By Brian Cladoosby
This Sunday’s presidential debate marks another milestone for this election cycle and a critical moment for Native American communities nationwide. While the presidential candidates will be discussing their plans for the country, Tribal leaders from across the nation will be gathering to finalize our priorities for the next president at the National Congress of American Indian’s annual conference.
For Native Americans, the needs for our communities are just as diverse as we are, and it is important that the next president understands and works with our leaders to further empower our communities to thrive in the 21st century. A crucial ingredient to our success is ensuring affordable, reliable high-speed internet access.
Millions of Americans recognize the importance of the internet as an equalizing tool of economic, social, and political power. Indeed, many advocates speak passionately about the important role of the internet in our everyday lives and the need to address the digital divide.
Often missing from these conversations is the reality that for Native American communities, this divide is much larger. The Federal Communications Commission’s broadband progress report found that 41 percent of Americans living on tribal lands lacked access to broadband, compared to 10 percent of all Americans. A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that unusually high costs for service and unreliable connections were among important limitations to increasing internet services for some tribes.
This divide is tragic, but unfortunately not surprising. Native American communities for generations have been disconnected and isolated from the rest of America – often living in remote areas. According to the most recent data on our communities, 28 percent of all American Indians and Native Alaskans live in poverty, a number much higher than any other racial group.
Although the internet serves as a means to connect people to jobs, educational, political and healthcare resources, the internet’s promise of opportunity for all does not reach our communities. In our increasingly digitally connected and reliant world, Native American communities are behind.
Take the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota for example. In a recent interview with MSNBC regarding protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault traveled over an hour to the city of Bismarck to conduct the interview via Skype because of spotty and delayed internet service on his reservation.
At a time when the largest Native American protest over water in Indian Country is taking place, this broadband black hole on Standing Rock has made traditional and social media coverage of these massive protests difficult. Lawrence O’Donnell, host of MSNBC’s “Last Word,” highlighted this in a Facebook live video following his visit to Standing Rock. He noted that the lack of access to reliable internet and cellular services, along with the high cost to bring live TV equipment to the reservation and protest site, have resulted in limited news coverage.
Even children on Tribal reservations nationwide struggle to access the internet, often needing to frequent commercial areas with Wi-Fi hot spots miles from home to finish their homework. They suffer the double whammy of their families not being able to afford internet service or worse, not having service available at any price.
Lack of affordable access to broadband makes a difference in the social, political, and economic power and success of our communities. There has been some progress over the past eight years to ensure that tribal communities are a part of policy conversations to address the country’s internet access issues. We have seen a restructuring of existing federal programs to provide greater access to the internet for low-income families, public schools, and libraries. President Obama even launched his ConnectHome initiative– a public-private partnership pilot to provide broadband access to 275,000 low-income homes– among the Choctaw Nation.
But the next president still has much work to do to ensure that the over 500 tribal nations across the country have access to reliable, affordable high speed internet. This includes making more spectrum available with a focus on connecting and deploying affordable broadband to our communities. It also includes ensuring greater representation of Native Americans and our policy priorities within key government agencies.
As we sit on the eve of the second presidential debate, with just over 30 days until the election, our communities are watching to ensure the next president is prepared to address the needs of Native American people. Education, jobs, and health are all areas where technology could make a real difference in our communities. Expanding access to reliable and affordable high-speed internet is vital to achieving this promise.
Brian Cladoosby serves as the 21st President of the National Congress of American Indians.