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Rural telecom gets a boost


A new telecommunications company hopes to bring cell phones and wireless internet to tribal reservations.
A new telecommunications company hopes to bring cell phones and wireless internet to tribal reservations.

A telecommunications company created by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has tribal officials hopeful that it will enhance education on the reservation and give the local economy a boost.

Standing Rock Telecommunications (SRT) is the first tribal-owned telecommunications company in the nation that offers cellular phone and wireless broadband service.

Beginning with an $11 million investment in 2007, it has put up 18 towers within the reservation that straddles the North Dakota and South Dakota border and secured locations for two branch stores and a headquarters.

SRT General Manager Miles McAllister said the tribe saw a connection between prospering communities and wireless access.

Improving education on the reservation is synonymous with creating the foundation for a better quality of life, McAllister said, and SRT will offer discounted rates for needy families.

And increased access to the internet will allow students on reservations to take advantage of online tools made available by the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI).

Through its National Education Initiative (NEI), NMAI has begun to offer historically accurate and authentic educational materials about American Indians. NEI’s mission is to share American Indian knowledge through educational excellence and, like in North and South Dakota, many of the reservations where American Indians live are in rural areas.

“We know there’s need for this content,” said Tim Johnson, associate director for museum programs at NMAI, at the National Rural Education Technology Summit held at the museum on July 21. “Teachers and curriculum supervisors need in-depth educational materials that integrate native perspectives.”

NEI offers a number of online resources, including videos, lesson plans, and other tools, as well as professional development to train teachers about integrating Native American perspectives into lessons.

Students also would be able to access the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) forthcoming Online Learning Registry. The registry aims to provide access to historical, artistic, and scientific primary-source materials.

“Knowledge knows no boundaries, and we cannot allow distance to stand between students, education, and opportunity,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said at the summit. “We have the hardware, the latest software, and huge investments are being made in the build-out of the National Broadband Plan to connect us as never before.”

Jesi Shanley, work force liaison for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said getting families connected will go a long way in assisting with the traditional education process but will go even further in exposing Native American children to the rest of the world.

“There are people that live here that never even get to go to Bismarck (N.D.), let alone tap into what China is doing,” she said. “It’s going to increase our children’s awareness of what this whole world looks like. They won’t be so isolated.”

The Standing Rock Reservation is about 70 miles south of Bismarck.

The graduation rate of South Dakota Native American students enrolled in public schools is about 60 percent. Students who attend Bureau of Indian Education schools graduate at an even lower rate.

Resident Martin Three Stars, 32, said the technology didn’t get to Standing Rock a moment too soon.

“Things were getting real bad up here,” he said. “But this new company has shown that the tribe is investing in our lives. They are doing something to make all of our lives better.”

With the average income of residents on the reservation at $10,000, he hopes the company can provide new opportunities even as that income level becomes a hurdle to creating a sustainable business.

“It’s a huge challenge. But one of the reason that income levels are so low is because there is less opportunity,” he said. “By us offering connections, which will enhance business opportunity, we hope those incomes will come up.”

The technology also will help local governments and emergency services on the reservation better serve the tribal members and local residents.

Last winter, there was a three-day period when communications were down at Standing Rock. Because the SRT system is backed up with batteries and generators, the reservation won’t have to experience that again, Shanley said.

“There were no phones, so to have a network like this … we will never lose communication,” she said.

“And we’re less likely to lose lives in situations like that,” she added, pointing out that “we have people on dialysis all over the reservation.”

McAllister said SRT has about 270 customers but hopes to grow to 1,000 by year’s end. About 8,500 people live on the reservation, and 14,000 Native Americans are enrolled in the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Links:

U.S. Department of Education

National Museum of the American Indian – Education


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