Connection ends here

A look at the lack of internet connectivity on tribal lands and how it affects Indigenous students

When Kyla Silas visits the Hopi reservation near Flagstaff, she and her grandfather wake up at the crack of dawn. They ride out to haul water and herd their cattle, a time for the two of them to bond over the land they call home.

But when Silas, an ASU junior studying human and family development and public service and public policy, has homework due, she has to cut the time short to drive to a restaurant with Wi-Fi — there isn’t reliable internet service where she stays on the reservation.

Hers isn’t the only reservation without cell or internet service. The 2013-2017 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau reported that just 53 percent of people living on reservations in the U.S. subscribed to broadband internet service, in comparison to the national average of 82 percent of households with access.

Cell service on reservations is so sparse that the Navajo word for “cellphone” is “bil n’joobal,” which loosely translates to “something you use while spinning in circles,” because that’s what many living on the reservation have to do to find that perfect spot that has cellphone service.

Yet ASU launched an online master’s program in indigenous education in the spring 2019 semester. Deborah Chadwick, indigenous education graduate director at ASU, said the program is online to provide flexibility for indigenous teachers who work on their reservations or need to be home to support their families, whether it be financially or by taking care of sick or disabled family members.

But how are indigenous students supposed to complete an online degree without consistent and reliable access to the internet?

University administration said students are navigating through their lack of resources.

“At this level, they’re master’s students. They’re finding ways to address that issue if it comes up,” Chadwick said.

She said that although students are finding ways around this issue, it’s still an issue that needs to be resolved by tribal leadership. In a modern world where communication and important tasks like filing taxes and buying health insurance are done on the internet or over the phone (with even the latter slowly becoming obsolete), Native Americans living on remote reservations are more disconnected than ever. 

In 2014, the Navajo Nation accepted a $32 million grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to have 4G LTE service brought to their lands in an attempt to keep up with this modern digital age.

Even so, Chadwick said a struggle remains for those tribes who have not secured cellular and internet service for their residents. She said that in modern higher education, internet connectivity is almost invariably necessary.

Henry Quintero, an indigenous assistant professor at ASU and editor of RED INK, a Native American literary journal, said he has seen this issue come up for over 20 years in his doctoral work.

“It’s a further perpetuation of (Native Americans) being objectified by private enterprises in league with the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” Quintero said. “Indigenous people are going to make it work, but that’s not the way it should be by any means.”

He said that even though indigenous people living on reservations are often stripped of the basic ability to communicate with the outside world through either cellphones, landlines or internet service, tribes will still find a way to communicate and collaborate.

“That’s what Standing Rock showed,” Quintero said. “Even when you intentionally impair technology for Indigenous people, we still find a way to get word around to one another.”

Silas, facilitator of membership for the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples, grew up on the Hopi reservation in Flagstaff and still visits often. She said she and her family have to search for just the right spots for cell service on the reservation and that cellular data almost always switches to roaming so she has to turn it off.

“I wouldn't be able to receive emails, or I wouldn't be able to get on social media,” she said. “I have the Canvas app, and I wouldn't be able to get any of the notifications at least until I was back into Flagstaff.”

She said that even the Wi-Fi her grandparents had on the reservation was too slow to do a lot of the work she was required to do for her classes. Silas said that during a two week ceremonial period she spent on the reservation, she would try to turn in homework but loading assignments' instructions took up to an hour and a half.

To work around this issue, she drives to a nearby restaurant with Wi-Fi and submits her homework there, defeating the purpose of going to the reservation to spend time with her family.

But family time isn’t the only thing lost for indigenous students on tribal land, Silas said.

She said one of the hardships less often considered is that instructors post required textbooks just a few weeks before classes start, if not even closer to the first day, but indigenous students who don’t have access to Wi-Fi have no way of seeing that list. When students return to campus, they have to rush to purchase expensive textbooks that they weren’t made aware of until long after their peers have already scavenged the internet for the cheapest copies.

Silas said that as sovereign nations, indigenous people living on reservations need to take the initiative and advocate for themselves and their right to be as connected a people as those who live on non-tribal land.

“If we want to be sovereign as much as is said left and right within our tribal government and this political climate we’re in, it should be the initiative of the tribal government,” she said. “If we can’t do something as simple as providing internet for our population, then where do we sit?”

The issue of putting cell towers and internet on reservations is a multifaceted one. There are some who believe that the installation of cell towers on tribal lands will taint the meager but sacred land that Indigenous people call their own.

Silas, however, believes that in this day and age, it’s time to evolve.

“It's a necessity, and our younger generation is more attracted to what's going around outside of the reservation as far as things like TikTok,” she said. “Those cell towers should go up but in a central area where everyone feels like it's not hurting any of the scarce land that we're on.”

Laura Gonzales-Macias, interim director of American Indian Student Support Services, also known as AISSS at ASU, said this issue has presented itself to her many times by the students she counsels who live on tribal lands.

“What we take for granted here in the metropolitan area is the ability to access (the internet),” she said.

Gonzales-Macias said the lack of connection to the world outside the reservation is an added stressor on top of the normal points of stress college students face, but that AISSS offers solutions to students having to deal with a lack of connectivity on their reservation.

The organization encourages students to communicate openly with their professors about times they need to go back to their reservations, their lack of reliable internet services on said reservations and the importance of students being able to go back home, whether for family emergencies or for religious purposes, she said.

Gonzales-Macias said that although the situation is out of the students’ hands, they can still plan around it by letting professors know ahead of time and budgeting time to turn assignments in early. But for the situation to get better, she said, professors need to be understanding.

“I don’t want our students to feel like they have to always educate,” she said. “It should be that our faculty and staff are aware that students who are on reservations will have those connectivity challenges.”

Gonzales-Macias said that solving this issue will take collaboration between internet companies and tribal and state governments, but that one important voice that needs to be heard during such talks is that of the students who have to deal with this disconnect firsthand.

“The student voice should be heard when we’re having discussions about access to the internet on their tribal lands,” she said. “If people stop talking about it, they’re going to think it’s not an issue anymore.”

Quintero said that the Indigenous community’s resilience, philosophies and practices are the best solutions to this issue and urged Native American students to remember this.

“Don’t give up,” he said. “Somewhere, your grandparents or great grandparents prayed you into existence so that you can represent the People… Don’t ever think that you’re not part of the Prophecy, that you’re not part of the solution and making this world a better place.”


Reach the reporter at japere38@asu.edu or follow @jsphprzz on Twitter.

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