Anthony Coho and his four children, residents of the Ramah Navajo, are now able to connect to fast, reliable internet. (Photo courtesy of Oso Internet Solutions)

This article was co-published with EdSurge.

When pueblos in New Mexico looked into running fiber into Jemez Day School, a K-6 school run by the Bureau of Indian Education, they were launching a complicated process.

Upgrading the school’s connection meant jumping through hoops, even though there was fiber across the street. Early on, the U.S. federal government’s E-Rate program, which provides “universal service” funding to schools and libraries for telecommunications and internet, also said it wouldn’t pay for another project. The program didn’t want to spend to bring fiber along the same path to tribal schools and libraries and the local school district, says John Chadwick, the digital equity coordinator for the New Mexico Department of Education.

So Chadwick passed along what he’d been told: If the pueblos were eager to provide internet for their students, they’d have to partner with the local public school district. But some pueblo leaders balked at this idea, according to Chadwick. “I thought I’d stepped in it big time,” he said. Some leaders of the Santo Domingo, San Felipe and Cochiti pueblos viewed it as further encroachment on their rights to self-rule.

Nevertheless, for Chadwick, this was clearly a situation where he needed to step aside. The negotiation would have to occur between the pueblos — which are sovereign nations — and the districts. Until a former governor of Santo Domingo stepped in to argue in favor of the idea, it looked like it might not happen. But in that leader’s view, it was the tribe’s obligation to get the internet to their students, even if that meant working with the district.

This started a three-year process trying to get the school connected. But it was well-timed, and the school successfully upgraded to a 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) fiber connection right at the start of the pandemic. Slower speeds are considered “underserved” in federal infrastructure legislation.

Broadband — high-speed internet — is critical for learning. Without it, students can struggle to turn in or even access school assignments. And the pandemic focused attention on inequitable access to broadband services in education. While for some students and public schools that’s largely due to affordability issues, for people and schools in rural areas, it’s also due to inadequate internet infrastructure.

That’s especially a problem on tribal lands. In 2020, by one federal estimate, 18% of people living on tribal lands were unable to access broadband (outside of tribal areas, that number was closer to 4%). In rural tribal areas, about 30% of people were unable to access broadband. Federal reports blame, among other challenges, fragmented bureaucratic processes and a lack of funds to cover upfront costs.

The result is that whether Native American students have enough internet for modern learning depends on where they live.

While the majority of Native American students attend school through the public education system, those who attend schools controlled by tribal governments or the Bureau of Indian Education may have less access to the internet at school or home, due to terrain where it’s difficult to lay fiber, community poverty and historical land ownership patterns that create hurdles.

The situation differs drastically from place to place, tribe to tribe and even within chapters of tribes. So how are some of them handling it?

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

In South Dakota, some members of the Oglala Sioux found broadband difficult to acquire.

There are nine federally recognized tribes in the state, and the Oglala Sioux are one of the biggest. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is rural and large, stretching over land roughly the size of Connecticut. About 19,000 people live there, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. So the cost of running broadband across the reservation is steep, says Nakina Mills, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in Pine Ridge.

Mills was elected as an official of the tribe during the Covid-19 crisis. In her current job, she works as tribal ed specialist for National Indian Education Association, a national nonprofit focused on Native American education. She usually spends her time trying to support the “educational sovereignty” of tribes who run schools, working on policy or programming. So she wasn’t used to working on broadband, she says.

During the pandemic, students at Pine Ridge’s 23 K-12 schools relied on hot spots. With students out of school, assessment scores declined, Mills says. So with minimal internet, students still performed worse academically. But the pandemic provided a persuasive example of why broadband is a worthy investment.

That wasn’t always obvious, she said.

The reservation has a high poverty rate, affecting about 70% of students in the area by Mills’ estimate. When there’s that much poverty, people must sacrifice to have the basic necessities like shelter, food and electricity, Mills said. Consequently, Wi-Fi and broadband have been less of a priority. And so, at home, getting the internet is still a challenge for many families, Mill said.

Bringing broadband to the region means pursuing federal funds. But tribal leaders are sometimes wary of doing that: “Making sure there's the true intent of helping build our infrastructure” matters, Mills said, “just because of the historical trauma and federal government and those kinds of things that have happened to our people.”

Recently, there has been federal investment. For instance, a $35 million federal grant, announced in March, is providing funds for fiber in Bennett and Oglala Lakota counties, where the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is located. The funding is meant to help connect seven educational facilities, along with 3,300 people and a number of businesses and farms, according to a release from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Ramah Navajo Indian Reservation

When the pandemic hit, the majority of students at Pine Hill School, a tribal school on the Ramah Navajo Indian Reservation, didn’t have access to the internet at home.

With forced closures, the school needed to increase internet access, for which it had received CARES Act funding. Leaders called Margaret Merrill, a former teacher and owner of Oso Internet Solutions, an internet service provider for the Ramah Navajo Chapter in New Mexico, part of the Navajo Nation.

Merrill felt she had to move fast. Working closely with the tribal government and community, her company put up hot spots to allow K-12 students and students returning home from college a chance to complete assignments.

It was an immense challenge that required creativity, Merrill said. The landscape itself makes internet access difficult. This region, the High Desert, is marked by canyons, mesas and mountains. A volcanic crater is perched on the reservation.

It wasn’t just for school purposes either. Merrill says she was committed to building the infrastructure in part because she knew that the community was losing elders. School staff and elders also live in the southernmost parts of the reservation, sometimes in multi-sided hogans, sacred dwellings in Diné culture (which in some cases, Merrill says, are constructed to look like a woman’s fingers interlaced together with her hands over her pregnant belly). In recent years, the community has invested in Indian Health Service projects to get water and electricity to those areas. Even still, only a couple of years ago they were in a true dead zone, Merrill said. No internet. No cell phone signals. No way to call out if an emergency happened.

But the company successfully ran fiber to Pine Hill School, a health clinic, and the tribal government buildings. In 2022, enabled by the FCC’s emergency connectivity fund, they were able to start running it to homes. Those funds are limited to only schools, so the company paid out of pocket to run fiber out to the homes of 26 elders, building on fiber they’d run out to get the school connected, Merrill adds.

Within about five months, almost everyone had internet access, Merrill says. Chadwick, of the New Mexico Department of Education, pointed to Pine Hill School as one of the only schools nationwide to apply for and receive emergency connectivity funding for fiber.

However, there were a few families who still couldn’t connect to the internet. Some didn’t have electricity in their houses. The terrain means that they rely on radio signals for internet, and there was one family that lived so remotely on the other side of the volcanic crater that the signals couldn’t reach them, Merrill said.

For Merrill, fixing this is part of a fierce vision of digital equity that’s not complete, one that’s deeply connected to a sense of community. Anyone should be able to move back to their home and still be able to work and learn, she said.

Now, the company is working on a project through the Navajo Nation — relying on funding from the American Rescue Plan Act — which will connect another 600 Ramah Navajo family homes to fiber. By the time the work finishes, in 2025, around 85% of families there will be connected, Merrill estimates.

That will allow them to work on the other components of digital equity, like education regarding how to use digital tools, she added. Merrill hopes the investments will spur further attempts to double down. Unemployment is high, and many people reside on the reservation only on the weekends, finding work in large metropolitans like Albuquerque or Phoenix. Better internet connectivity could lead to better economic development, allowing people who have expressed interest in moving back to the reservation system to work remotely and to attend telehealth appointments, she argued.

20/20 Foresight

Ultimately, the process for improving broadband can be slow.

For example, Tse Yi Gai High School, in New Mexico, started the process of connecting to internet five years ago and is just getting up this summer, said Chadwick, of the New Mexico Department of Education.

There’s “checkerboarding” to contend with, the result of a historical process that broke up Native land grants, mixing up private and tribal ownership. Today, that means that running fiber into a region can involve crossing over land owned by the federal government, state governments, tribal government and private owners. It complicates the permit process, Chadwick said.

There are barriers for those building broadband infrastructure for tribes, and making sure tribal students can log on to the internet can require advocates who can help overcome obstacles like cost and availability, Chadwick said.

“It takes champions who really recognize this is a valuable tool for their future,” he said, adding: “If there’s a will to do it, there’s a way to make it happen. It takes a lot of efficacy and it takes a lot of patience.”

This article was co-published with EdSurge. EdSurge is a nonprofit newsroom that covers education through original journalism and research. Sign up for their newsletters.

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