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Learning about Tribal IT Capabilities in Alaska and Arizona

By Michelle Watts, Faculty Director, School of Security and Global Studies, and Mark Colwell, Research Assistant

Note: This blog article was originally published on In Cyber Defense.

How is information technology (IT) used among tribes in Alaska and Arizona? Through a research grant from APUS, I have the opportunity to examine the dynamics of information technology among tribes. AMU graduate student Mark Colwell joined me for the first week of this 10-day research project. We started by examining the outermost state first – Alaska.

Starting Our Information Technology Research in Alaska

Our goal was to examine the availability and impact of IT on Alaskan tribal governance. We will then compare our results to what IT is available to tribes in the lower 48 states and how those tribes use IT.

Our field research is being conducted primarily in Alaska and Arizona, where there are abundant opportunities to meet with tribal and IT representatives. We sent a survey to all tribes throughout the U.S. in order to collect as much information as possible and to arrange for virtual interviews when we cannot be there in person. A second research assistant, William Merop, has been instrumental in gathering the information we need to send the surveys.

We chose to go to Metlakatla and Juneau to look at Alaska’s only reservation and compare it to the situation of Alaska Natives under the Alaska Native Corporation system (ANC). The ANC was created in 1971 through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which settled native claims in Alaska by creating corporations rather than reservations for more than 200 of Alaska’s tribes.

The government provided a monetary settlement to participating Alaska Natives, who then became shareholders in Alaska Native Corporations. This means that the corporations, rather than Alaska Natives, own the land.

First Stop in Tribal IT Field Research Trip: Ketchikan

Our Alaska itinerary started in Ketchikan, followed by Metlakatla and then Juneau. After we visit Juneau, Mark will return to Arizona and I will continue our research in Anchorage. Later this summer, we will continue research in Arizona.

Our first day, June 10, went smoothly. Mark left Arizona early in the morning and I departed at 3:30 a.m., flying from Denver to Seattle.

We met in person for the first time in Seattle, just minutes before we boarded our flight to Alaska. Our excitement was palpable as we flew into Ketchikan over snow-covered mountains.

ketchikan ferry terminal arrival Watts
Arriving at the Ketchikan ferry terminal.

After a smooth landing on Gravina Island, we went quickly through the tiny airport to buy ferry tickets to Ketchikan itself. The ferry’s existence has an interesting history: the state of Alaska once sought to build what became infamously known as “the bridge to nowhere” to replace the ferry. The bridge was never built, but $28 million was spent on an access road to the non-existent bridge.

On Saturday evening, despite the jet lag, we explored the totems in Ketchikan and Saxman and marveled at the many bald eagles visible along the river.

An Itinerary Change

We were scheduled to take another ferry on Sunday afternoon to the first stop on our research trip, Annette Island. But on Friday night, the ferry captain called to cancel our reservations because the ferry needed repairs. We chose to go to Metlakatla, located on Annette Island, by seaplane. Fortunately, there was a flight on Sunday and two seats were available.

The 15-minute flight in the tiny plane was slightly terrifying, but mostly fun. The pilot noted wryly that he was not the regular pilot, but that we would “probably be okay.” The plane was noisy, but the scenery was stunning. Mark was concerned about motion sickness, but Dramamine provided Mark what he needed to keep his breakfast down during the flight.

After arriving in Metlakatla, we spent the rest of the day familiarizing ourselves with the island and visiting Lindarae, an eccentric and highly talented local artist. She explained not only traditional Alaska Native art for us, but also her own initial forays into e-commerce. Thomas Booth Jr., an accomplished carver, shed light on the meaning of the symbols on the totems and demonstrated the intricacies of Native carvings.

One of my main goals was to interview the mayor, Audrey M. L. Hudson, a dynamic young woman who is the first female mayor of Metlakatla. Mayor Hudson overcame considerable challenges to assume a leadership position in her community, becoming mayor, city manager, tribal chairwoman and police commissioner for their three-member police force. Appropriately, her Tsimshian tribal name, Galksiyaa da mangyepsa tgwa, means “Walks through the High Glass.”

metlakatla mayor
AMU graduate student Mark Colwell, Metlakatla mayor Audrey M.L. Hudson and university instructor Michelle Watts.

The mayor went out of her way to ensure we were able to connect with IT professionals on the island who gave us considerable information about the state of technology there. There is a sense of a “digital divide” due to the expense and poor quality of the Internet.

Although the Internet is available on most of the island, there are problems with slow connection speeds. Data is both limited and expensive, with costly overage charges. Internet access on the island is susceptible to both weather and maintenance issues, and repair times can be slow due to the remote location and difficulty obtaining parts.

At the salmon hatchery we visited, the manager described having to leave the hatchery and drive home due to the current lack of a good communications infrastructure. This frustrates residents when they try to conduct business or simply relax.

In contrast, the local school has its own satellite, an excellent self-contained system. The clinic has been expanding its capabilities for telemedicine, which is a boon when it can be used in lieu of traveling to Ketchikan or Anchorage for tests.

Residents are unable to freely stream videos and play online games without worrying about both the potential cost of the data they are using, and the delay (latency) as their data is transmitted over microwave or satellite links. These limitations impact more than just entertainment, since data limits can impact the ability to pursue online education or communicate in ways that require a lot of bandwidth, such as video teleconferencing.

Many people on the island are hopeful for an eventual connection to fiber-optic cable to bring greater speed and more reasonable rates. We left with a sense of the IT capabilities and aspirations of the community, and we were also deeply grateful to have experienced such a welcoming and open community.

About the Authors

Michelle Watts is a faculty director. In addition to supervising faculty members, she teaches courses on international relations, international development and Latin American Studies online. Michelle is an advisor to the Gamma Omega chapter of the Sigma Iota Rho international relations honor society. She has obtained several grants to conduct research in Latin America, in recent years focusing on indigenous people.

Mark Colwell is a graduate student with American Military University, pursuing a Master of Science in information technology project management. He currently works as a senior program analyst, supporting United States Army cryptographic modernization efforts as a contractor. Mr. Colwell retired from the Army in 2003 after 20 years of service and holds a Bachelor of Science in Liberal Studies with concentrations in management and sociology from Excelsior College.

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