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TribeTech conference discusses bridging the digital divide

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TEMECULA, Calif. ? Attempting to address the "digital divide," a panel of experts met on the Pechanga Indian Reservation to gauge how far Indian country must go to open a general dialogue between government, tribal and technology industry leaders.

The all-day event, called TribeTech, was sponsored by Cerritos College and featured a series of panels to discuss tribal technology planning as well as to tout a few success stories.

"We want to convey the fact that there are opportunities for Native Americans to lay the groundwork for sound technological planning," said event moderator Bryan Reece, a political science professor at Cerritos College.

Sam Goodhope, president of Native Broadband Services, said that for the first time in history a full technological infrastructure was within the grasp of all tribes. Since costs have been reduced, he said, for an investment of less than $10,000, equipment is available to bring full communications and information services even to tribes previously inaccessible because of their remoteness.

However, Goodhope said it might be a while before most of Indian country gets wired because most tribes are not even aware that these systems might be available.

"I think that some tribes may also be a little resistant to this kind of change because they are worried about how this may effect their culture," said Goodhope.

Dr. Jim May, a professor of Information Sciences at California State University Monterey Bay, and a member of the United Keetoowah Band illustrated this point. May, who gave his presentation in both English and Cherokee, told the story of how he visited an Indian community in New Mexico several years ago where several of the tribal elders did not want to have their language written down to be used as an instructional tool.

"The problem was when I went downstairs after the meeting with the elders, I noticed several of their children were watching television in English," said May. "Technology is already here and effecting Indian people, so why not make it work for our culture and not against us."

During her demonstration, Dr. Lori Lambert, Assistant Director of Distance Education at the Salish tribe's Kootenai College in Montana, showed ways she believes her institution has made technology work for the Salish culture.

In an example from a course on microbiology, Lambert demonstrated a web site comparing microbiology to hunting. She said the comparison was valid since microbiology is "nothing but the hunting of small animals."

The Kootenai College approach also wove several other cultural aspects into its distance education, including a virtual campfire and other electronically simulated tribal approaches to solving problems.

"We wanted to mold a program where our people would feel comfortable with familiar things to introduce them to things that were not so familiar," said Lambert.

Sometimes the problem is just introducing the technology. Paul Newman, a professor at Northern Arizona University has been trying to deliver technology to some of the Southwest's more remote tribes. Newman brought to his presentation a coterie of stories and images detailing the problems associated with bringing modern telecommunications to the Havasupai tribe.

Because of the geographic complexity of the Havasupai homeland at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, telecommunications have faced serious drawbacks since the first reservation phone lines were installed several decades ago.

The first problem Newman said that he encountered was getting hold of anyone on standard phone lines. The canyon's rocks, which enshroud the phone lines, would heat up during the hot Southwestern afternoons, making telephone service impossible until late in the evening.

As this problem was identified, it was decided that a wireless telecommunications network would be required, raising the problem of bringing the equipment to the tribe.

"This was one of our solutions," said Newman pointing to a photograph of a Dell computer box strapped to the back of a mule. He was not joking.

As Newman so dramatically pointed out, infrastructure is still a major barrier. He stated that Federal Express can guarantee an overnight delivery from Northern Arizona University to Helsinki, Finland but could only guarantee a three-day delivery to the Navajo reservation, less than a hundred miles distant.

The Gila River Tribe, located on the outskirts of the Phoenix metropolitan area, solved its infrastructure problem by creating its own infrastructure.

General Manager of Telecommunications Belinda Nelson, a tribal member, told how her tribe managed to get into the telephone business. Despite Gila River's relatively close proximity to a major metropolitan area, most of the tribe still did not have telephone service as recently as two decades ago.

After reviewing several plans with major companies, the tribe decided to control its own telephone service on the reservation.

"There's a world of difference between a rural telephone service and someone like, say, AT&T," said Nelson.

Nelson spoke of the multi-year struggle just to establish the proper infrastructure at Gila River. The tribe asked for and eventually received a grant from the federal Rural Utilities Service (RUS), the first of several acronyms Nelson had to learn in the jumbled alphabet soup of the government agencies that team up with private industry to create and regulate telecommunications lines.

Three years after receiving the grant, the tribe was finally able to start laying fiber optic and copper wire for telephone service.

Nelson said that the tribally run communications network has enabled the tribe to expand its economic opportunities. Later this year Gila River will open a 500-room resort; tribal members who used to encounter problems when they would apply for jobs in Phoenix because they had no phone do not have such problems now.

Though the TribeTech conference did not break much new ground in the digital divide discussion the fact that there is an on-going discussion is in itself of note. The only government official to speak at the conference was Kris Monteith, the director of the Federal Communications Commission's Indian Telecom Training Initiative.

Monteith also had the distinction of being the only government official to stay for the entire session. Representatives from the office of Governor Davis and California Senators Boxer and Feinstein also made token appearances but were gone after the free lunch.

In a typical reaction to a speech by a government official at an American Indian conference, a flurry of slightly heated conversation arose after Monteith's speech, centered mainly on tribal control of bandwidth and frequency by tribal radio stations. However, compared to other on-going debates with the government, this one lacked bite and ended rather quickly; relations with Monteith and those in attendance remained cordial.