An Ode To The Voice Of The Navajo Nation Station Ernie Manuelito died in April at age 57. His voice was the first ever to be heard on the Navajo nation radio station. Manuelito said that putting the Navajo language on the air was an important public service.

An Ode To The Voice Of The Navajo Nation Station

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The usual end-of-year obits tend to focus on the passing of famous actors, politicians, inventors - notables, we call them. Well, today, in the final part of our Obituaries series, we mark the passing of someone who was an anchor of his community - notable for so many reasons, but not famous.

Ernie Manuelito died this year at the age of 57, after almost 40 years behind a microphone. When Ernie spoke in English or in Navajo, his voice carried across the Red Rock Desert and into the ears of the Navajo nation.

Mr. PAUL JONES (News Director, KTNN Radio): Ernie's voice was very familiar, just like the voice of Walter Cronkite. He was the first voice that came on the air when the radio station started here in Window Rock.

Mr. ERNIE MANUELITO (Broadcast Journalist): Good evening. I'm Ernie Manuelito with KTNN radio station, and one of the...

Mr. JONES: And he stayed on here with us until he left us. My name is Paul Jones, and I am the news director here at KTNN radio station. When he first came, he was a disc jockey. He got promoted here and there in different areas.

Ms. ELLIE WILLIAMS: The weather, to the news, to hosting the oldies shows and sports.

Mr. JONES: I understand he worked in the sales department, too, for a while. So he was a jack of all trades.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) The voice of the Navajo nation, KTNN.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Radio is very important. It's everyday life of what's going on throughout the Navajo reservation, a remote area. My name is Ellie Williams. If you're herding sheep out there, they'll have their portable radio, or they're in their vehicle listening to the ball game.

These are all like, old - these are old - here we go. Let's go in and listen to them, and you'll know who Ernie Manuelito is.

Mr. MANUELITO: Troy Aikman (Navajo spoken).

Ms. WILLIAMS: Ernie and I sat down together and talked about football because people on the reservation, a majority of them have never been to an NFL game, so we have to be very descriptive. OK, how do we explain a touchdown?

Mr. MANUELITO: (Navajo spoken) This time, it's going to be goodbye, touchdown, Dallas Cowboys.

Ms. WILLIAMS: (Navajo spoken), you know, is touchdown. (Navajo spoken) is the pigskin. (Navajo spoken), getting the pigskin ready so that the - because it's so cold. It's almost like storytelling.

Mr. MANUELITO: (Navajo spoken)

Ms. WILLIAMS: (Navajo spoken) says that he ran across like a fast rabbit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MANUELITO: Dallas Cowboys (Navajo spoken).

(Soundbite of song, "Why Don't You Love Me")

Mr. JONES: I used to call him Early Bird Ernie. I always used to promote his show, every Friday, to tune into Early Bird Ernie. He's going to be playing your oldies, and a lot of people listening in.

(Soundbite of song, "Why Don't You Love Me")

Mr. HANK WILLIAMS (Musician): (Singing) Why don't you love me like you used to do?

Ms. WILLIAMS: It's five o'clock. (Navajo spoken). Five o'clock, KTNN. And then Ernie would be on the radio.

Mr. RAY SOSI(ph): You would think that people would still be asleep; nope, they're up, listening to Ernie.

Mr. JONES: The old country music stars, like Porter Wagoner or Dolly Parton, when they were young. And yeah, there was Conway Twitty.

Mr. SOSI: Country and a little bit on the wild side, back when we were young, when our hearts were young. That's how he put it. My name is Ray Sosi. How would I put it? Protege of Ernie Manuelito, out here on the reservation. Radio was more or less like a mental television. They compare it with the movie stars. Your voice, you're almost worshipped.

Mr. HARRISON DEHAYA(ph): I heard Ernie on the radio, and I always thought, what kind of a person is he? How does he look like? Is he big? He sounds big. He sounds like heavyset guy. He sounds tall.

Mr. JONES: We are at the KTNN radio station programming department. This is our engineering office, and that's where - we call it Ernie's office, or we call it Ernie's dungeon. And inside, you will see his desk where he left it, how he left it.

Mr. DEHAYA: It's just another vacant office to me. But some people like - with - that are deep into native tradition, they get scared of things like that. They think something spooky is in there.

Mr. SOSI: One thing that I know is he's still around. And every now and then, I get a chance to sit in his chair, just to be near him.

Mr. MANUELITO: (Navajo spoken)

Mr. SOSI: I have an understanding of how far our signal goes. It's actually endless. You know how you throw a rock into a pond? Well, our voice travels in radio waves, and that radio waves spreads out so that signal, the voices that he sent, is still out there travelling outward from the earth.

Mr. MANUELITO: Good night from Window Rock cinema, right here in Window Rock, Arizona. That's going to do it for the forum tonight.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Ernie Manuelito died of a respiratory ailment on April 10th, 2009. Posey Gruener produced our tribute. Thanks to Paul Jones, Ellie Williams, Ray Sosi, Harrison Dehaya and Ann Manuelito for sharing their memories.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: This is NPR.

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