“Your internet connection is unstable” is a common Zoom reminder across the Indian country. The struggle is taking place in many tribal communities and in the homes of many indigenous families.
Years after the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out, many Indigenous students, teachers and educators are continuing with distance learning. Today, while others outside of the Navajo Nation have returned to classroom training, various Navajo educational institutions are transitioning to a hybrid learning environment while others outside of the Navajo Nation have returned to classroom training. That means our unreliable internet connection remains a serious problem. I remember sitting in my pickup truck trying to get a decent signal for my Diné (Navajo) resource management course while preparing to discuss how we need to better manage our broadband capacity. Ironically, I was kicked out of the signal later that afternoon.
A 2021 report found that internet access was one of the top two basic infrastructure needs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While many local families were isolating at home, family members relied on social media for local news and elders listened to the radio on their stereos daily. For many students inside and outside the Navajo Nation, Zoom, Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, and other online platforms kept the virtual classroom together throughout the school week. It was hectic for everyone – even the internet modem was dead.
Distance learning has both opened and limited opportunities for our students. It protected us but kept us away from friends and school events. Most notably, it burned us out and reduced motivation to learn from a screen. Let’s hear student, teacher and parent perspectives on the difficulties of distance learning and limited broadband capacity as the reason why tribal nations need to fund broadband projects. Navajo student Evan Allen shared with me his experiences, struggles, and determination to finish the school year. “I have to do all this back-to-back stuff all the time, 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 wifi or computers or may not have experience operating a computer.
My former high school teacher, Denise Jensen, witnessed the emotional distress of her students. “It humbled me as a teacher in many ways,” Jensen said. Aside from being students, many children helped care for their siblings, tended livestock, or had other chores at home that interfered with their learning.
Many parents are also confused and upset. “Some people are lucky that they have the money to get laptops and stuff like that… so it’s pretty tough for people who are struggling,” said Clifton Mariano, who has 10 kids with his wife. Due to economic inequality, many Navajo families find it difficult to care for their children and ensure they have the tools necessary to attend classes.
Clearly, the need for high-speed broadband in tribal communities is real and urgent. Congress funds have been allocated to tribal nations to fund local projects serving in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but we need to go further. Now is the time for tribal politics that will drive broadband development. The American Indian Policy Institute found that “18 percent of tribal reservation residents do not have internet access, while 33 percent rely on smartphones for internet services.” For tribal nations, the next step is to fund projects that develop broadband services for our communities. The American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law by President Biden, allocates federal funds to fund broadband services. Local leaders should consider projects that support our students’ education 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 make courses on aboriginal language, culture and history available online and use indigenous knowledge systems for digital storytelling. Tribal governments should embrace technological change, digitizing libraries, setting up streaming learning centers and making sure local officials know how to access the funding opportunities available.
Distance learning has been a mountain to climb for the past two and a half years, but as we reach the top of the mountain we can see the view. Students across the Indian country deserve a quality education, even in an online environment. Creating these opportunities for our students and families would improve our technological position to be on par with the rest of the world. With the appropriate resources, the digital gap between the WLAN modem and the home becomes a digital bridge. Our students will be able to open up new possibilities, create innovative solutions and network with each other. On that note, congratulations to all the students over the last two years – we all graduated from Zoom University with a minor in Muting Our Microphones.
Here “I leave the meeting”.
Axéhee’ (Thank you)
Keep up to date with the policy team. Sign up for the Teen Vogue Take