By Jack Graham
Feb 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Working with rural tribal communities in the southwestern US state of New Mexico, Kimball Sekaquaptewa knows more than most about the challenges of remote schooling.
As chief technology director at Santa Fe Indian School, she serves more than 700 students in 19 rural pueblos, and has spent the last year working to get them online with limited access to high-speed internet.
It is a mission that the 47-year-old mother of three says will benefit the area's Indigenous communities long after the coronavirus pandemic is over, as getting connected expands opportunities for everything from jobs to shaping policy.
"Everybody always knew that the internet was important, but we didn't know it was life and death important," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.
In rural New Mexico, less than 60% of the population has access to fixed high-speed internet — the lowest of any state, according to the US Federal Communications Commission.
From her kitchen table in the Cochiti Pueblo, about 35 miles from New Mexico's capital, Sekaquaptewa manages a handful of coordinators connecting and troubleshooting for students, while developing IT projects with community leaders.
Meanwhile, she advocates for the communities with nonprofits, foundations, and governments at all levels, working closely with a congressional delegation in Washington, DC.
"When our schools went out in the middle of March, we just had to use whatever [students] had, and that was really challenging," Sekaquaptewa said.
About 2 in 5 of the school's students do not have internet at home, she noted.
Many have been forced to get creative, writing assignments on notes apps on their phones. One student handwrote a research paper, took pictures, and texted them to their teacher, she recalled.
Sekaquaptewa has been working to close the digital divide in her region for nearly two decades. Raised in Arizona in the Hopi tribe, she studied at Stanford University in California before getting jobs at a printing press and in advertising.
Looking for something “a little bit more meaningful,” she took a research role at Santa Fe Indian School to make local curricula more culturally responsive for Indigenous students.
From there, she moved into an IT role, helping to develop technology for students and their communities.
Beginning in 2015, Sekaquaptewa spearheaded efforts by six pueblos to build a 120-mile fiber-optic broadband network to run through public buildings like libraries, replacing the low-speed, expensive internet they were receiving from incumbent providers.
A lack of infrastructure on US tribal lands means student access to the internet is a longstanding issue, she said.
It is hard to persuade private telecoms companies to invest in connecting small, remote populations, while the families often do not have the resources to purchase technology or pay for internet, she added.
Kimball Sekaquaptewa (middle) with the consortium of six pueblo governors and family members, breaking ground on a fiber-optic internet construction project in December 2017. Handout photo by Santa Fe Indian School via Thomson Reuters Foundation.
When COVID-19 cases began surging in rural New Mexico in April 2020, Sekaquaptewa and her team faced a whole new challenge: the state's tribal nations began introducing strict travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders.
Over the summer, some students without internet at home studied outside so they could use internet access points provided by the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center, a nonprofit run by volunteer IT professionals.
But the heat made this very difficult, with one community reporting a student getting heat stroke, Sekaquaptewa said.
Struggling to Connect
Many families in the area had been buying prepaid internet on their mobile phones whenever they had disposable income, Sekaquaptewa explained.
"They're very much transient internet users, which made connecting with the school in the remote learning context very challenging," she said.
For much of last year, students were forced to use public Wi-Fi spots, such as parking lots of closed libraries.
Sekaquaptewa said she even heard of a mother driving about 40 miles to and from a McDonald's to help her children access Wi-Fi.
Due to lockdown restrictions on traveling in numbers, the mother was forced to do the trip twice a day — once for each child.
To get students and teachers online, Sekaquaptewa and her colleagues ordered laptops for all of them that were wireless-enabled, meaning users can access the internet by inserting a SIM card loaded with data into the laptop.
She said the project was a "scrappy" grassroots campaign with people across the community pitching in, as well as funding and technical support from government, nonprofits, and private companies, including major internet provider Verizon.
It required them to analyze the area and survey where students were living, to figure out which SIM card provider might give the best coverage.
"We know the topography of the lands we're trying to serve, we live in those communities, we understand what our people need," Sekaquaptewa said.
Now every student and staff member at the school can get online, Sekaquaptewa noted, and in recent months a few of the pueblos have begun installing wireless connections in homes to connect to the new fiber-optic network.
The tribes are coming to understand the importance of the internet, she said, adding that they will be able to tap into this online access for economic development and self-governance.
"[The internet] is a new potential revenue stream that isn't exploiting the land. It's not mining, it's not extractive," Sekaquaptewa said, pointing out that they took care to place the fiber-optic cable under roadways and other land which had already been built on.
She said this could include providing services to organizations in neighboring cities: pueblos are training local tribal members in key technology skills, such as installing wireless internet in homes.
"We hadn't brought the internet into our communities yet in a way that we could leverage it ... to meet our own goals," she said. "It really took the educational component to mobilize action."
(Reporting by Jack Graham; Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)