Q&A: John Kane
Though John Kane did not exactly follow in the footsteps of his dad, a high-steel worker, he is in the business of building bridges. The fifty-one-year-old blogger and host of WWKB-AM’s Let’s Talk Native (airing at 9 p.m. Sundays and posted on wnymedia.net and rezkast.com) just wants to get people talking, and the more contentious the issue, the better. Native programming on local radio was pretty much nonexistent until Kane parked himself behind a microphone. He may be uniquely qualified, as a Mohawk married to an Oneida, living on Seneca land. The couple, married twenty-nine years, has three children and six grandchildren, with another on the way. Native pride is their legacy, and Kane is committed to bridging what he sees as a failure to communicate between cultures in the wider world.
You seem quietly determined. Was broadcasting your dream career? How did you get into this, anyway?
I was born in Albany. My family is from Kahnawake, a Mohawk community near Montreal. My father was a high-steel worker, like so many Mohawks, and moved around to different places on bridge-building projects. I was always a good student. I liked to write, and I was interested in engineering and architecture. I have been involved in native issues for a long time. In 1997, I was on the First Nations Dialogue Team. We were fighting New York State on tax issues, and part of our job was to keep our own people informed. We got a lot of support from the Seneca Territory. A few years later, I went to work for a native-owned manufacturing facility in Plattsburgh, and was there until it closed in 2010. It was a good learning experience for me, a vehicle for learning how to deal with the state, as well as native networking.
I had been interested in radio, and through the dialogue team, I knew I could address and convey issues. I’d been commuting to Western New York, and I settled back here on the Cattaraugus reservation near Gowanda, where we still live. I was blogging, and putting out a magazine called MAVI (Making A Visible Impact), as well as appearing on local radio shows to discuss the tax issue. WECK invited me to do a show in July of 2010. I moved to WWKB in September 2011. It’s a stronger signal, and I hear from people in places as far away as Baltimore and Hartford. Many of my callers are not native.
So how do you tackle those hot-button issues? What do you say to people who think cigarettes are bad, gasoline is environmentally fraught, and gambling casinos are gateways to perdition?
I understand the political incorrectness of it all. Look, I don’t like smoking either. But there is a lot to talk about here. ... Money made [selling cigarettes] goes directly into native territories. Casino revenue stays here—it doesn’t go to some corporate gaming interest elsewhere. ... Cigarette sales are an example of something started in tar-paper shacks, which developed to a certain level of sophistication. We found a niche, and came up with a whole body of integrated solutions to accommodate the tobacco business. Cutting through it all, it is a legal trade. Ninety-nine percent of our territories were defrauded, and here were areas our people realized we could use sovereignty to our competitive advantage.
This [state tax dispute] started thirty years ago [when] tobacco wholesalers began selling to natives. Mohawks and Senecas pushed the envelope in asserting the right to sell cigarettes without state tax. Smoke shops sprang up, and mail order and internet sales created a successful remote retail business. There was plenty of revenue coming into Western New York as a result of our business. Our biggest opponent on the tax issue is the New York State Association of Convenience Stores. Frankly, there is a high level of hypocrisy here. ... And let me just say that we are not selling to kids, and we are not supporting terrorists. It is legal for adults to purchase two cartons of cigarettes anywhere on the planet. We are not going to collect taxes for the state. Now they have all these restrictions against smoking. If the intent is to make it illegal, then just do that—outlaw tobacco.
Okay, so it’s a cold business decision. You guys have figured out how to make a profit selling some things not exactly considered salubrious. Can’t you just turn it around, create businesses that promote people’s health and welfare?
It’s not like other things haven’t been tried. Our people used to be farmers. As time went on, they couldn’t get loans for new farm equipment that was required. One by one, areas where we could be sustainable were taken away. Here is a classic example of what our people have faced: the 1960 Kinzua Dam project, which dammed up the Allegheny River for Pittsburgh flood control. Did you know that President Kennedy officially apologized for the resulting damage to native lands? What happens is we end up getting pigeonholed: without collateral we can’t get mortgages or SBA loans to build homes or businesses. So we find other ways to build profitable businesses—like casinos on native land. But gas, gaming, and cigarettes: Is that all we’re good for? Gambling is like a tax; no good or service is being provided—the only thing they sell is false hope. I think we have more to offer than that. But as long as we have to fight the state, and the anticasino forces who act like we are doing something wrong.
Don’t have an ill opinion of us. The state has its own lottery. But let’s look at doing something else together. Let’s partner on a solution. For example, we could nurture some of the technology that leaves the state. We could be incubators for new products. New York State is not a bad place to do business if our sovereignty [is] respected and embraced.
John Kane—what he really thinks:
LAST BOOK READ: “Toward the Setting Sun, by Brian Hicks—I had him as a guest on my show. It’s about the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, when the Cherokees were forcemarched into Oklahoma. A third of the population died.”
WHAT HE’S MOST PROUD OF: “The relationship I have with my kids. There’s been no jail, no rehab. And my kids are proud of me. I am the one they want to call if there is any problem—not the one they are afraid to call.”
HIS HERO: “Leston James White-Pigeon. That’s my son-in-law who’s battling cancer. He’s a heavy equipment operator, husband of my daughter Jessica, and father of two young children, and now he’s bravely fighting this illness. You feel helpless, but you know, everyone can do something. I donate platelets at Roswell. If more people did just a little bit … just do a kindness for someone; that’s what you can do.”
HIS PROBLEM WITH CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS: “He’s an example of what I see as this hoax of a global economy, trying to satisfy a market one place by exploiting another someplace else. Columbus was trying to get to China—he didn’t discover America; he didn’t know where he was, and he never even made it to the mainland. He was a cruel person who set the dogs on natives, and enslaved them. When you try to export all that is valuable from one region to satisfy the insatiable appetites of another—well, that’s a story of greed and ignorance.”
Some would say those are fighting words.
We were here first. Our sovereignty is born out of our existence. It may be respected in treaties, but it is not something given to us by the United States. Stop trying to legislate over us. If we could just be human beings for a second and communicate with each other ... I am proud of the distinction and autonomy that goes with being native, but I don’t suggest we need to build fences between us—it is not us against you. The purpose of my radio show is to have a conversation, the kind that is not normally had. Mine is not the first or last word. I just want people to think about what I am saying—to start conversations. Don’t be afraid to have conversations.
Maria Scrivani is a Buffalo resident with an interest in local history.