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Tulalip Tribe makes 'Technology Leap' into 21st century

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MARYSVILLE, Wash. - Members of the Tulalip Tribal Council call their computer modernization program Technology Leap. And quite a leap it is, moving the reservation's 2,500 tribal members from "basically a pencil and paper operation" into the 21st century.

It's not just computer installations they're talking about either. They're talking communications networks. They're talking on-rez digital TV studios, reservation-based programming and linked videoconferencing facilities, universal cell phone towers and Internet capability in every member's home.

And they're talking a lot more than that.

The brainchild of John McCoy, executive director of governmental affairs for the tribe, Technology Leap is at once audacious and doable. A former programmer with the Air Force and Sperry Univac-Unysis Corp., McCoy brings more than 20 years networking experience in the computer industry to the project. But more than that, he brings a vision for his people ... a vision which keeps building. A vision with an outrageous price tag.

When he first outlined Technology Leap and its $1 million start-up costs to tribal council members, he says the "sticker-shock" was, well, quite a shock. It didn't help that he couldn't tell the council where costs were going to end.

"We're going to have to continually update this thing, because, as you know, PCs are outdated every nine months and software improvements come along and this and that," says McCoy. "So this is going to be a work in progress for the rest of our lives and our grandchildren's lives and our great-great-grandchildren's lives."

The tribe pays what it can from casino revenues and other tribal income while McCoy and his staff search out additional funding from grants and foundations.

Ever-expanding plans call for case management, records management and medical records management for health services, family services and social services departments - all huge databases that need to be developed and managed.

Software applications to upgrade and streamline tribal services are also planned.

"When you talk to medical people, social services people ...what do they always complain about? 'I got to sit down to write these damn reports,'" says McCoy. "Well, rather than having them sit down and write the 'damn reports,' give them voice recognition and have them talk into the computer and it types it out for them and it's done."

Financial management will be tied into the overall system so that tribal managers can query their budget every day. Automatic procurement and check orders will be facilitated using electronic signatures. Tribal elections will be held via electronic ballot. An online career center will be developed so tribal members looking for jobs or skills training have access to employment information both on and off reservation. A TV studio and a cell phone provider system are planned.

Accused of developing a telecommunications company, McCoy just smiles and says, "You got it."

As if his own vision wasn't bold enough, tribal council members had an additional request. With the first $300,000 in funding they asked that every tribally owned home, all 600 of them, be computerized and online within three years.

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Unlike many tribes in remote areas that struggle to develop basic infrastructure, roads, sewer systems and housing, the Tulalip Tribe's location in Microsoft country north of Seattle is making things a lot easier when it comes to implementing the technological feats planned.

"We've got everything that we need here," says Lita Sheldon, communications manager. "Access to DSL or ISPN, all that's possible. We're in a great position to spend our money wisely and go out and drag our tribal members into the 21st century."

Technology Leap kicked off with the most logical step: education. McCoy approached the local Everett Community College administration about helping the tribe provide on-reservation computer classes. Starting with "find the power switch" basics, classes progress to include computer operation programs, programming, networking, engineering, software engineering, database management and Web site management.

The entire program, which will take from 10 to 15 years to implement, is so vast Everett Community College instructors called in administrators and teachers from the University of Washington's Bothel branch for help. Senior programming, networking and engineering students at the university jumped in, providing much needed technical ability in trade for invaluable hands-on field training.

"We have a list of 27 actual buildings throughout the reservation that are somehow going to be brought technologically up to speed," says Maureen Hoban, program manager for Technology Leap. "I have students out literally measuring buildings, trying to find blueprints, trying to get the physical part of this thing organized."

While students from the University of Washington bustle around the reservation, 16 tribal members, who enrolled in the two-year associate degree program last year, lend a hand pulling cable through dusty attics and musty basements. McCoy recently ran into several tribal members crawling out from underneath a building after running a communications trunk line from one building to another.

"I started to walk away from them and one of them said, 'John, wait a minute.' So I stopped and turned around and looked at them. And they said, 'Thank you for this great opportunity. You're really gonna get something.'

"And I said, 'You're welcome. You deserve it.'"

Educational grants pay for part of each student's tuition. The rest is handled by the tribe's higher education budget which currently runs at $780,000 per year.

Darlene Grayloe is one student who doesn't hesitate to admit that Technology Leap has changed her life. After her husband died last year, Grayloe, 63, was left wondering about her future. She signed up for a few classes in Excel and Word, then advanced to learning DOS and other system languages. This year she's taking software programming and hardware classes and is looking into electrical engineering.

"I just can't seem to learn enough of it and even my instructors can't always answer my questions," says Grayloe. "It is hard at first. But you're never too old to learn."

Of 16 students enrolled in the program last year, all 16 returned to classes this year. So promising is the program, that even the local school district has contacted McCoy about non-Native students attending classes on the reservation.

"A month ago one of the professors said, 'You know, John, this could be wildly successful and none of your students will want to stay. They'll want to work for Microsoft or biochemical companies.' And I just looked at him and smiled and said, 'Ain't that a great problem to have?"