A Seat at the Table: Dissolving the Digital Divide in Indian Country

55 Community technology center, Coeur D’Alene reservation.In an age when most students don’t go for more than a few hours without checking email or posting a status update on Facebook, there is a deep assumption that all Americans have Internet access. Yet participating in the digital revolution remains just out of reach for most people living in Indian country.

“The Internet is an equalizer,” says Dr. Traci Morris (Chickasaw), a Tribal consultant who's worked on the digital divide in Native American communities. “It allows economic development, access to health care, jobs and more.” And as we move forward into the digital age, access to the Internet will grant Native Americans a seat at the table as we further develop these technological resources, explains Morris.

Creating a Broadband Backbone
“We don’t even have the Internet backbone for telephone access in Indian country, let alone broadband,” says Karen Buller (Comanche), founder of the National Indian Telecommunications Institute. “We started the institute in 1995 to help Indian teachers use technology and the Internet with their students, but we quickly realized these teachers didn’t even have access to the Internet.” At the time, 42 percent of all Native Americans had phone service in their homes and only one percent had computers at home, according to Buller.

While access has improved, rates of access in Indian country still fall well below the national average. Less than 10 percent of Native American communities have broadband access, compared to a national average of almost 70 percent. Moreover, less than three quarters of those in Indian country have a telephone, while the national average is 98 percent[1,2]. Broadband access is often unavailable or overly expensive in Native American communities, particularly those in rural parts of the country.

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) developed a National Broadband Plan with the lofty goal of ensuring that every American has broadband access, including everyone living in Indian country. To achieve this end, the FCC has launched an Office of Native Affairs and Policy. Soon, they hope to form a Native Nations Broadband Task Force[3].

Taking Initiative at the Grassroots Level
Before the FCC made its promises, some Native American communities were already taking the initiative to decrease the digital divide. Through obtaining foundation and national grants, or pairing with local tribal colleges, newspapers or radio stations, more and more Native Americans are finding their way online and reaping the benefits.

The Coeur D’Alene community in Idaho has set a remarkable example. They have a community technology center with high-speed broadband Internet access, as well as video and audio editing software and computer literacy classes. What’s more, the tribe created their own local broadband provider called Red Spectrum, which offers a variety of in-home Internet options. They’ve also started RezKast, the first Native American video and music sharing site.

“Back in 1999, I was the only person on the IT staff and we barely had dial-up services,” says Valerie Fast Horse (Coeur D’Alene), IT director for the tribe. “Everyone was talking about the digital divide in Indian country and so I set up a plan to build up the tribe’s network.”

In 2002, Fast Horse had the opportunity to apply for a U.S. Department of Agriculture rural development grant. They were awarded almost $3 million—the largest grant of its kind at the time, which allowed them to set up the infrastructure for the community center, Red Spectrum and RezKast. Fast Horse now manages 17 IT employees.

The key is coming up with a community assessment to determine what the tribe’s needs are and then researching funding opportunities, Fast Horse says. “The grants really allowed us to get the ball rolling and now the rest has fallen into place.”

Cassandra Brooks (Abenaki) is a freelance science writer and marine scientist. She can be reached at brooks.cassandra@gmail.com.

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References

[1] Morris, T.L., and Meinrath, S.D. 2009. New Media, Technology and Internet Use in Indian Country: Quantitative and Qualitative Analyses. Native Public Media and New America Foundation. Available at www.newamerica.net

[2] Horrigan, J.B. 2010. Broadband Adoption and Use in America. Federal Communications Commission. Available at www.fcc.gov

[3] Federal Communications Commission. 2010. Proposed broadband action agenda. Available at www.broadband.gov