Home Michelle Watts Examining Tribal IT Capabilities: Alaska Road Bumps and Arizona Insights
Examining Tribal IT Capabilities: Alaska Road Bumps and Arizona Insights

Examining Tribal IT Capabilities: Alaska Road Bumps and Arizona Insights

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By Michelle Watts
Faculty Director, School of Security and Global Studies

Co-authored by Mark Colwell
Research Assistant

In a previous article, AMU graduate student Mark Colwell and I discussed our exploration of how tribes in Alaska use information technology (IT). Through a research grant from APUS, we had the opportunity to examine the dynamics of IT among tribes in Alaska and Arizona.

A Loss for the Tribal Community

In Ketchikan, Alaska, I attempted to make contact with a tribal leader who had been helpful and encouraging. He helped me gain permission to attend a tribal budget meeting scheduled for July 2017 in Flagstaff, Arizona.

When I did not hear from him, I assumed he was busy and trusted that we would hear from him when he was available. By the end of the week in Juneau, however, I learned the very sad news that Edward (Sam) Thomas Jr., a highly respected tribal leader, had passed away at age 52. I learned of his death when I contacted the Tlingit Haida Central Council in Juneau and was told in a message that the council was closed out of respect for Sam Thomas.

Thomas, whose work ethic was clearly evident through his career, was well known for his activism. He served, among other positions, on the Prince of Wales Community Advisory, as the Alaska representative on the National Indian Reservations Roads Advisory Council, as co-chair of the Tribal Interior Budget Council and as the Sixth Vice President to the Tlingit Haida Central Council.

I tried to meet with another leader upon my return to Ketchikan two weeks later, but unfortunately he was ill. This is often the case with field research – days packed with interviews are sometimes followed by meetings that fall through.

Searching Tribal Archives in Juneau

In Juneau, we had the good fortune to be hosted by the Sealaska Heritage Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding. We spent two afternoons combing through documents the archivist had been kind enough to set aside for us.

We were able to read about tribal committee meetings, court cases that shed light on the historical development of the tribes and a book on how the tribes are employing geospatial information systems (GIS). What was surprising was not only that many tribes have been using GIS for years, but also the broad range of areas in which GIS is employed, ranging from education, public safety and natural resource management to tribal governance and cultural preservation. One example is the Squaxin Island Tribe, which employed GIS to develop a selection tool that aids in choosing optimal locations for salmon habitat restoration projects.

Attending a Tribal Meeting in Arizona

I had the opportunity to attend the aforementioned Tribal Interior Budget Council meeting in July in Flagstaff. I approached the meeting with much trepidation for several reasons. I am an outsider, with no Native American heritage and not part of the group that attends these meetings regularly.

Still not convinced of the wisdom of this trip, I flew to Phoenix mid-afternoon and was greeted by a blast of 100-degree heat. The pre-arranged shuttle was more than 30 minutes late, and several of us sat baking outside the airport, waiting.

Another problem was that the shuttle service did not go to the resort where the meetings were being held. I was told that the site was “in the middle of nowhere.”

When the van finally arrived, the driver informed us that he had the worst day ever and he hoped it would get better. At one point, he pulled over and said there was something wrong with the van. He could not identify the problem and we still had an hour to go to reach Flagstaff, so he pressed on. Fortunately, we made it.

Upon my arrival in Flagstaff, a shuttle from the resort came to pick me up. The shuttle driver was a fascinating person, a member of the Navajo nation who had served both in the military and in law enforcement before “retiring” to manage security for the hotel.

The meetings provided fascinating insights into tribal issues that I could not have gained otherwise. In terms of information technology, they discussed how gaps in connectivity affect public safety on reservations. Many states in the United States are connecting to FirstNet, a broadband network designed to respond to emergencies.

Connectivity is especially important for those in remote areas, but the reservations cannot be connected until the state opts in. Thus, the Navajo nation has to wait for action by the Arizona governor.

The Navajo nation hosted a dinner featuring several Navajo speakers, including Roger Willie, an actor known for the 2002 Navajo Code Talkers movie “Windtalkers,” among other films.

On the final day, the committees edited final resolutions to send to Washington, D.C., and had a “listening session” with Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Economic Development Gavin Clarkson. It was the end of a long day, and many people had to leave before this session, which occurred after the official closing of the meetings. This was unfortunate because Clarkson, who is proud to be both a Native American and a cowboy, is a dynamic speaker who laid out Interior Department goals for Indian country and asked for feedback.

When It Comes to Research, Being There in Person Is Better than Virtual Research

Lessons thus far: Showing up to conduct research and make contacts is immeasurably better than trying to do it virtually. Contacts often lead to great collaboration that can be continued virtually, once a bond has been formed in person. Research takes persistence; convincing people to give you access and their time is challenging but ultimately rewarding. There is no match for first-hand experience.

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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 online. Michelle is an advisor to the Gamma Omega chapter of the Sigma Iota Rho international relations honor society. She has obtained several grants to conduct research in Latin America, in recent years 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 as a senior program analyst, supporting United States Army cryptographic modernization efforts as a contractor. Mr. Colwell 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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