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Tech gap can hinder enrollment

By Mika Mandelbaum
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, September 22, 2005
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The limited accessibility to advanced technology on American Indian reservations can negatively impact students who come from those areas and transfer to a university setting, officials said.

At least 75 percent of the 763 American Indian UA students come from reservation residences, which means they may not have access to many technologies like the Internet or a fax machine, said Karen Francis-Begay, a member of the Navajo tribe and director of the UA Native American Student Affairs office.

The importance of these devices was discussed at an open forum last week where technology advocates emphasized that while these changes can sometimes be viewed as assimilation, they are necessary upgrades for students who want to apply for and study at a university.

Without access to such technologies, American Indian students can be left out of the admissions, housing and other processes that are necessary for joining a college setting, Francis-Begay said.

One example, she said, is that there have been students who had a hard time getting on-campus housing because the families did not have access to a fax machine to get the application in fast enough.

As the UA tries to completely switch to a paperless, online form of admissions applications, this issue could also pose a challenge for potential students in these communities, and some may completely lose the opportunity to apply to UA, Francis-Begay said.

"I'm really concerned about the no-paper process for admission. We have some of our best students here who come from those very remote communities," Francis-Begay said. "Higher education is supposed to be an equal opportunity for all, regardless of socio-economic status, and when going paperless, you really have to think about how it affects those with limited access."

Kade Twist, co-founder of the Native Networking Policy Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates telecommunication development on reservations, said at the forum the connections provided by the Internet, telephones, televisions, fax machines and other forms of technology would make the isolation obsolete.

But there are some traditional reservations that object to the use of technology or even electricity and running water because they view it as a form of assimilation, said Duane Yazzie, a UA graduate student and member of the Hopi and Navajo tribes.

Although he supports the spread of telecommunications, Yazzie said his tribe has some traditional villages that would see this as a colonial way to assimilate them.

"I would tell them that I respect who they are and what they want, but I would show them the benefits of this," Yazzie said. "Technology is here and here to stay. We have to make these things our own."

Once the reservations decide to adopt the technology, they will increase economic development and achieve other social and cultural goals, Twist said.

Some tribes have already started using technology to promote culture, Francis-Begay said.

The Navajo tribe has a radio and television station that broadcast the tribal council meetings to the reservation, and the Hopi tribe televises UA American Indian language classes to its high school on the reservation, Francis-Begay said.

Both Twist and Francis-Begay also pointed out that technology gives American Indian artists a larger clientele when they sell their art, crafts and jewelry online.

But change must first occur in the Legislature, Twist said.

Two legislative policy initiatives by the Native Networking Coalition intend to help get the reservations connected, Twist said.

The first is the Native American Connectivity Act, a $20-million grant program to fund the technology connections.

The second is the attempt to rewrite the Telecommunication Act to get the word "tribe" included in the statutes, which will ensure federal regulation of their communication networks, Twist said.

"We view this as more important the Native American Connectivity Act because there's always a way to get money, but there's only one way to get into a statute," Twist said. "Unfortunately we live in a litigious society and unless you have a statute, you have no authority to protect yourself."

Ultimately, the tribal governments need to realize that telecommunications will help the Indian people advance their goals and that it is not an attempt to take away their sovereignty, Twist said.

"You're only sovereign to the capacity that you can protect the interests and social goals of the community," he said. "Otherwise, what kind of government are you?"

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