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On the Road Again: Exploring Information Technology with the Navajo Nation

On the Road Again: Exploring Information Technology with the Navajo Nation
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Get started on your cybersecurity degree at American Military University.

By Michelle Watts, Faculty Director, School of Security and Global Studies, and Mark Colwell, Research Assistant

In a previous blog article, student research assistants, a colleague and I discussed the challenges that many Native nations in the United States face to gain full access to information technology (IT) and the benefits IT confers. In 2017, we visited Alaska to speak with Native American leaders and IT specialists in addition to conducting an online survey.

We are continuing this research in 2018 with a supplemental research grant from APUS. The grant allowed us to travel within the continental U.S. and discuss the Internet issue with Native nations in the Southwest.

In April, Mark Colwell and I traveled to Window Rock, Arizona, capital of the Navajo Nation. We were invited to attend the Navajo Nation Council meetings and conduct interviews for our ongoing project. Attending a council meeting would inevitably give us a broader glimpse of Native American life.

This leg of our field research involved considerable driving instead of flying as we did in Alaska, as we traveled to reach tribal territories far from major airports. Mark drove from southern Arizona while I drove from Colorado, a round trip of over 1,000 miles for each of us. Upon arrival at the Navajo Nation, we had time to explore the Window Rock Monument, a miraculous formation and sacred site to the Navajos.

Milestones Achieved in Addressing Cyberbullying and Abuse

In the morning, we drove to the Council headquarters for the meetings. Along the way, we saw Council and community members marching through the streets to raise awareness about sexual violence and child abuse.

We had the opportunity the following the day to interview Delegate Amber Crotty, one of the marchers and the only female of the 24 Navajo Nation Council members. Delegate Crotty has been instrumental in bringing issues of sexual violence and trafficking to the Council as well as lobbying Congress for changes in legislation.

We discussed a wide range of challenges facing residents of Navajo territory, including traditional gender roles that inhibit many women from seeking political office as well as IT issues that affect social interaction. Delegate Crotty has been instrumental in bringing issues of sexual violence and trafficking to the Council.

Among the many acts passed by the Council during this session was the Revenge Porn Act to address a pernicious form of cyberbullying. Delegate Jonathan Hale explained that revenge pornography can be used to force a person into sex trafficking.

National Act Provides Funding for AMBER Alerts Affecting Native American Children

On the national level, an important act that was recently passed was the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert. It is designed to expand emergency alerts to Indian country because previous legislation excluded U.S. tribal lands.

Passage of this act is an important victory. The Navajo Nation has worked to increase safety and institute a First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet). However, until the federal government provides increased connectivity, the system’s usefulness will be limited.

Conventional Infrastructure Services Still Limited or Missing in Some Areas

Connectivity on the Navajo reservation is generally concentrated in its more densely populated areas and its major roads. Beyond that, coverage is extremely limited. Much of the infrastructure for services that we take for granted, such as electricity, running water and phone service, was never installed on Navajo territory.

According to Indian Country Today, more than 30% of Navajo homes do not have electricity or running water. Over half of them do not have basic landline telephone service.

Projects designed to address the lack of infrastructure have struggled for a variety of reasons, including the remoteness of the area, the great distances involved and the dispersed population. These factors make efforts to obtain a return on investment by private companies improbable.

That lack of infrastructure also makes responding to emergency medical situations difficult. This is a major safety concern for Navajo police, who are responsible for as many as 100 square miles each and frequently cannot communicate by radio or cell phone.

Witnessing the Navajo Nation Council in Action

Delegate Kee Allen Begay Jr. showed us around the tribal headquarters. He ensured that we would have seats in the packed Council room.

Watts Begay Colwell
From left to right: Michelle Watts, Delegate Key Allen Begay, Jr., and Mark Colwell.

The Council chambers are located in an octagonal, brick building, reminiscent of a military fort. The interior, however, is covered with an intricate mural depicting Navajo history.

Crowds formed in anticipation of the session and the media was present to document the proceedings. Leaders in suits, residents in casual clothing or beautiful traditional Navajo attire all came for the Council meeting, including former and current Miss Navajo pageant winners.

The meeting opened with a prayer in Dine, the Navajo language. The session continued with recognition of the achievements of many Navajo Nation members, including a dozen women from a foster care organization, a girls’ basketball team, teachers of a gifted and talented program, and military veteran Cassandra Morgan, who  was instrumental in the establishment of Navajo Nation Women Veterans Day.

President Russell Begaye addressed the Council in the afternoon and then answered questions for hours. The session continued until 8:30 at night with reports and questions. Sessions on subsequent days stretched well beyond midnight.

Evaluating IT Capabilities and Needs

The next day, we traipsed around Window Rock, meeting IT professionals as wind gusts blew sand into our hair and ears. We were very fortunate to meet with M. Teresa Hopkins, the executive director of the Navajo Nation Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (NNTRC), and a member of the United Nations International Telecommunications Union.

window rock sunset
Sunset in Window Rock

She explained that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Internet service providers (ISPs) often misreport connectivity on the Navajo Nation territory. Coverage maps show 100% coverage on Navajo Nation territory. However, committee members have demonstrated to visitors from the FCC and the Government Accountability Office how their cell phones lose their signals as soon as they leave the highway and enter the side roads of the Navajo Nation.

We learned that the Navajo Nation has 110 chapter houses. These chapter houses are communal meeting places where local residents can speak with their Council delegate and decide on issues affecting their chapter.

While the majority of the chapter houses are near a fiber-optic ring, ISPs charge thousands of dollars to actually connect them to the Internet. That prohibitive cost leaves many of the chapter houses with little or no connectivity.

The NNTRC has initiated a massive survey to assess Navajo Nation IT capabilities and requirements. The emphasis is on providing radio and cell phone coverage, as well as high-speed Internet access to the entire Navajo Nation.

The trip was invaluable to learn not only about the IT situation, but also to bring home the very real challenges that those who live in remote, difficult to access areas face.

Bringing Economic Opportunities to the Navajo Nation Is an Ongoing Challenge

Because the Navajo Nation is so large, roughly the size of West Virginia, it’s a continual challenge to provide economic opportunities.

Currently, 80 cents of every dollar that leaves the reservation is spent on non-indigenous businesses. According to one person we spoke to, the Navajo Nation missed an opportunity with Google, which sought a mutually beneficial relationship. However, the infrastructure to support a Google facility was simply not present.

Navajo leaders are assessing their circumstances and coming up with creative solutions. For example, rather than fining unregistered ISPs operating on Navajo territory, the leaders are choosing instead to have offenders provide broadband services to the community.

The Navajo Nation is also seeking to partner with ISPs to install the necessary infrastructure for better Internet service. In the past, providers abandoned efforts to provide broadband infrastructure because there was not enough return on investment. By pooling resources with the considerable strength of the Navajo Nation, they might yet provide the means for a robust system. That will mean greater safety and improved infrastructure for everyone.

Get started on your cybersecurity degree at American Military University.

About the Authors

Michelle Watts is a faculty director for American Public University System. In addition to supervising faculty members, she teaches courses on international relations, international development and Latin American Studies. Michelle is an advisor to the Gamma Omega chapter of the Sigma Iota Rho international relations honor society. She has obtained several grants in recent years to conduct research in Latin America, focusing on indigenous people.

Mark Colwell is a graduate student with American Military University, pursuing a Master of Science in Information Technology Project Management. He currently works for General Dynamics as an Oracle database administrator. Mark retired from the Army in 2003 after 20 years of service and holds a Bachelor of Science in Liberal Studies with concentrations in Management and Sociology from Excelsior College.

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