San Diego San Diego's Indian tribes hope Internet technology will bring back the old days, the pre-Cabrillo days, when they traded and traveled among themselves. They believe technology could help them preserve their culture.
Up until now, San Diego's 17 Indian reservations have been on the barren side of what's called the digital divide. Tribal offices have dial-up Internet at best. Most homes on the reservations lack personal computers. And phone, power, and cable lines don't reach every reservation. "We don't have phone lines where we are," says Desi Vela of the Ewwiiaapaayp -- pronounced eh-wee-aw-pipe and also known as Cuyapaipe -- band of Diegueño Indians, whose reservation lies in the mountains on the east side of Mount Laguna. "It would cost us $90,000 to have lines run to us."
What has local Indians looking toward the Internet, despite that sort of obstacle, is a three-year, $5 million grant from Hewlett-Packard to the Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association, composed of the chairmen of San Diego County's tribes. Ross Frank, a professor of ethnic studies at UCSD and writer of the grant, explains. "Hewlett-Packard has retooled their philanthropy offerings to get at the places in the world that are underserved by technology. They decided to do three huge 'Digital Village' grants at home instead of the multitude of small grants they have been making."
Hewlett-Packard gave the first of these grants to East Palo Alto, a low-income urban area close to their Silicon Valley headquarters. They spread the word via e-mail that they were looking for two more grant recipients. "My wife used to work at HP, and she forwarded me the e-mail," Frank recalls. "I said, 'Let's try Dennis Turner,' who was the executive director of the Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association. We contacted Dennis and he asked Jack Ward, who is the interim director now, 'Do you know about this grant? Because UCSD is interested in working with us on it.' It was funny because Jack had just purchased a big printer from Hewlett-Packard, and the salesperson that he was dealing with had mentioned that there was this call for proposals for a vision for the Digital Village. So Jack told Dennis, 'Yeah, I just heard about it.' So they heard about it both ways. Shortly after that, we convened a meeting at which there were representatives of different agencies, different tribal communities, everyone we could think of who might be interested. We sat down that afternoon and hammered out the vision."
Hewlett-Packard received over 800 responses to their call for ideas. Around 200 groups submitted formal grant proposals. "From there," Frank explains, "they winnowed it down to about 100, then down to 23. They did phone interviews with those 23, then they did onsite interviews for the final 6. Out of those, they picked 2."
One was a neighborhood in East Baltimore. The other was the Tribal Digital Village proposal of the Tribal Chairmen's Association. "The other five finalists," Frank says, "were all urban projects. This was the only rural project in the final six. What they thought was interesting -- which is, of course, what we had hoped but had never guessed that we'd get this far -- is this idea that the community wasn't just one block or one square mile but it was this distributed historical community that still had connections that could be remade and controlled by Indians themselves by virtue of the technology. That was the kicker."
A second factor that made the Indians' proposal attractive to Hewlett-Packard was the fact that a smaller-scale pilot program already existed on reservations in North County's Pala and Pauma Valleys. The UCSD supercomputer center had set up a wireless Internet system on the Pala, Rincon, and La Jolla reservations along the State Route 76 corridor. The systems, which use radio waves to transfer data, provide high-speed Internet access to these tribes without having to use phone or cable lines. Wire-mesh antennae, a little bigger than a DirecTV dish, mounted on ten-foot towers on hilltops within the reservation, relay the signals. Already, these three tribes are using the system to their benefit. Tutors from UCSD broadcast via webcam math lessons to these three reservations. "It wasn't a project we did," says Jack Ward, "but it was one that was done for us [by UCSD], and we used that in our project proposal to Hewlett-Packard."
Since Valentine's Day of 2001 -- day one of the three-year grant -- Frank and the Tribal Chairmen's Association have been meeting and remeeting with the various tribal councils around the county, explaining what the grant could bring. They've broken it down into four areas: education, community, economics, and culture. It's clear to anyone who communicates by e-mail how connection to the Internet will help foster community among the tribes. And the Internet offers a world of educational resources. And when video conferencing and webcasting are available as well, both the educational and community-building possibilities multiply. "For instance," Lorraine Orosco, representative to the project from the San Pasqual reservation, explains, "tonight myself and a group of people are traveling from Valley Center down to Sycuan to go to a traditional Kumeyaay language class for which a person travels two hours on a bus to get to Tecate and then travels to Sycuan to instruct the class. Having this technology, we might not need to do that. We might be able to have teleconferencing or multicasting or video classes through the network."
Regarding the economic benefits of the Tribal Digital Village program, Frank points to all of the training that will occur as part of the project. "Every part of this project has to be built with an idea toward self-sustainability afterwards," he says. "Someone has to maintain this stuff, someone has to repair computers, someone has to understand the way the network management works. These are professional skills that are needed for this thing to be grown and run and sustainable by the tribes. And there are all sorts of opportunities for economic development in those skills. For example, if a tribe wants to record tribal materials for their own educational programs or for their own archives, they will have the professional capacity and the equipment to do it. That's great; that's a cultural program. But those same people who get trained to do that may also sell their services to local bands to cut CDs. Once you have that professional capability, there are so many other things that you can do with it."
What effect the program will have on culture has been the chief concern of the tribes so far. "The issue that comes up," says Orosco, "is, 'Who is going to then have access to our cultural information?' " Ross Frank says this concern is voiced at every tribal meeting he attends. And it's not the older generation who is raising it. "It's the younger people," Frank says, "who are learning about their own culture and feeling that their parents had been dissuaded from passing it on in a way that they regret."
But there are ways, say Frank and Orosco, to digitize and therefore preserve many aspects of Indian culture without making it open to all eyes. "You can have digital archives," Frank says, "that tribes control and run that aren't necessarily out on the Web."
The Hewlett-Packard grant -- three quarters of which is in equipment and consulting -- ends Valentine's Day of 2004, at which point, Ross says, "The skills and the knowledge to use it are left locally in a way that's transmittable to the next group, the next kids, the next young people." Asked if the system will then sustain itself or fall into disuse and disrepair, similar to government-built reservation housing, Frank answers, "You've asked the $5 million question."