“[I]nformation is power. The development of a Navajo Nation information infrastructure is a historic event that holds many possibilities.”
A comparison of the access to technology on Native American reservations with urban American settings reveals a great divide. For example, only 39% of Native Americans living in rural areas have telephone service, while 94% of Native Americans living in urban areas have access to such service. Overall, Native Americans living on reservations disproportionately lack access to both basic and advanced technologies because poor infrastructure makes the cost of obtaining fundamental telephone, cable, and computer service very high. Despite recent proclamations that the vast disparity in access to information and communication tools, such as the Internet, between the rich and the poor has narrowed, the digital divide is still a very real concern for Native American tribes.
The lack of technology on reservations is an important issue because it is directly connected to greater societal problems and concerns facing Native Americans who live on reservations, such as poverty and high unemployment rates. After the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the federal government, particularly the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”), has made greater efforts in recent years to ensure that all Americans, including Native Americans, have access to telecommunications services. However, despite widespread access to telecommunications and information technology throughout much of the United States, Native American reservations remain greatly underserved.
Section II of this Note will provide a background and discuss the history of the U.S. government’s relationship with Native Americans and the development of reservations in general. In addition, this section will examine recent federal government positions and policies toward Native Americans and take a brief look at the current conditions on reservations. Section III will discuss the existing digital divide by studying the technological developments in both urban and rural areas of the United States as compared to the technological standstill on reservations. This section will further look at the unique legal aspects of Native American tribes, including their quasi-sovereign status and strong desire to preserve Native culture. Following the analysis of the legal aspects of tribes, this section will then focus on the policy and social problems faced by Native Americans living on reservations. Many of these problems, such as high unemployment and poverty, are directly connected to the lack of basic infrastructure and access to technology on reservations. After an analysis of the legal and social issues arising from the lack of technology, Section IV will discuss some potential solutions and ways to narrow the digital divide while maintaining Native cultures and traditions. This section will focus on educational institutions, specifically tribal colleges and universities, as well as federally and privately funded programs that are working to improve infrastructure and increase access to information technology such as the Internet.