The year was 2006. My sister and I gathered around our Gateway computer, waiting for a YouTube video to load. As teenagers, life around the computer was our favorite pastime. We would parrot YouTube slang back and forth to each other as we laid 20-foot-wide white irrigation pipe on the Wind River Reservation during the hot Wyoming summers. My family lived on a cattle ranch, tucked away from any town, so we relied on our tiny computer screen to connect us to the outside world. Looking back, waiting 20 minutes for a video to load was a welcome respite from cows and irrigation ditches.
Access to the internet is an essential part of everyday life now, but like a lot of other utilities in Indian Country, access has been subpar. When the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Appropriation Act in 1851, the reservation system was created. The federal government pushed American Indians into remote locations; resources and infrastructure were deliberately siphoned away to non-Native towns. Food and healthcare were kept from those most in need, while it was made illegal for Native people to leave these reservations, making them effectively prisons. The U.S. government continued to put resources into nontribal communities, while many reservations lacked access to funds and infrastructure. Water, housing and infrastructure continue to be affected by the long arm of colonization.
In the information age, internet access became another essential resource lacking on reservations. However, these days just having internet connectivity isn’t always enough. Broadband via fiber-optic cables is faster and often required to enable wireless access and video conferencing in rural locations. In spite of tribal nations making great strides to connect its citizens to the internet during the past two decades, only about half of residents in Indian Country reported in the 2018 Census that they have broadband.
When the COVID-19 pandemic swept through reservations in 2020, it highlighted the lack of “digital inclusion” in Native communities. Many intergenerational Native families live together, so many sheltered in place to avoid contracting and spreading the coronavirus to elders and others who were highly vulnerable. Homes became classrooms and offices, from which students and adults connected to teachers, coworkers as well as community and family members through video. Staying up-to-date on tribal, county and state COVID-19 restrictions as well as world news became even more vital.
Researchers at George Mason University looked at factors that contribute to lack of broadband in Indian Country. The study that they published this year found difficult terrain was a factor as well as limited knowledge within tribal systems of how to maintain broadband. Federal and state governments continuously deny Native peoples access to their sacred places, infringe upon Native nations's access to water and fail to recognize state tribes as sovereign nations. All this and more has contributed to the continued lack of trust Native people have in the U.S. government. In addition, internet expansion projects are still struggling to receive funding, despite federal money finally being made available.
In 2019, the Federal Communications Commission awarded the Northern Arapaho Tribe’s internet provider, Wind River Internet, $4.1 million dollars to connect more than 850 homes to the internet. The funds also helped support broadband expansion for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, who share the Wind River Reservation. Other funding sources included the Connect America Fund, National Telecommunication and Information Administration and a new market tax credit providing, in theory, around 6,000 homes with the funds to install access to broadband services.
Patrick Lawson, the director of Wind River Internet, felt good about receiving this patchwork of funding. The tribally owned provider has spearheaded efforts to get better internet access on the Wind River Reservation for the past five years. Yet about 2,162 reservation homes are still waiting for appropriate funding.
“It’s kind of tricky because you can’t have applications to cover the same area, no double dipping. But if one doesn’t get awarded, then you have a hole in the project,” Lawson said. Even though Lawson was supposed to hear back from the federal government last spring about the 2,000 homes that might not be covered under this patchwork of funding, as of early July, he said he had not received a response to his application.
In 2022, the Biden administration announced that it would provide an additional $401 million for high-speed internet access in rural areas. This pool of funding went to around 11 states, including western states such as Montana, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada, with the goal of helping tribal communities. Wyoming was not among them.
While access to more funding is certainly needed, other issues need to be addressed to make this happen. The George Mason University paper points out the issue that applying for funding requires access to broadband and knowledge of the intricacies of the application process. Also, federal appraisals of the issues facing broadband access in Indian Country can undercut the issue and misrepresent gaps in financing. While the Biden administration allocated $2 billion for the expansion of Native American broadband access, according to the George Mason study, the needs are more likely around $8 billion.
Despite the funding challenges, 1,700 homes and businesses on the Wind River Reservation formerly without internet access are now connected to the internet. Of these, a third are connected to the miles of high-speed, fiber-optic cable Lawson and his crew have laid. When the project is complete in the next few years, the Wind River Reservation will have some of the best internet access in the region.
During the past five years, I have served my Native community as a radio reporter. I’ve covered the continual efforts of the Northern Arapaho tribe to connect the Wind River Reservation to the internet. I am thrilled to see far-flung houses nestled in rolling hills and sagebrush now plugged into the outside world. From Ethete to Fort Washakie, the Wind River Reservation has the most beautiful and breathtaking landscapes. Soon it will have the technology needed to serve its citizens in a way we deserve.