Unlocking digital tools in Indian Country to build a new economy

Tribes need to invest in their young people -- and in technology

 

It’s time for State of the Union addresses. President Barack Obama, of course, gave his last Tuesday. Then came a variety of state reports across the country. And, last Thursday, Indian Country’s national version, the State of Indian Nations. National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby spent about an hour talking about some of the challenges facing the more than 500 tribal governments.

“Today, I bring a simple message from the tribes of the 21st Century: We must tear down barriers to growth, simplify regulations that are limiting opportunities, and acknowledge that tribes have the capability as governments to oversee our own affairs,” Cladoosby said. “Congress and the administration need to find ways to help bring federal agencies out of the 19th Century and into the 21st Century.  We need them to be partners for growth and not barriers to growth.”

National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby giving the State of Indian Nations address live from the Newseum in WashingtonDC. (NCAI photo)

President Cladoosby’s talk covered much ground -- a lot of material critical to tribal governments, such as rethinking the federal-trust relationship, an invitation for leaders of Congress to visit Indian Country, and for Washington’s NFL franchise to finally, finally, change its name.

I’d like to expand on two themes from the State of the Indian Nations speech: youth and technology.

The most common age in America today is 22 years old. This year, 2015, the Millennial Generation will pass the Baby Boomers as the largest-age group in the country. Indian Country is even younger than the rest of the nation. The American Indian/Alaska Native population from birth through age 24 makes up 42 percent of the total Native American population (compared to about a third for the country as a whole).

We are at a moment in history where we really ought to be investing more resources in young people. Yet, instead, as President Obama said in his State of the Union, we’re loading up this generation with student debt -- a total that now exceeds a trillion dollars. This is the logic behind the president’s call to make community college free. A proposal that will benefit Indian Country, including tribal colleges and universities.

But this is also about technology. We need a structure to prepare people for jobs that don’t yet exist.

This is what President Cladoosby said: “The last technology census of tribal nations took place before Google, Twitter, or smart phones even existed.  The best data we do have indicates an ongoing digital divide. While 73 percent of Americans have access to broadband, in Indian Country, it’s only 10 percent.

We need a comprehensive and updated study of our technology needs to advance more common sense initiatives like this one to increase our participation in the Digital Age.”

We do need more information. The Digital Age doesn’t look like it did even ten years ago. Back then “The Facebook” was a new startup -- and certainly not much of a presence in Indian Country. Today Facebook is in most homes, on our phones, and a presence linking Native America in ways that television networks never did. On social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Native Americans are creating, telling stories, and building communities. This is just the beginning of this digital age.

It’s not just social media either. It’s a whole realm of commerce, activity and potential. 

So what does it mean? Well, once we figure out how to unlock these digital tools we will never again be faced with watching our children leave a community just to get a job. We can create our own jobs. Anywhere. In a village in Alaska, a reservation in Montana, or, yes, in a city. But the choice will be ours.

But for that to happen we need to prepare young people better. They need to have a bundle of tools, ranging from computer science to video production.

Some of this preparation starts with schools. Helping young people get basic skills in math, science and writing. But much of this Digital Age starts with imagination.

The beauty is that we now live in a world where storytelling is a value. And that’s a value that Indian Country already understands and has for thousand of years.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.

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