Hundreds of Native Americans gather in St. Paul for telecommunications conference

Tuesday, September 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- American Indians are some of the last people in the United States to get telephones, with about half of families on reservations still without service.

"It's not really a priority," said Donna Sweezy Rush, a member of the Cheyenne-Arapahoe tribe in Oklahoma. "We've just kind of accepted it."

As many as 75 percent of the people in the rural areas of her tribe don't have phones, putting their meager resources instead toward food, clothing and shelter.

But that may change within the next few years if Rush and about 600 tribal members from across the country can persuade tribal leaders to make telecommunications a priority.

The group -- about twice the expected turnout -- gathered in St.

Paul on Monday for a convention to learn how they can help bring the "luxury" of telephone service to their people.

John Winston, assistant bureau chief at the Federal Communications Commission, said the aim of the four-day gathering -- the first of its kind -- is to bring officials from as many of the country's 550-plus tribes together as possible to discuss solutions.

"These are America's first communicators. ... Through the annals of time, much of the technology expansion has missed Native Americans," Winston said.

Tribe members will determine where the gaps are, then learn who to go to for help at the local, state and federal government levels to get service. They also will get a crash course on how to use open competition at banks and other private companies to their advantage, Winston said.

In June, the FCC boosted by $30 million a federal subsidy program to help underwrite the costs of phone service for poor people on tribal lands.

The move is intended to close the disparity in phone service on reservations and the rest of America. As a result of the increases, eligible low-income consumers on tribal lands should be able to get basic local phone service for under $10 month, with most receiving it for about $1.

The FCC also has streamlined the process by which companies can be designated as eligible for federal subsidies to encourage wireless carriers and tribal telecommunications companies to participate.

That means Indians in some especially remote areas may bypass expensive land lines altogether, opting instead to go straight from no phone service to wireless.

Earlier this month, for instance, an Indian tribe living in the Grand Canyon reached only by a lengthy hike or helicopter moved into the world of satellites and the Internet.

Donkeys and helicopters carried six satellite dishes and computers down to the Havasupai. Eventually, the tribal capital of Supai will be linked to the World Wide Web.

"No terrain, nothing stops it anymore," said Laurence Gishey, director of the Institute for Native Americans at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.