COVID-19 Shines a Light on the Digital Divide in Indian Country

While we are all seeing the impacts of COVID-19 to Indian Country as they relate to availability of food, water, health care and other necessities, I have been watching the impact from another angle too – the digital perspective. Events like this shine a light on inadequacies, inefficiencies and gaps in service. They can also be used for change and improvement.

The digital divide in Indian Country is on par with all the other areas of critical infrastructure, food insecurity and economic development that continue to leave Native communities behind. At the first Lakota Food Summit in South Dakota earlier this year, one of the speakers put up a map of reservations. They also put up a map of food deserts. Not coincidentally, these two maps nearly overlapped perfectly when they were put on top of one another. I would contend that the tribal colleges in Indian Country would also be in proximity to the areas with highest need for food, economic opportunity and education.

It is not a complete shock to me that Native communities are in this predicament with the digital divide or that the federal government has allocated significant funding to improve the situation. What is clearly lacking, however, is the knowledge, skills and ability to get it done. This is not small potatoes. It would take dozens of MOUs, MOAs, approval from municipalities and lengthy legal reviews to accomplish the task.

The Northern Tier Network Consortium is essentially a merry band of Internet “nerds” from colleges throughout the northern corridor of the U.S., where most of the tribal colleges are located. Other groups such as the Sun Corridor Network, Albuquerque Giga PoP and Great Plains Network are all nonprofit consortiums that run the internet. They have the means, access and knowledge to make digital connection across Indian Country a reality, and honestly, I’ve never met a better group of people that truly believe in the principle of “everyone rises together.”   

Significant efforts would need to be undertaken to advance the ball on this initiative, but I think it’s entirely possible. Coordinating with tribal colleges to outfit their universities to serve as the backbone for an all-Native access network would skyrocket them into the digital age. The universities can become the data-centers for their tribes – housing all their critical documents, language preservation, research and historical information in one location. Monumental task? Absolutely. Achievable? Definitely.

The fact is, doing this would be a complete overhaul, from the fingertips to the cloud. User equipment, servers/switches, racks in the closets, networking equipment and fiber lines would all need to be improved. Some colleges and tribes would succeed while others would fail, but that does not make the initiative unworthy. There are so many stories of tribal community members pulling into parking lots of their tribal college or administration office to log into the free Wi-Fi because they live in a digital desert, like those maps I mentioned.

Unfortunately, what the COVID-19 crisis has shown is that tribal colleges are woefully unprepared, even more so than elementary schools in urban communities, to seamlessly move their operations to an online environment like many mainstream universities have been able to do.

Today, distance learning is not readily available to all tribal college students, nor is virtual meeting capacity or capability. The mapping of inequities throughout Indian Country has many layers that span food deserts, access to running water, economic opportunity, health disparities and technology. Crossing the digital divide after COVID-19 and enacting the Tribal Digital Divide Act can help change one of these layers.

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