Skip to main content

American Indians try to bridge 'digital divide'

  • Author:
  • Updated:

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - These days at small community gatherings and large-scale pow wows someone brings it up. In American Indian conferences it usually becomes a topic of conversation. Tribal councils and politicians keep warning Indian country about it.

What is this "it"? It is not the fry bread anymore, folks, we're talking about the digital divide. Unless you have spent the last couple of years visiting tribes in the Amazon rainforest you have at least heard the phrase.

Knowing the phrase does not answer the question. What is the digital divide and why are American Indians constantly being warned about it? Is anyone doing anything about it?

Several American Indians in technology weighed in on the subject which seems as broad as the divide.

First there is the problem of infrastructure or its absence in Indian country.

Evans Craig is a Navajo tribal member who runs his own Internet company in Albuquerque, N.M. Recently he began a speech at a seminar by playing the flute. At the conclusion of his recital, he told the audience his instrument was the kind of technology he wanted.

His point was that to run his technology-driven business, he needed to move away from his native Navajo reservation because of its lack of internal resources available such as modern phone lines and reliable electricity. He says he never wanted to leave home but these circumstances forced him to go to a nearby urban center so he could follow his dream.

Craig regularly consults with various tribes around the United States, giving him a first-hand look at the problems posed by the digital divide. After creation of basic infrastructure, the biggest problem Craig sees is not lack of access, but the fact many tribal people have no training to utilize the technology.

"It's just a matter of getting used to technology," Craig says. "For example, when the elevator was first invented there was a guy who stood there and opened the door, closed it and pushed all the buttons. When people got used to the idea, they began doing it themselves. The same is true of all technology. We need to show the people how to do it."

In Washington state, Suquamish tribal member Robert Gemmell knows how to use technology. After earning his college degree at California State University, Monterey Bay, three years ago, he moved up north to work for his tribe. With a staff of four, Gemmell managed to reinvent the tribal information infrastructure.

Among his accomplishments are replacement of a 20-year-old telephone system, installation of a CAT6 network - a cable for voice and data - and he has maintained both Internet and intranet Web sites for the tribe. He also brought e-mail to every single tribal member and has designed and operated a 20-workstation learning center.

The list goes on. Gemmell says since technology moves so quickly it is imperative that the tribe keep up with it. Suquamish recently received a federal Department of Commerce Technical Opportunity Grant (TOP). Only 35 applicants out of more than 600 receive TOP awards. The Suquamish hope to use the grant money to get a relay tower that would give them a wireless service.

A wireless service, Gemmell says is superior because it does not require connections to phone lines, something only 47 percent of reservation homes across the nation have. It is faster and provides nearly instantaneous interaction, he said.

The Suquamish Web site is under construction. When finished it will feature a virtual longhouse where tribal members can see a bit of tribal tradition. There are links to other aspects of the culture, including an Indian writers group.

Gemmell feels the cultural aspects are particularly important.

"We (Suquamish tribal members) only meet as a body once a year for about four hours. I want to create a forum where tribal members can participate in a social and political dialogue that will be constantly ongoing," he says.

Craig and Gemmell agree that increased use of technology has created political revolutions. Craig tells the story of a tribe who decided to broadcast council meetings on closed circuit television. When tribal members saw their council was not voting the way they said they were, it caused a small revolt.

Gemmell says he feels thwarted at Suquamish by a tribal council he feels fears the implications of sharing too much information. He said members of the council are attempting to personally discredit him and are threatening to block implementation of the TOP grant. However, he said he has support of most of tribal members who recognize his accomplishments.

The Pala tribe in southern California has developed a partnership with the University of California, San Diego, to create a wireless network. Doretta Musick, who works in the Pala Learning Center says that so far the it has been working out well.

The partnership was the result of a federal Housing and Urban development grant that Pala received two years ago.

Musick says that before the wireless network was set up at Pala, there were only three workstations connected to phone lines. The children who use the Learning Center after school had to wait and the connection was slow. With the addition of three workstations, and since the new wireless system works faster than phone lines, the schoolchildren no longer have to wait to use the computers.

Because the children are being trained, Musick says it is important that adults also learn to use the technology.

"In late November we're going to begin four-week classes on the Internet that will be available to adults. It's very important that we have learning programs to go with the new technology."

Hans Warner, who works for the University of California, San Diego, site of the Pala project, says the tribe is receiving cutting-edge technology.

"This is not some secondhand, 10-year-old technology that's being given to the Indians. This is state of the art stuff."

Warner says he is working with several other area tribes besides Pala. Two solar cells to power the relay towers necessary for the wireless network, sit in Warner's backyard. He hopes to use them for a wireless project at Rincon Rancheria.

The Pala were lucky because they already had a television relay tower on a nearby mountain where they could place the wireless antennae.

Warner, a native of Germany, voices concerns about how American Indian tribes might be inundated with western culture on the Internet.

Cade Twist, a Cherokee tribal member, who works for the Digital Divide Network in Washington, D.C., also is concerned about the cultural implications of using Internet. The Internet, he says, is consumer driven and has made a "bi-directional medium essentially one-directional."

This is the reason Twist believes tribes need to make sure cultural sensitivity should be part of training programs to tribes, citing several Cherokee medicine taboos that restrict certain bits of information.

Still Twist is optimistic about bridging the digital divide. He believes that divide is the result of government policies toward American Indians. Lack of electricity and telephone service came from being ignored by the United States government, he said.

"Tribal sovereignty has only been in existence since the Nixon administration stopped proscribing programs and started to work with tribes as governmental entities. Thirty years is not a long time in Indian country and the repercussions of the past policies have not gone away."

Twist said he feels changes are finally taking place. Calling infrastructure on reservations a "huge fad now," he said he does not think it is unreasonable for 80 percent of Indian tribes to have at least public access points to the Internet in the next five years.

Jim Casey, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represents tribal telephone companies says the infrastructure is beginning to take shape. Many tribes who entered into gaming for the first time have funds to bring in the infrastructure.

He says many tribes finally realized the best way to bring it in is go into the telephone business themselves and, with a few exceptions, they have managed to fund this venture through gaming.

The question remains, what is the digital divide? Casey thinks it is an overused term but says he has the answer.

"It really comes down to the technological, educational and economic gap in regard to Indians. Otherwise it's really just one more commodity."