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Grandma on Facebook; Grandpa Rockin’ a Kindle: Pokagon Tribe Goes Digital

Tribal member is participating in a far-reaching technology initiative that includes distributing at least 600 hand-held electronic readers to tribal elders

Donald Sumner wasn’t much of a book reader until he got his Kindle. The 59-year-old member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi in rural southwest Michigan is participating in a far-reaching technology initiative by the tribe that includes distributing at least 600 handheld electronic readers to tribal elders — and training them — so they can download e-books and language applications, create email accounts, shop online and do a little Facebooking.

“It’s a very useful tool. I can now read Native American books, watch movies and listen to music,” said Sumner, an educational associate with the tribe who helps provide mentoring and continuing education services to Natives, young and old. Sumner said tribal elders are very open to learning new technology. “One woman was so excited because the Kindle now gives her a way to communicate with her grandchildren through Facebook.”

The Kindle distribution is just one facet of a comprehensive technological overhaul of government operations that is touching nearly every aspect of Pokagon life, including health, education and the legal system.

And it all started with a bolt of lightning in 2012.

“When I first came on board, we were testing three towers with microwave radios. Lightning struck one of the towers and fried everything at our disaster recovery site, where our backup server was,” recalled Matt Clay, Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, and former information technology director for the tribe. “Our government was shut down completely,” said Clay, who worked through the night with his staff to get their computer operations up and running within 24 hours.

That disaster turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “It was a huge wake-up call. We realized that our infrastructure was outdated and our technology systems didn’t perform well,” said Clay, now director of health services for the tribe. He immediately put a plan into motion that called for an initial $1.6 million investment in new technology.

Working with Microsoft, Planet Technologies and local vendors over the last three years, the tribe’s IT department has completely transformed the way nearly 210 tribal staffers conduct business. Some technological improvements include Microsoft Office software on all desktop computers, Lync communications (like Skype for business), Windows servers, a CRM (customer relationship management) system to manage tribal enrollment, and Office 365, which includes SharePoint for collaboration, accessed through OneDrive cloud services.

“Office 365 is a big deal,” said Clay. “It reduces the need for servers, maintenance and increased staff. And you can get it relatively inexpensively for about $12 per person.” Clay said the collaborative nature of SharePoint has made a tremendous difference in the way tribal government communicates. “We can all be working on the same document at the same time. It doesn’t matter where we are — even in China — as long as we have access to the Internet.”

According to Sam Morseau, a Pokagon Native and director of education for the tribe, one of the best improvements has been putting Surface tablets into the hands of everyone in his department. Surface has especially been helpful for remote educational workers, like Sumner. “Before, when our educational associates would be offsite, we wouldn’t be able to communicate with them very well. But with Surfaces, we can send a quick e-mail and the get the information we need to serve our citizens,” Morseau explained.

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Pokagon’s former IT Director Clay claims that his tribe has one of the most state-of-the-art IT departments in Indian country. Don Lionetti, a Microsoft account manager who works with Native American businesses, seconds that. “They are one of the most sophisticated tribes in their use of technology that I have ever worked with, and I cover the entire U.S. Native American market,” said Lionetti.

Clay’s advice to other tribes? “Don’t be afraid of technology. You have to embrace it because it will help.” However, good communication with tribal members is key to implementing any new technology, he said. “You also need to get people to trust technology. You can have all the technology in the world, but if people don’t trust it, they won’t use it.”

Clay has seen firsthand how technology has improved the lives of elders in his own family. “It’s becoming easier and easier to use now. My grandfather has a Smart Phone and he’s 87. And my grandmother is 85 years old and on Facebook. I never thought I’d see that in my life.”

Lynn Armitage is a contributing business writer and enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.