“Your internet connection is unstable” is a frequent Zoom reminder throughout Indian Country. The struggle exists in many tribal communities and within the homes of many indigenous families.
Years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, many tribal students, teachers, and educators are continuing remote learning. While others outside the Navajo Nation have returned to in-person instruction, various Navajo educational institutions are now transitioning to a hybrid learning environment, while others outside the Nation Navajo have returned to teaching in person. This means that our unreliable Internet connectivity remains a serious problem. I remember sitting in my van trying to get a decent signal for my Diné (Navajo) Resource Management course while getting ready to discuss how we need to better manage our broadband capabilities. Ironically, I was kicked off the signal later that afternoon.
A 2021 report found internet access to be one of the top two basic infrastructure needs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While many Indigenous families isolated themselves at home, family members relied on social media for local news and elders listened to the radio daily on their stereos. For many students inside and outside the Navajo Nation, Zoom, Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams and other online platforms have kept the virtual classroom together during the school week. It was hectic for everyone – even the internet modem was dead.
Distance learning has opened up and limited opportunities for our students. It kept us safe, but kept us away from friends and school events. Above all, it wore us out and reduced the motivation to learn from a screen. Let’s hear the perspectives of students, teachers, and parents on the difficulties of distance learning and limited broadband capabilities as the reason why tribal nations need to fund broadband projects. Evan Allen, a Navajo student, told me about his experience, his struggles, and his determination to finish the school year. “I constantly have to do all these things back to back and I don’t have time to rest,” Allen said. These concerns can be found throughout Indian Country, as many tribal communities do not have access to public Wi-Fi, computers, or may not have experience using a computer.
My former high school teacher, Denise Jensen, witnessed the emotional distress experienced by her students. “It really humbled me in so many ways as a teacher,” Jensen said. In addition to being students, many children helped care for siblings, tended livestock, or had other responsibilities at home that interfered with their learning.
Many parents are also anxious and upset. “Some people are lucky to have the money to buy laptops and stuff…so it’s a bit difficult for people who are struggling,” said Clifton Mariano, who has 10 children with his wife. Economic inequality for many Navajo families makes it difficult to provide for their children and ensure they have the tools to attend school.
Clearly, the need for high-speed broadband in tribal communities is real and urgent. Congressional funds have been allocated to tribal nations to fund local projects in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but we need to go further. Now is the time to adopt tribal policies that support broadband development. The American Indian Policy Institute found that “18% of tribal reservation residents lack internet access, while 33% rely on smartphones for internet service.” For tribal nations, the next step is to fund projects that develop broadband services for our communities. The American Rescue Plan Act, signed by President Biden, allocates federal appropriations that fund broadband services. Indigenous leaders should consider projects that support the education of our students and make the Internet more accessible to others. There are many ways to achieve this, with a little creativity and willpower. Tribal colleges and universities could offer courses in Indigenous language, culture and history online, tapping into Indigenous knowledge systems for digital storytelling. Tribal governments should embrace the technology transition, digitize libraries, set up centers for continuous learning, and ensure that local officials know how to access available grant opportunities.
Distance learning has been a mountain to climb for the past two and a half years, but when we reach the top of the mountain, we can see the view. Students across India deserve a high quality education even in an online environment. Creating these opportunities for our students and families would advance our technological position to be on par with the rest of the world. With the proper resources, the digital divide between the Wi-Fi modem and my home will become a digital bridge. Our students will be able to open up new opportunities, create innovative solutions and connect with each other. On that note, congratulations to all of the students for the past two years – we all graduated from Zoom University with a minor in muting our mics.
This is where I “leave the meeting”.
Axehee’ (thank you)
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