National Indian Telecommunications Initiative

By James Decker

Today, "opening up to other cultures" is an unambiguous reference to economic expansion. After all, prosperity is understood to be the reward and the result of democracy, the destiny of the free. When seeking inspiration for the consitution of a new nation, Benjamin Franklin "opened up" to principles and possibilities that were not so incontrovertibly convertible. Franklin turned to the democratic principles first established in the founding constitution of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy.  Here, leaders were servants of the people, prosperity was a notion inseparable from peace, and to promote peace was thought to be the purpose of human life. The concept was clear, but as words always do… peace and freedom shifted in meaning.  Treaties are now about free-trade, legal instruments of corporations, not individuals or their leaders. Richard Stallman has noted that free-trade treaties "ignore the effect on the distribution of wealth within the country and whether the treaty is going to make that more uneven."  In fact, the evenness that is preserved serves primarily to streamline the control of property, labor, and just about anything except peace.

Corporations fill their days trying just to contain the entropy of their legal properties. As "stockholders" are instructed daily in their social darwinist beliefs, where will the nonfinancial stakeholders gather to make their own means?  If we open up to how marginalized communities are getting along today, we might discover notions that take root a decentralized future. For Native Americans, intellectual capital and ownership rights have never had the support of legal teams or financial muscle.  Asserting "intellectual copyright" has been a matter of challenging mis-information and defeating stereotypes that dilute their histories and stifle cultural growth. We might draw from such non-combative, broader sensibilities regarding property a remembrance of culture apart from copyright.  Such remembrances may not draw the attention of political leaders despite an uncertain future where the shifting words will be "nation" and "state". 

I recently introduced myself to Karen Radney Buller at MIT's Race in Digital Space conferece. Buller is Comanche and the founder and President of the National Indian Telecommunications Institute (NITI).  She has twice given testimony to Congress on the importance of basic infrastructure to tribal communities.  She explains that subsidies for e-rate (Internet access for schools) never included Indian reservations. That 78% of homes on the Navajo reservation are still without dial tone since landlines cost upwards of $3000 per phone pole. But on the peer-to-peer private discussions amongst friends, the talk may be less about Congress and more about wireless and satellite technologies. NITI now actively supports technical and cultural development of tribes nationwide. Satellite broadband promises radically accelerate that effort.  Today, NITI trains teachers providing extensive curriculum models, lesson plans, and resources for teachers and students. These are important efforts to combat misinformation and preserve cultural heritage in the emerging, non-corporate, global culture.  NITI's sensibilities are distinctive for not being founded on financial gain, but that does not mean that individuals who benefit from NITI's efforts are insensible to business opportunities. Tribal lands, after all, are sovereign.  Access to information, education and the potential of providing e-commerce, skilled technical labor, and even tax shelters will bring money to NITI members.  All of this "opens up" to a possible future where prosperity could again take its place beside peace.