Time for the ‘well-meaning man’ to return spectrum rights to Native American tribes

(Photo: @nightvvolfchesh)

Darrah Blackwater

Spectrum is a critical natural resource no different than water, air, sunlight and minerals. It can not only empower tribal communities to create their own internet access solutions, but also the benefits that come with it says Darrah Blackwater.

Henry Laurens Dawes didn’t see himself as a bad man. Nor did the men in Massachusetts who voted the abolitionist attorney into Congress just before the Civil War in 1856, at the height of America’s westward expansion. As a Senator sitting on the Indian Affairs committee, he wanted good things for Native Americans to which he referred as “incompetent ward(s) of the Nation.”

Yet the General Allotment Act he introduced in 1887 that would break up tribal lands like a Hershey’s bar disproportionately in favour of white settlers set a devastating precedent for a number of social injustices still present today – including access to the internet.

Dawes’s Act oversaw the transfer of small allotments of land to individual Native Americans, while selling 90 million acres of “excess” territory to white settlers moving west. Neither Tribal Nations nor individual Native Americans saw any proceeds of the sales that contributed to the wealth disparity still entrenched in modern American society.

Dawes had the audacity to believe he was helping the Indigenous people from whom he was literally taking the soil beneath their feet. In reality he was but one of many well-meaning men to come that would steal resources from Tribal Nations on a massive scale.

Tribes have watched the ‘well-meaning man’ apply his pattern to natural resources such as land and water over the last century. These incompetent Indians don’t understand how to best manage their resources, he said as he built dams, devastating eco- and irrigation systems that had flourished under the care of Native Americans for a thousand years prior to his arrival. It’s best we do it for them.

Tribal Nations are still fighting to recover these life-giving resources.

When the ‘well-meaning man’ set his sights on oil and minerals, Tribal Nations rose up against decades of exploitation. They pushed for legislation that gave them more control over their mineral leases, leading Congress to pass the Indian Mineral Development Act in 1982.

These days, the role of the ‘well-meaning man’ is commonly played by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai. The natural resource in his crosshairs is spectrum, the invisible radio waves in the air around us that can carry digital information from cell towers to your smartphone.

Spectrum is a finite, physical resource in the sense that it can only relay so much information at once. That is why cell phone service doesn’t work at big events, where many people are trying to make calls and navigate the internet at the same time and in the same place.

The FCC regulates spectrum by dividing America into “blocks” (remember the Hershey’s bar?) and auctioning the right to use each portion to telecommunications companies in the form of licenses. In 2015 the FCC auctioned 1,611 spectrum blocks to telecommunications companies, raking in a total of $41.7 billion.

New spectrum blocks are auctioned off by the FCC each year, and many blocks include portions of the 56.2 million acres of land governed by Tribal Nations. However, these sovereigns are not given the opportunity to manage their own spectrum, nor do they benefit economically from the leases.

Economic impact aside, the FCC has made it nearly impossible for Tribal Nations to even participate in auctions to lease local spectrum, giving deference to massive telecommunications companies that hold onto tribal portions without offering service in sparsely-populated rural, tribal areas.

The result is an ever-widening digital divide: approximately six out of 10 homes in rural, tribal areas lack a broadband internet connection, and their residents are deprived of an essential utility that the rest of America takes for granted.

And similar to Dawes’s colonial land grab, it contributes to a wide range of disparities between Native America and the rest of the country. Lack of internet access impedes education, health care delivery, economic development, emergency services and much more.

The FCC will take one small step in the right direction in 2020 when it offers a tribal priority opportunity, where the FCC will provide tribes a short period to apply for one small chunk of spectrum (the 2.5 GHz band) on their lands. While this is a good start, it is not nearly enough.

Spectrum is a critical natural resource no different than water, air, sunlight and minerals. It can not only empower tribal communities to create their own internet access solutions, but also the benefits that come with it: improved health and education outcomes, economic development and cultural/language revitalization, to name a few.

America can do better.

If America is serious about making reparations with Native American Tribes, empowering them to be true stewards of spectrum on tribal lands would be a good start.

Darrah Blackwater is an enrolled citizen of the Navajo Nation, and a third-year law student at the University of Arizona, specializing in federal Indian law and telecommunications. She has completed internships in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs and under the Inspector General of the Department of the Interior. 

Comments (1)
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Peggy B
Peggy B

Our organization, the Native Media Resource Center, was getting ready to go to the recent FCC meeting about this at Blue Lake, but the PGE PSPS kept us from attending. I've been involved in spectrum issues since the 1970's when Indians were offered a satellite system to cover our Nations. Of course the system was an old system and no one took them up on it, but we did demonstrate sending live video from a couple of reservations to audiences. When I read the offering of 2.5 GHz I thought "not again". Although 2.5 GHz is still good our Tribes should be offered the latest, fastest and best speeds possible. We also need enough funding to build the infrastructure needed, including training and redundancies, especially in these changing times.
During the October PSPS our rural communities that stretch 75 miles along the Southern Mendocino and Northern Sonoma Coast and inland lost all power and that meant, no landlines, no cell, and no internet. Our tiny land-based FM station, KGUA 88.3 FM became the voice, the only source for up-to -date information; in other words a lifeline. We learned a lot about the maneuvering our way through the days. Although we had two ISPs, they both relied on generators to keep some antennas going. Even our water systems required generators. This meant our local people worked around the clock, literally, in order to keep the generators full of gas or propane.
We slept on the floor at KGUA for four nights to keep our generator going and to keep the people informed. We in California will continue or have PG&E PSPS events.
All this to say spectrum doesn't mean anything if you don't know how to maintain it, have the trained staff to run it and funding to put backups in place. We're talking about needing support for a whole communications ecosystem in order to thrive and not just just survive. We, as Nations, Tribal entities and Indigenous community organizations and shouldn't accept anything less. We must think holistically and strategically about spectrum and connectivity.