother saved up $25.00 for a portable television to watch The Rutland Inn broadcasts when they could not attend in-person. Yet her earliest memories of television included a memory from St. Boniface Indian Industrial School, where the janitor had a portable television in his basement office. Even though the reception was poor in the basement, she would sneak in to watch it. When she was with her grandmother, she watched The Spade Cooley Show (western music) or The Laurence Welk Show (big band), and wrestling’s “Gorgeous George” (Red Elk). Television was a game changer, and according to Campbell et al., “by the end of the 1950s, television had become an ‘electronic hearth,’ where families gathered in living rooms to share cultural experiences” (196). In addition to music themed television C.M. recalled specific commercials from Folgers, Maxwell House, Buster Brown Shoes, and the Ipana toothpaste commercial that you may recall from the musical movie Grease.
Moving from home entertainment to the theatre, movies provided some parents with a lower cost alternative to childcare, and as such C.M. was often sent to the movies alone. Following C.M.’s love of music, she remembered seeing musical films like Tammy and the Bachelor (1957) and Jailhouse Rock (1957) at the Orpheum Theater or The Hollywood Pantages. The only limitation placed on her was that she was not allowed to watch the newsreels which “consisted of weekly ten-minute magazine-style compilations of filmed news events from around the world” (Campbell et al. 214). C.M.’s mother told her they were “not good for children” (Red Elk). At that time, movie tickets cost twenty-five cents which included a movie and a cartoon, or you could get a “Mirror certificate” (coupon) for a double feature for ten cents more. Three-dimensional (3D) movies were gaining popularity and if you brought your 3D glasses back you could get free popcorn, peanuts, or red pistachio nuts. Today little is free at the movie theater and tickets are costlier.
While media delivery devices have changed, the messages remain largely unchanged. We still hear of war, crime, and injustice; it is simply different locations and new types of crime (think cybercrime). We go to the movie theaters less and less and yet consume more films from the comfort of our own homes. As Campbell et al. accurately reflect “now we are watching programming on our laptops, smartphones, and tablets, making the experience increasingly individual rather than communal” (196). FM radio has been usurped by satellite radio that you can get anywhere in the world with little to no interruption. We are now being individually entertained on a global level, and although Hollywood maintains a hold on our attention, we are now capable of hearing the global voice at the click of a button.
Campbell, Richard, et al. Media & Culture. Available from: Textbook Butler, (12th Edition). Macmillan Higher Education, 2019.
Red Elk, C.M. Personal Interview. 10 October 2021.