‘Best I can do is email you’: When this Native American family’s high-speed data ran out, teaching their children remotely came first


By Zoe Han

Indigenous communities are underserved by broadband internet providers, study finds

Sammy Matsaw knows all about isolation in the digital age.

Matsaw, 46, was about to earn a doctorate. in water resources when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020. A member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes, Matsaw lives with his wife, Jessica Matsaw, 35, and their four children in a three-bedroom home on the Fort Reservation. Hall in southeast Idaho.

The family didn’t have broadband access, he told MarketWatch, so he had to prioritize his family’s needs and distribute household mobile data among all family members. The university, nine hours away, postponed Matsaw’s doctorate. graduation because he couldn’t go in person.

Jessica, a Masters of Education student, was teaching high school students on the reservation as part of an unpaid internship. Teaching took place online, but since most students on the reservation were also cut off from internet access, she ended up making one-on-one visits with students.

At first, the household of six relied on two mobile data plans – Matsaw and Jessica – for all remote needs. This included the children’s school, Jessica’s teaching, Matsaw’s university meetings for her thesis, and all family get-togethers.

To ration data, their children’s school work came first. The Matsaw worked around their schedule to organize their early morning and evening meetings. Sometimes, when the connection was spotty, their lines would drop in the middle of a Zoom (ZM) class or meeting. A week into the monthly plan, their high-speed data ran out.

“We basically relied on cell service, and cell service here isn’t very good,” Matsaw said. “We’re lucky to have 3G or LTE. There’s no 5G here.”

With a tough schedule and an internet outage, Matsaw — who currently works as a research scientist for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes Fish and Wildlife Department in Fort Hall, Idaho — said he and his wife are retiring. most of their virtual activities. meetings.

Matsaw found himself constantly asking, “Do we need to meet? Do we need it? Is it necessary?”

Often the response was inevitable: “It’s like, ‘Well, we just can’t get together. The best I can do is email you, and that’ll have to do,'” he said. Matsaw said.

Native Americans and Broadband Access

It’s not an uncommon problem, Matsaw said, especially among Native Americans living on reservations.

Recent research also highlights what has become a persistent problem. “Native American communities are underserved by broadband providers,” according to a report by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank

“[E]Even with an array of federal programs designed to support broadband access in these locations, the lack of density on many reservations — rural ones in particular — makes broadband prohibitively expensive,” the report added.

According to research by Matthew Gregg, senior economist at the Federal Reserve’s Center for Indian Country Development at the Minneapolis Fed, and Robert Maxim, senior research associate at Brookings Metro.

“While the CARES Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act contain provisions aimed at expanding broadband access in rural Indigenous communities, the amount of investment required is so large that these law alone are not enough to solve the problem,” Gregg and Maxim wrote.

“Additionally, some Native American households may not have a computer, relying instead on mobile devices to access the internet, which severely limits their ability to work remotely,” they added.

Black and Latino workers have also been less likely than their white counterparts to have access to remote work during the pandemic and are less likely to have broadband access from home. But Native American communities face unique challenges.

About 19.6% of Native American and Alaska Native workers said they worked from home for at least some of the previous four weeks in the summer of 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers found. Brookings.

That’s compared to 49% of Asian employees working remotely in June 2020, 31% white workers, 26% black workers and 21% Hispanic workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Overall, about a third of American workers worked from home during this time.

Native American and Alaska Native workers are overrepresented in so-called low-skilled and often lower-paying occupations, and underrepresented in high-skilled and higher-paying occupations such as management and professional occupations, according to a separate document from the Minneapolis Fed.

Additionally, Native American and Alaska Native workers had the highest unemployment rate of any group, at 28.6% in April 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The national unemployment rate that month was 14.7%, with the unemployment rate for black workers at 16.7% and for Hispanic and Latino workers at 18.9%.

Wider infrastructure access gap

As the job market and economy have improved, the remote work gap between white workers and Native American workers has narrowed, but still persists. By early summer this year, the gap had narrowed to 2 percentage points, according to Gregg and Maxim’s article.

The share of households with internet access is about 20 percentage points lower in the tribal areas than in the rest of the country: some 58% of households on reservations have broadband, compared to 78% of the total population, according to the Minneapolis Fed.

The access gap between tribal and non-tribal areas is about three times larger than the black-white access gap, and about four times larger than the urban-rural gap, according to research.

At the same time, many Native American workers living on reservations are struggling to find a home office because many homes are overcrowded, Gregg said. While many tribal communities have multigenerational households, they also face unique housing challenges, Gregg told MarketWatch.

“Basically on bookings, we see very few houses, partly because it’s really hard to access credit to build a house,” Gregg said.

Matsaw’s family moved back to the reservation in 2019, where they had a home, due to the high cost of living in the town near the university. When the pandemic started in early 2020, Matsaw’s brother was also staying with the family while he worked as a substitute teacher. The three-bedroom house hosted all online gatherings for three adults and four school children.

The family’s internet situation improved after Matsaw asked the telecommunications company to connect their lines to an internet tower off the reservation.

Still, “we were all in each other’s space,” Matsaw said.

It’s an ongoing struggle for her family as they figure out how to work and study in a 1,200 square foot space. Last Sunday, he stayed in the back part of the house while the rest of the family stayed out front, so he could attend an online meeting.

“Families are on top of each other,” Matsaw said.

Remote work in the community

Remote and/or hybrid work opportunities can help economic development on reservations and ameliorate the brain drain the community faces, Gregg told MarketWatch.

“Historically, there’s been a lot of brain drain. Most skilled workers leave reserves because there’s a better return for their skills off reserve,” Gregg added. More hybrid work could help mitigate migration and retain that talent in their home country, he added.

The decision to stay or leave can have major consequences on employment opportunities. According to a 2017 article published in the International Indigenous Policy Journal, Native American tribes “invest millions of dollars in the education of their members for little return on their investment.” The paper concluded that “consistent, long, and meaningful relationships were motivators for participants to contribute to their reservations.”

For Indigenous workers with higher education, finding and maintaining those networking opportunities can be difficult, Matsaw told MarketWatch. Remote work opportunities are rare, especially if people hope to stay close to their home communities, he added.

“The role of discrimination in employment cannot be ignored when considering Native Americans’ access to jobs that allow remote work,” Greg and Maxim wrote in their article.

“Several researchers have found that even controlling for educational disparities, Native Americans still tend to work in jobs that require less education and have poorer labor market outcomes – the effects of the latter being particularly strong in states where Native Americans form a larger portion of the population,” they added.

This summer, Arizona State University hired a Native American faculty member in a remote position, where the faculty member can research and teach from their home community.

Desi Small-Rodriguez, professor of Cheyenne-Chicana sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, tweeted (TWTR) that it would be a game-changer if more universities allowed it.

“It hits hard today as I leave my reservation in Los Angeles for the academic year. Leaving behind not just parents, but critical research and teaching opportunities in the places and spaces where tribal sovereignty remains. , where indigenous people are the majority, where we are not invisible,” she tweeted.

Matsaw chose the other path. After graduating in 2021, he worked with his Native American community to apply his doctorate to relevant jobs in his community, which he described as “really challenging.” Having higher degrees is still rare in reservations, including in management positions, he added.

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