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Pet Sins July 2007

American Indians working to close the digital divide

In 2000, a National Telecommunications and Information Administration's (NTIA) report indicated that 18.9 percent of Native Americans are surfing the Web, compared with the national average of 26.2 percent. (Clinton, Native Americans to discuss 'digital divide', CNet News, April 17, 2000) A large part of the reason for this inequality was infrastructure, or rather the lack of it. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) pointed out "As other communities focus on bringing Internet connectivity to their citizens, many American Indians and Alaska Natives have yet to be connected to a basic telephone network." (NCAI Indiantech.org) In June 2000, NCAI created the Digital Divide Task Force with a grant from the AOL-Time Warner Foundation. The task force would work with native nations to provide technology access, education and training to Indian Country.

Communities and individuals also took it upon themselves to bridge the digital divide in their nations and beyond. Suquamish tribe member Robert Gemmell returned to serve his nation after graduating from college, He installed a voice/data cable network, amongst many other projects. As the tribe's Manager of Information Systems he brought e-mail to every member of the nation and put in place a 20-workstation learning center. (American Indians try to bridge 'digital divide')

Evans Craig of the Navajo nation is a technology consultant who had worked with more than 40 nations. A member of the Navajo Nation's first Technology Committee, he helped put the Crow Nation's five colleges and Dine College (formerly Navajo Community College) online in the 1990s. While working at Sandia Laboratories, Craig created the six-week program Countdown to Supercomputing with funding from the Department of Energy. Native high school students from various nations came to Albuquerque for an immersion program in supercomputing in math and science. (A Strong but Sensitive Computing Initiative for Native American Communities, EOT-PACI, June 24, 2000) Currently Craig runs LINK Url="http://www.internettechnologyservice.net/Service/service.html" Title="Internet Technology Service, LLC"/>, a company which designs websites and provides technology consultations for native institutions and businesses.

Collective efforts paid off. A 2003 study indicated that the rate of school internet access for Native American students was 83%, the same as the national average, and in fact slightly higher than that of students from other communities of color. But when it comes to home internet access, the statistics change. 48% of native students had internet access at home, compared to 46% of African American students, 48% of Latino students and 74% of Asian-American students. (New Govt Report Exposes the School-Home Digital Divide, Learning.Now, September 8, 2006)

Yet the introduction of new technology is not met with unreserved welcome. Cade Twist, a Cherokee at the Digital Divide Network in Washington, D.C., expressed concern about the cultural implications of using Internet, which he said is consumer-driven and has made a "bi-directional medium essentially one-directional." (Clinton, Native Americans to discuss 'digital divide', CNet News, April 17, 2000) Native elder Tommy Lewis reminded attendees at a Silicon Valley conference in 2000: "There is a lot of fear among tribal communities that technology will disrupt out cultural ways... But if used right it will be a tremendous help." (Indians see on-ramp to information highway, Denver Post, Oct. 16, 2000)

Indian communities and leaders have taken the proactive stance of using the internet to enhance and strengthen traditional lifestyles. Todd Enlow, director of information systems for the Cherokee Nation, saw the internet as a means for students and service men and women living outside the reservation to stay in touch with happenings in the tribe. (Clinton, Native Americans to discuss 'digital divide', CNet News, April 17, 2000) The Choctaw Nation developed an online course in the Choctaw language, available not just to members of the nation, but to anyone with an internet connection. The fourth grade students at Tulalip Elementary School on the Tulalip Indian Reservation developed an online project that teaches the Lushootseed language and showcases Tulalip music. (A Talking Book: An Endangered Language Flourishes Again at a Puget Sound School)

New Mexico State Senator Leonard Tsosie, a member of the Navajo nation, championed the Internet to the Hogan legislation that brought the first IP network to the Navajo Nation in 2006. The Navajo Nation began providing voic services over the network put together by Cisco Systems and INX. Using the IP network, residents would be able to make free phone calls between the 110 Chapter Houses in the three-state Navajo Nation, much of which is still not served by electricity or paved roads. (INX Completes Initial IP Network for Navajo Nation; Company Helps Advance Internet to the Hogan Initiative, Business Wire, April 24, 2006) Tsosie envisions an online Navajo Nation in which a sheep herder far from home could use wireless internet to let his family know his status in the field. (Navajo Lawmaker Hopes to Wear Two Hats, Day to Day, November 1, 2006)