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dispatches

It's a small town with one ice cream shop but two TV channels, a place where radio stations outnumber hardware stores.

Kahnawake is a Mohawk community near Montreal known for producing courageous steel workers who construct tall buildings and for harbouring lucrative Internet gambling and cigarette enterprises that exist in legal limbo.

Kahnawake is also a town of 8,000 people with a roster of print and broadcast outlets that would be the envy of many cities 10 times larger. A thriving economy humming next to Canada's second-biggest city combined with a fierce Mohawk independent streak have helped create a small-town media hotbed.

On top of the TV channels and three radio stations, Kahnawake has three print news operations, including two websites and a newspaper. The broadcasters and other news outlets are small and run on commitment, from low-paid staff, local advertisers and an audience that keeps one station going with a weekly radio bingo game.

The number of media outlets in Kahnawake are also a reflection of a stormy history with the outside world. Many Mohawks feel they've been portrayed unfairly in big media.

"Our nature as Mohawks is that we want to be in charge of our own devices," said Greg Horn, a young journalist who has worked at the newspaper and started an independent news website, kahnawakenews.com. "We want to hear our own music, our own language, we want to employ our own people."

While most of the stations and news outlets tend to play by standard rules of broadcast and journalism, it wouldn't be Kahnawake without at least one jurisdictional conflict with the feds.

A pirate radio station, called KKIC, broadcasts 24-hour country music. It was launched from the basement of the proprietor's house without CRTC approval. The owners weren't available for interviews, but local news media have described a constant back and forth between the CRTC and the operators since the station was launched earlier this year.

KKIC broadcasts from underground, but another Mohawk radio station is reaching for the mainstream. Lodged in the attic of a former cultural centre, K103 Radio is the oldest of Kahnawake's broadcasters and will mark its 30th anniversary in March.

It beams a weak signal across the St. Lawrence River into much of the English-speaking half of Montreal. The station is trying to capitalize on the potentially lucrative reach by scooping up one of Montreal's best-known morning men.

Ted Bird's departure from CHOM, one of Montreal's powerhouse FM stations, left him looking for a job. He went to K103 for "five times the fun at one-fifth the salary," he says, in an attempt to get away from strictly regimented corporate radio.

On a recent Monday, after the usual banter among the three morning hosts and an old Genesis tune, Mr. Bird's show went silent for about 30 seconds. Dead air is a mortal sin in radio, but the morning crew had lost track of time after slipping out to take pictures of frost coating the trees.

"Hey, it's always fun, I didn't say it's always professional," Mr. Bird joked in an interview about a half-hour later.

Mr. Bird's arrival last April gave a jolt of big-city energy to the station, but it was also a departure for Mohawk media and was not universally embraced. Some Mohawks feared the station would chase lucrative Montreal advertisers and audience. Eight months into the experiment, online forums where Mr. Bird's arrival was debated have cooled considerably. The morning show is now peppered with ads from a garage, a jeweller and a courier company, all businesses based in Montreal that Mr. Bird wooed. Concrete results are hard to determine because the station can't afford to pay thousands of dollars to measure ratings.

Lance Delisle, the morning traffic man who has been at K103 since the beginning, says even if the station starts drawing larger non-native audiences, it will never lose its true Mohawk character.

"Whether it's the bingo or reading the birthdays or keeping the families of steelworkers involved in 9/11 informed, the fact we're here to serve 8,000 people is not a weakness," he said. "It's our strength."

While the radio stations have undeniable reach, the Eastern Door newspaper is the information backbone of the community.

Kenneth Deer launched the paper in 1992, largely out of disgust at how Mohawks were portrayed during the Oka confrontation two years earlier. In the summer of 1990, Mohawks and non-natives were locked in a series of standoffs triggered by a land dispute at Oka. One police officer died in the violence.

Mr. Deer's fledgling business installing pools and patios in Montreal suburbs was bankrupted by barricades and hostility from non-natives who no longer wanted to do business with Mohawks. He ran the paper with volunteers and donated equipment until it made enough money to hire staff. Mr. Deer sold the weekly two years ago to another local publisher.

The newspaper helps dampen rumours and air debates that divide the community, in addition to offering a Mohawk perspective on events, Mr. Deer said.

"Then, as now, you rarely saw a native face in the mainstream press unless it was bad news," he said. "It was slanted. I thought our community needed a platform of information that we could depend on."