Santa Fe Indian School is connecting tribal communities to broadband access to improve Native education
Five tribal organizations in New Mexico will share over $146 million from the federal infrastructure act to improve broadband infrastructure. The largest award is going to the Santa Fe Indian School, which plans to use its $57 million to bridge the gap of internet access across several tribal communities around the state. KUNM talks with Kimball Sekaquaptewa, chief technology director, for the school about how helping a network of communities serves its mission to provide education to Native children.
SEKAQUAPTEWA: In March of 2020, when we went out for COVID, we were just going out for a long weekend, we didn't know we wouldn't see our students again for a year and a half. We felt fortunate that we had Chromebooks to send them home with, but they were going to have to use whatever internet capabilities they had in their homes at that time. And what we learned over the next few months through a survey of families was that only 11% of our students had in-home internet that met the FCCs performance benchmark at the time and those 11% of students were in town, they were in Albuquerque or they were in Santa Fe, so our on-reservation students had a lot of needs that were unmet.
KUNM: What has been the history of the Indian schools' need for broadband?
SEKAQUAPTEWA: We’re building on years of work.The FCC schools and libraries E-Rate program is a subsidy program for internet connectivity and some equipment based on a school or library's poverty level. Santa Fe Indian School has been participating in that program since year one, which is over 20 years now.
So a couple of us, formed into two consortia. One was the Middle Rio Grande, which was Cochiti, Santa Domingo, San Felipe and Santa Ana [pueblos]. And then we also did, Jemez and Zia [pueblos]. So we built two fiber optic networks at that time, each about 60 miles. Quickly, though, we realized, wow, this is a game changer for these communities, but E-rate doesn't allow for connections beyond the schools and libraries. So we went back to our tribal leadership and said "This is really important, and we need to connect health, we need to connect homes, we need to connect our environmental departments. Everybody needs this kind of connectivity."
KUNM: So even though the funding is being awarded to Santa Fe Indian school by this newest infrastructure law; it’s providing broadband to tribal communities?
SEKAQUAPTEWA: So yes, the Santa Fe Indian School project says Santa Fe Indian School on it, but what it is, is a consortium of six tribes. The tribes that are included in this project are the Pueblos of Santa Domingo, Zia and Jemez, and we're going to focus on workforce development with them. And the three new partners that we have are the Pueblos of Isleta, Acoma, and Zuni. This project will construct another 324 miles from Albuquerque, down to Isleta looping back up to Acoma, and then out to Zuni. So we are not going on the road most-traveled, we're taking a secondary route, and that has the potential to connect rural New Mexicans, and I really do think this is a statewide endeavor.
KUNM: What is the main goal of connecting students to other tribal schools and libraries?
SEKAQUAPTEWA: A key component of our network design is that it connects tribal schools and libraries, creating a private cloud, if you will, for the purpose of advancing Indian education and it does this by physically connecting the schools. So now we do have high-speed, affordable, reliable internet, which is awesome. But it connects us to each other. So in terms of our agenda is to develop our Native language classes or tribal libraries with digital archives. Now we have this private space, that we can work together and collaborate in a way that we've never been able to before.
The second piece to that is because of the way the network is designed, our tribal schools and libraries are now connected to higher education, research and education networks. So what does that mean for tribal students, now you can participate in high-performance computing, big data research, it's just a world that we haven't been able to participate in before.
KUNM: How are tribal leaderships working with the program to provide broadband to their communities but on their own terms?
SEKAQUAPTEWA: The tribes themselves also have the ability to use that network for their own purposes. And they have different ideas, and they have different ways they want to do it, and that's completely their sovereign decision. But they can then decide how to connect their residences.
I'm not gonna say technology's the solution for everything but it's not gonna go away, you know, and it's a tool that we need to learn to use and navigate. It's a responsibility, I think that we all have to teach our students and our families to use it wisely. As we introduce more technology into our communities, I think we all have a role to play.