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USDA Awards $2.2M to Remote Native Villages

Once, rural Native communities were cut off from the rest of the world. Isolation and lack of opportunities drove many Natives to nearby cities where they often felt lost and out of place. But now, for the first time in history, the modern world is providing the means for Native people to remain in their homelands while also receiving the same high quality education and healthcare enjoyed by people in large cities.

On July 14, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded $23.4 million in grants to 81 communities in 32 states for Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) programs. Eight of those grants, totaling over $2.2 million, are to Native groups.

Of the states receiving grants for Native people, Alaska received the most money, with four groups awarded a total of over $1.4 million, while Native groups in California, Minnesota, New Mexico and Oklahoma received a total of nearly $800,000.

“Using technology for educational opportunities and medical care can provide services that are often unavailable in rural areas,” Vilsack said. “USDA’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program helps communities better meet the needs of their residents.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture-Rural Development (USDA-RD) Alaska State Director Jim Nordlund also praised the program. “The DLT program delivers educational and medical opportunities that are urgently needed in remote, rural areas. These investments mean that students in rural Alaskan schools will have educational opportunities often not available outside urban areas. This funding also means that people who live and work in rural areas will not have to travel long distances for specialized health care services.”

As reported in a July 17 Alaska Dispatch News story, Jacoline Bergstrom, executive director of health services at the Tanana Chiefs Conference, which was awarded a $375,000 grant, explained the money will allow them to upgrade and buy telemedicine equipment.

“Our doctors travel on a regular basis, but sometimes weather is an issue and sometimes planes don’t always make it in,” Bergstrom said. “That’s another benefit to telemedicine—you can still have a physician engage with a patient.”

Of the remaining Alaska groups who received grants, Copper River School District was awarded $488,558 to provide distance learning services to five primary schools in extremely remote Alaskan villages. The schools will share curriculum and professional development and mentorship. Three of the sites are on Alaska Native trust lands.

Hope Community Resources Inc., based in Anchorage, was awarded $279,820 to purchase video conferencing equipment to provide mental health and disability counseling and training and support services to individuals and their families.

Arctic Slope Native Association Ltd., based in Barrow, was awarded $287,198 to purchase a tele-pharmacy remote dispensing system. Currently, medication can only be flown into the remote clinics.

In California, the Karuk Tribe was awarded $116,677 to provide video conferencing equipment to support the delivery of specialty care, primary care, and behavioral health care services from hub sites in Sacramento and Redding to end-user sites in Happy Camp, Orleans and Yreka.

In Minnesota, the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa was awarded $91,821 to provide telemedicine, tele-pharmacy and distance learning to serve patients at all Boise Forte Health and Human Services sites.

In New Mexico, the Santa Fe Indian School Inc. was awarded $318,093 to provide video conferencing equipment at 16 end-user sites to support the maintenance of the native languages of the 19 Pueblos in New Mexico. Santa Fe’s new DLT facility will act as the hub for the Pueblo libraries, creating a digital pipeline that connects Native students and teachers, elders, community leaders and mentors.

In Oklahoma, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma was awarded $263,384 to purchase video conferencing equipment for educational initiatives in 30 schools in a project named “Holbvt toba Aianumpuli” (Talking TV).

Native people come from the land. We grew from it the same way the forests and the streams did. To separate us from our ancestral lands is to separate us from our identity. But the modern world pulls us away from our homelands like a giant vacuum cleaner, tempting us with better jobs, healthcare, education and opportunity. Now, with modern telecommunications, remote Native communities can bring the world to their people instead of losing their people to the world.