Native Nations are self-governing peoples and have been long before the founding of the United States. As they have grappled with the ongoing legacies of settler colonialism, Native Nations have claimed crucial legal and political rights within the United States’ federal system, while continuing to assert and affirm their inherent sovereignty. This post covers how indigenous communities approach issues of broadband access through the lens of sovereignty – how it motivates and shapes their work both on their lands and at the federal level. There are 574 federally-recognized tribes in the U.S., more than 60 state-recognized tribes, and many other unrecognized tribes. Only since the 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act has the federal government recognized tribal sovereignty and self-determination and forged a “government-to-government” relationship with Native Nations. The 2000 Tribal Policy Statement of the Federal Communications Commission applied those principles of Tribal self-governance to telecommunications issues, partly in recognition of the poor connectivity in Indian Country.
Kevin Bruyneeel’s 2007 book
The Third Space of Sovereignty: The Postcolonial Politics of U.S.–Indigenous Relations offers a scholarly political and historical understanding of tribal sovereignty.
Indigenous Networks, where Native Nations build and control their own Internet infrastructure, are simultaneously an expression of their sovereignty and a way to strengthen it. They are one answer to the question scholar Marisa Elena Duarte poses, What are the technologies that will allow us, as Indigenous peoples, to reclaim our lands and ways of being—spiritually, socially, spatially, ecologically, and politically?
In her book, Network Sovereignty: Building the Internet across Indian Country, Duarte wrote about how Native Nations and organizations use communication technologies, from radio to Internet, for their self-governance. Like the networks Duarte studied, the people who work on indigenous networks often stress the importance of sovereignty for reasons both practical and political.
Indigenous communities emphasize this self-sufficiency out of a recognition that the existing models of Internet provision do not serve the needs of people in Indian Country. Jessica Engle, Former CEO of Yurok Telecommunications Corporation talks about why the control of their own broadband system was important to the Yurok Tribe in Northern California.
Network Sovereignty: Building the Internet across Indian Country
Dr. Duarte’s book documents the work of the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association, Coeur d’Alene, Cheyenne River Sioux, and Navajo Nation.
More on Dr. Duarte’s book here.
Listen to Dr. Duarte talk about her work on the Future Out Loud podcast in 2017 by the Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University.
What’s hugely important for me is the step towards sovereignty. If we’re going to be the ones to solve it, then we’re going to be the ones to solve it. That we’re not just going to pay a provider to finally do it and be still beholden to them, to their uptime, to their maintenance, to whether or not they decide to continue to invest in the infrastructure.
To make her point, Engle points to telephone poles on Yurok land, on which hang the dilapidated coaxial cables of the providers that came and went, failing to find their footing in Indian Country.
Linnea Jackson from nearby Hoopa Valley agrees that external providers often do not understand the legal or cultural nuances of how to work on tribal lands. Instead, she sees her work in the public utilities department, overseeing water and electricity to the community, as evidence that Native Nations can and should serve their own people.
I think if we allow these larger companies to come in, you lose control. You lose that personal touch of serving your own people and understanding the importance of it, and the impacts that it’ll have, especially on our school district, on tribal business, on economic development. I think we know more about that than anybody.
Adding to Engle and Jackson’s arguments about Native Nations’ commitment to serving their own people, Brandon Makaawaawa, the Deputy Head of State for the Nation of Hawaii, argues that self-sufficiency regarding technical systems is also a crucial aspect of self-determination.
The Nation of The Hawaii is small, with a land base of roughly 45 acres that they reclaimed through occupation, but their vision of an indigenous connectivity that powers an indigenous sovereignty is capacious. Makaawaawa wants their village to serve as a testbed for innovation and independence, charting a path forward for Native Hawaiians and indigenous communities everywhere.
However, for indigenous communities to be able to assert and exercise their sovereignty as Makaawaawa envisions, they require connections beyond their lands. The FCC’s Native Nations Communications Task Force found that the lack of middle-mile infrastructure, the connections between national and major regional Internet backbones and local networks, was a significant barrier to improving broadband access in Indian Country. They also highlighted Native Nations’ poor access to spectrum, the range of radio-waves used for communication purposes from radio, to bluetooth, to Wi-Fi, as a core reason for poor connectivity in Indian Country. Spectrum is usually allocated through auctions run by the FCC that can be cost-prohibitive for Native Nations. Until 2020 only 18 of the 573 federally recognized tribes held spectrum licenses.
Improving access to spectrum for indigenous communities has been a longstanding point of contention. Through the National Congress of American Indians, Native Nations advocated for priority access to spectrum for running low power radio stations, and deploying broadband services. In 2019, the FCC finally created a Tribal Priority Window that allowed recognized tribes, Alaska Native Villages and Hawaiian Homelands to apply for a 2.5GHz Spectrum License. By early 2022, they had granted 328 licenses, demonstrating the need and appetite in Indian Country for building indigenous networks, particularly wireless networks well suited to serving remote areas where fiber infrastructure is harder to deploy.
Read more from Brandon about Internet access and self-determination here.
Going beyond the 2.5GHz priority window, there is a growing push for spectrum sovereignty that demands Native Nations’ rights to access and use spectrum above their lands. While spectrum sovereignty is an umbrella term applied to a range of policy proposals, it rests on the idea that spectrum is a natural resource, like water or coal or even sunlight, and should be governed similarly. As activist Daraah Blackwater, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, argues.
One of the most useful analogies that I’ve utilized is just sunlight, and that essentially, what the FCC is doing by taking and selling indigenous spectrum, is as if they put up a solar panel, as big as the Navajo Nation, over the Navajo Nation, and then used all of that power, and sold it to the city of Los Angeles, and kept the money. Then, the Navajo Nation wouldn’t be able to grow crops, wouldn’t ever see the sun, the people would never feel the sunshine on their skin, because there would be a solar panel over it. Not only are they not getting the sunlight for themselves and their land, they’re also not getting any of the money that is coming from the resource of the sunlight.
For Blackwater, Spectrum Sovereignty would mean two crucial things: first, Native Nations would not have to apply for or pay for a license for spectrum over their lands, and secondly if a Native nation chose to license this spectrum, they would earn that revenue, not the federal government.
Read American Indian Policy Institute’s brief on how spectrum is managed and allocated by the federal government for commercial and public use and how these a ctivities affect Tribal Nations.
The DIGITAL Reservations Act, introduced by then-Congresswoman Debra Haaland and Senator Elizabeth Warren in July 2020, affirmed the first of Blackwater’s two assertions. It recognized Native Nations’ autonomy over spectrum and barred the FCC from selling those resources to for-profit corporations without Tribal consultation. Although the bill did not gain traction in Congress, it was nonetheless a significant step forward for advocacy on the issue.
While they push for a more supportive policy agenda at the federal level, Native Nations also continue to build and manage their indigenous networks to enact and assert their sovereignty. They do so in South Dakota, where the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe not only runs the first tribally-owned telecom but also established a telecommunications commission that, like the FCC, can regulate any telecom service within the reservation boundaries. They do so in New York, where the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, bisected by the US-Canada border, is working across national jurisdictions to deliver broadband services to their community. They do so in Idaho, where the Nez Perce tribe has built not just a last-mile network, but also middle-mile fiber from Spaulding, Idaho to Clarkston, Washington that they then lease to other providers. Most crucially, they do so together, sharing resources and best practices in regional and national groups with a vision to benefit and uplift, as Makaawaawa put it, “all indigenous peoples of the world”
Watch another short video by Darrah Blackwater on how access to spectrum can address the digital divide for indigenous communities.