Corona, the digital divide and Indigenous peoples
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Corona, the digital divide and Indigenous peoples

By Donn J. Tilson

Black swan events come as a surprise, have a major effect, and are dismissed afterward according to their historical significance – World War I, the 1918 influenza pandemic, 9-11. Add to the list the Corona-19 pandemic, which has disrupted world economies, putting millions out of work, pushing countries into recession, stretching health-care resources to their limit, and leaving more than five million dead globally, even as new, more transmissible variant forms take their toll.

The virus also revealed disparities in health care – i.e. the availability of vaccines, emergency medical resources, mental health services – the basic safety nets of society (food, housing, employment), and digital technology, exacerbating divides that pre-existed the pandemic and, in the U.S., particularly impacting the lives of people of colour and Indigenous Nations. People of colour who could not be vaccinated in drive-up sites as they did not have a vehicle. Latino/a employees – a majority of the workforce in the hospitality industry – laid off only to see their jobs disappear when employers never re-opened or cut staff to survive. Navajo students without Wi-Fi service at home who climbed bluffs with their laptops to connect to online classes via Zoom, Facebook Live, and Instagram Live.

Going to such extremes to access the Internet is no surprise for Indigenous peoples in the U.S. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 628,000 tribal households lack access to standard broadband, a rate more than four times that of the general population (Schapiro, 2021). A 2019 study by the American Indian Policy Institute found nearly one in five reservation residents has no Internet at home (Terrill, 2020). Computers, landline phones, and electricity also are absent from Indigenous households – nearly 15,000 of the 55,000 homes in the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American territory in the U.S., for example, do not have electricity, making up 75% of all unelectrified households in the U.S.

COVID and worship – A perfect storm

COVID also fundamentally changed the nature of worship in the U.S. as religious authorities closed houses of worship in the interest of public safety beginning an era of virtual worship that both revealed and exacerbated a pre-existing digital divide within congregations and communities (Tilson, 2022). Media-poor congregations (often people of colour) that lacked high-tech resources for worship (talent, equipment or funding) turned to low-tech as an alternative to the closure of their house of worship. Groups met in private homes often exceeding the admonition to avoid gatherings of more than 10. Other congregations met and prayed on the front lawn of their house of worship. Some Christian denominations offered drive-through Communion and confession or drive-in theatre-like services with celebrants broadcasting through outdoor microphones and amplifiers.

Congregations with the resources and technical savvy, however, turned services into virtual worship that ranged in sophistication from mid-tech to high-tech. Better resourced denominations that regularly brokered air time on local radio added services to their schedule of programming. Larger houses of worship, such as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., began livestream telecasts of services on their website, offered in real time and online/on-demand. Mosques and synagogues also used their websites and other social media platforms to reach the faithful. For people of colour and Indigenous populations, however, the lack of Internet access remained a serious impediment to fellowship – limited at best and, in some cases, non-existent – throughout the course of the pandemic from mid-March 2020 to the opening of houses of worship in late March 2021.

Alaska – the last frontier

Alaska, often dubbed the “last frontier”, is a prime example of the various disparities underscored by the pandemic, in particular the digital divide, and the heavy toll exacted from Native peoples, who comprise 27.9% of the population, the state with the highest proportion of Indigenous people in the U.S. For access to the Internet – as well as computers, phones, and electricity – American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) Nations are in last place as is Alaska.

While Alaska is a vast territory covering more than 660,000 square miles, the population (750,000) is spread out widely – an average density of only 1.2 persons per square mile – and unevenly, concentrated in only few cities, i.e. Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, which are the principal hubs of commerce, education, and government, revealing an urban and rural divide in many respects. 

According to BroadbandNow Alaska is not only the last digital frontier in the U.S but has a major digital divide: 

  • last in Internet connectivity;
  • the lowest amount of broadband infrastructure;
  • the least broadband connectivity;
  • large urban areas with up to 99% access to wired broadband services;
  • the majority of counties (rural areas) with 0% access.
  • Yet other research – Population Reference Bureau – reveals a racial and ethnic digital divide in Alaska:
  • half of AI/AN children lack either computers or paid high-speed Internet access (or both) at home; 
  • more than one-third of Black and Latino/a children lack computers or high-speed Internet at home, compared with only one-fifth of non-Hispanic white children and one in seven Asian/Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander (NHOPI) children.

Into this divide COVID blew through the Indigenous population in Alaska as a true scourge, worsening media poverty, and the quality of health care and education. Forced into hibernation to avoid contamination and without means of communicating, Indigenous people were especially isolated from each other leading to a range of health and social disorders. 

The Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks best illustrates the impact of the pandemic on Indigenous people and the digital divide. Of the 46 parishes in the Fairbanks Diocese (410,000 square miles, 10,000 Catholics) only nine are accessible by road and, as one of the poorest dioceses in the U.S., only eight are financially self-sustaining. All parishes in Fairbanks (4) are accessible by road and self-sustaining, have Internet access, a Website with links to Masses livestreamed from their parish and other broadcast venues and available for on-demand viewing later; these parishes also are in the television and radio broadcast area of the Eternal Word Television Network, a global Catholic broadcaster.

The majority of the diocese’s parishes, however, are rural, lack Internet access, do not have a Website, and can receive EWTN television broadcasts of the Mass only by satellite as no radio broadcasts are available (www.dioceseoffairbanks.org). The rural parishes are predominantly Indigenous. Of these, most families do not have a computer and those who do experience inconsistent Internet service (“A New Way”, 2021). 

The pandemic left diocesan Indigenous congregations without benefit of clergy, church services or fellowship for more than a year. In sparsely-populated areas, families without Internet or satellite broadcasts of religious television programming huddled around radios led in diocesan weekly prayer and scripture readings via VHF (very high frequency) transmissions. Funerals of extended family members that traditionally are moments of communal mourning were prohibited. As a religious who coordinates ministry for the diocese explained, [Indigenous people in Alaska] ‘“are communal and process life in and through their family through social gatherings… Except now they can’t and this way of doing things [shutdowns, social distancing, and quarantines] is completely against their culture’” (“A New Way”, 2021).

While the pandemic highlighted Alaska’s digital divide, it exacerbated others, especially medical care. The number of COVID cases spiked among AI/AN populations, and medical treatment was challenged to adequately deal with the emergency. Typically, village health care resources are basic, and serious cases require travel (often by air) to larger cities; however, in urban areas the number of beds and ventilators for COVID patients is limited. The majority of Alaska Natives are immunocompromised – most having underlying health conditions – and are vulnerable to COVID (“A New Way”, 2021). According to the state’s Division of Public Health, Indigenous peoples registered the highest rate of COVID hospitalization in Alaska (372.5 per 100,000 in that race/ethnicity group) from March 2020 to July 2021. AI/AN peoples also registered the highest rate of deaths (72.3%; 129 deaths) from January 2020 through July 31, 2021.

Moreover, owing to the social impact of the pandemic – the loss of loved ones (without the communal support needed to express grief and to heal), prolonged isolation from extended family and neighbours, unemployment, and uncertainty of the future – Indigenous peoples suffered in greater numbers than the general population with issues of mental health; those most economically challenged were the ones hit the hardest as the percentage of AI/AN peoples living in poverty is nearly double that of the U.S. as a whole according to the National Congress of American Indians. According to the Department of Health and Human Services National Institute of Health Alaska Native youth have the highest rate of suicide of all demographic groups and suffer disproportionately compared to youth in the rest of the U.S. Other indicators of marginalization – illness, poverty, poor education, underemployment – compound the sense of hopelessness that destroys the spirit. 

Narrowing the divide – a way forward

There is promise on the horizon to narrow the divides provided a holistic approach is taken to address what is essentially a systemic problem. A number of initiatives are underway to empower Native peoples by developing existing resources and adding others that are needed.

A $1.2 trillion infrastructure modernization plan for the nation’s roads, energy, and telecommunications approved by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden in early November 2021 will expand the nation’s electric grid and broadband network providing power to households without electricity and affordable Internet access to rural and low-income communities; those with an income at or below 200% of the federal poverty line would be eligible for a $30 a month Internet subsidy (Daugherty, 2021) with Native peoples clearly in line to benefit.

Other provisions include funding for clean energy and renewable energy projects and electric vehicle charging infrastructure with a particular focus on rural and disadvantaged communities (Caprez, 2021). Still other federal legislation is under consideration to expand access to existing broadband service in Indigenous schools and libraries and to tribal communities lacking a library by providing high-speed Internet at an affordable rate; community centres, colleges, and universities also would qualify for the service (“Pilot Broadband Program”, 2020). The funding would be in addition to federal grants through Alaska’s Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development to expand broadband access within the state.

Yet other initiatives in partnership with academia and industry include U.S. Department of Energy projects in Alaskan Arctic AI/AN communities to deploy clean energy systems and advance viable cold climate electric transportation alternatives; these include building wind farms, installing solar grids, extracting electrical power from moving water, designing energy-efficient structures, and powering the region’s transportation infrastructure from ships and cars to buses and aircraft with electricity (“Arctic Innovation Abounds”, 2021).

If solar power and wind/water fields and electric transportation infrastructure were designed, built, and operated by tribal peoples the impact on AI/AN communities and their youngsters (if they were trained as engineers and managers by partner colleges/universities) would be monumental. Various University of Alaska Fairbanks certificate and degree programs are training Indigenous students to do just that. A.A.S. degree studies in construction management are preparing graduates for entry-level positions and construction employees with continuing education to work with engineers, architects, and contractors on industrial, highway, and building projects.

Occupational Endorsement programs provide education and training for careers in sustainable energy and energy efficiency and prep students for certificates in engineering and science-related fields. UAF B.A. degrees in Native Studies and Rural Development train students to maintain Indigenous control of development projects and address needs of communities; concentrations of studies include governance and integrated resource management. Yet other certificate and A.A.S. degree programs address the need for quality health care preparing students for careers as community health aides in villages or as healers/natural helpers in village-based public, private and volunteer human service organizations. 

Society has too often advanced a worldview with values antithetical to the common good, reflected in behaviour unconscionable in an interconnected world (COVID-19 may yet prove to have been unleashed by a violation of the natural order) and creating divides that not only separate people from one another but from their humanity and all of Creation. As Indigenous peoples in Arctic regions can attest, radical anthropocentrism has consequences from melting icebergs to rising sea levels to extreme weather.

Treaties and legislation alone cannot ensure social justice as the history of broken promises to Indigenous Nations confirms. What is needed is a re-thinking of relationships to embrace the broader understanding of “family” that Native culture teaches – the entire village. And, to embrace a worldview – caritas – that focuses attention outward in a spirit of compassion and guides behaviour as stewardship-guardianship for the benefit of all.

References

A new way of life amidst COVID-19. (Winter 2021). The Alaskan Shepherd, p. 3. 

Arctic innovation abounds with Department of Energy projects. (2021, August 17). Retrieved September 9, 2021 from https://www.energy.gov/articles/arctic-innovation-abounds-department-energy-projects

Caprez, K. (2021, November 8). H.R. 3684: Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The

National Law Review. Retrieved November 9, 2021 from https://apple.news./AWdEwBtAPRC6iNbDWGW8mlg

Daugherty, A. (2021, November 9). Billions of dollars coming to Florida when Biden’s infrastructure bill is law. The Miami Herald, p. 1A, 9A. 

Pilot broadband program. (2021, September 9). Native News Online. Retrieved August 8, 2021 from https://nativenewsonline.net/currents/federal-legislation-to-expand-tribal-access-to-affordable-high-speed-internet-create-100m-pilot-broadband-program

Schapiro, A. (2020, July 7). Coronavirus crisis threatens internet opportunity for Native Americans. Reuters. Retrieved August 28, 2021 from https://www.reuters.com/article/idUSKCN24T06B

Terrill, M. (2020, June 23). Native nations are fighting COVID-19 on many levels. ASU News. Retrieved August 28, 2021 from https://news.asu.edu/20200623-solutions-native-nations-fighting-covid-19-manylevels

Tilson, D. (2022). The Promotion of Devotion: Religion, Culture and Communication (2nd ed.). San Diego, CA: Cognella, Inc.

Donn J. Tilson, an associate professor emeritus at the School of Communication, University of Miami, has published and lectured extensively on public relations, culture, and religion, including as a Fulbright Scholar (University of Ottawa) in interfaith dialogue. His book, The Promotion of Devotion: Religion, Culture and Communication, is a pioneering work in the field and currently in revision as a second edition (Cognella, 2022). He continues to explore the confluence of public relations, social responsibility, and faith in ancient civilizations, Indigenous peoples, and other present-day societies. dtilson@miami.edu

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