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Bias Found in Reservation Telephone Infrastructure

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STANDING ROCK RESERVATION, N.D. - A report submitted to the Federal
Communications Commission last month alleges that a pattern of bias has
resulted in discriminatory policies toward tribal households on the
Standing Rock Reservation.

The report was primarily done by Turtle Island Communications, a suburban
Minneapolis-based telecommunications consulting company. The report cites a
number of instances where American Indians on the Standing Rock Reservation
have been systematically denied telephone service.

"This is not just a socio-economic problem," said Turtle Island President
and CEO Madonna Yawakie. "There has been a pattern of policy that has
systematically denied telephone service [to the Standing Rock Reservation]."

Among other allegations, the report claims that the lack of telephone and
other telecommunications service has violated the 1868 Fort Laramie treaty
in which the tribe was guaranteed to have health care and law enforcement.

Oregon lawyer David Lundgren, who worked on the report maintains that lack
of basic telephone service to more than 30 percent of the reservation
renders these tenets of the treaty impossible.

"How can you have law enforcement and emergency medical services if you
don't have telephone service," questioned Lundgren.

Indeed the lack of telephone service on Indian reservations as a whole is
startling. According to most statistics about 53 percent of reservation
households nationwide do not have telephone service, as compared to,
depending on which figures you reference, somewhere around 95 percent of
the general population.

A decade ago Standing Rock was near the national average for reservations
in terms of lack of telephone service and Yawakie credits tribal
assertiveness for increasing this figure to about 68 percent of reservation
households today.

However, Yawakie claims that this figures still falls far short of the 98
percent "penetration rate," or connected households, of the non-Indian
residents of the checkerboarded Standing Rock Reservation.

Yawakie points to a history of discriminatory policy that created an
infrastructure pattern that has led to this disparity today. She cites
actions taken by the federal government going back over a century that
essentially stacked the deck against tribal households.

Non-Indian farmers, said Lundgren, were among the earliest beneficiaries of
early 20th century telecommunications statutes that provided an
infrastructure on the Standing Rock Reservation for their benefit.

Later, in the 1930s came the New Deal-era Rural Electrification Act and its
telephone amendment in 1949 that gave federal subsidies in most cases to
households to connect them to telephone service.

"It is now more than 50 years later and telephone service is still far
behind [at Standing Rock]," said Yawakie's business partner and husband
Melvin Yawakie.

There was one caveat to the Rural Electrification Act's telephone provision
for households too far from existing infrastructure who were required to
bear most of the costs for extending service to these remote locations.

Yawakie said this automatically discriminated against tribal households for
whom the original infrastructure was not designed and has been a primary
reason for their lagging behind neighboring non-Indians in terms of
telephone service.

As evidence of this problem Yawakie provided a letter to an elderly
Standing Rock resident in which the local phone carrier, West River
Telecommunications, insisted that she pay $2,400 just to have a phone line
installed.

The letter went on to insist that the woman pay that amount within 60 days
or she would not be connected.

Yawakie said normally when a phone company receives several requests for a
given area, such as parts of Standing Rock, they waive the 60-day payment
period and install the infrastructure for the area requested.

West River General Manager Mick Grosz said all rural customers have to
incur costs for phone lines but that the company will fully re-compensate
over 10 years, though when the report was made it was 16 years.

Yawakie questioned the effectiveness of compensating an elderly tribal
member over such a long period of time, when the chances are fairly good
that they will not live to see the full compensation.

West River is a cooperative utility, which means that it is owned by the
public and does not make a profit. The company is run by an elected board,
which Yawakie claims has no Indian representation because the districts in
which the board members are elected are gerrymandered against electing
Indians.

In fact, Madonna Yawakie alleges that the two members of the board who
represent Standing Rock are members of a right-wing property rights group
that calls itself the Citizens Equal Rights Foundation, known locally as
CERA, whose Web site is highly critical of Indian sovereignty.

She provided Indian Country Today with a letter from West River board
member Nick Vollmuth apologizing for accidentally sending a solicitation
letter from the CERA to the tribal tax department.

Though he said that Vollmuth is a member of the group Grosz tries to
distance the company and its board of directors from CERA and denies that
such sympathies are displayed in board meetings or policy decisions.

"[CERA] is not something that we discuss in our meetings and as a whole the
board does not belong to this group or subscribe to it," Grosz said.

The Yawakies also charge West River with not effectively communicating and
educating the federal telephone subsidy programs to tribal members.

Grosz refutes this claim and said that the company has worked to educate
Standing Rock residents and points out that in the past two years a new
federal subsidy program has gone from zero to 1,100 subscribers at Standing
Rock.

However, Grosz was unable to determine whether the majority of these people
were American Indians or non-Indian Standing Rock residents.

Another problem cited by the Yawakies is the configuration of the local
exchanges. Standing Rock sits in two states on the border of North and
South Dakota, but even still, the local exchanges are oriented away from
the reservation in both states.

Grosz said this problem has been solved by a new toll free inter-exchange
area that now provides free local calling within the entire reservation.

The problem with the new service, according to the Yawakies, is that
because of the decentralized nature of the reservation local exchanges
Standing Rock customers are seeing an additional $4.50 tacked on to their
monthly charges. Though seemingly a small amount, the Yawakies claim that
this can be a hardship for poor reservation families that struggle to heat
their homes during the long Dakota winters.

The main thing the Yawakies say they want are steps to undo a century of
discriminatory infrastructure policy and say they will press the federal
government to live up to what they believe are its obligations to the
Standing Rock tribal members.