Dec 31 2009

IT Across the Navajo Nation

A unique networking approach tackles cultural and technology hurdles in an effort to create a new economic base for the Navajo people.

Photo: Chris Corrie
“We look for different ways of funding this on a daily basis,” Navajo Nation IT Director Harold Skow says.

Navajo librarian Jeannie Whitehorse remembers when the elders in her community first saw how information technology could change their lives. In 2000, the Navajo Nation bought computers for their community centers with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Her job was to teach the elders in New Mexico how to use these new machines.

It was a tough sell.

There are no Navajo words for computer or keyboard or Internet, so she struggled to explain basic concepts. Many spoke no English and lived in remote areas without telephones, electricity or running water. They didn’t see the point of learning this new technology. Others were fearful of the negative influence computers and the Internet might have on their grandchildren.

It wasn’t until Whitehorse taught a group of women how to design their rugs — an art form for which Navajo are renowned — using an online paint program that things finally clicked.

“I had these five grandmas all sitting around the notebook, and they didn’t want to go,” recalls Whitehorse, who travels from Crownpoint, N.M., to some 50 chapter houses around the state to train users. “The bus driver came to pick them up, and he was honking and honking. But the grandmas said, ‘No, we want to finish our rug.’ The bus driver gave up and came in and sat down and watched.”

They were hooked, and those grandmas spread the word. Classes went from three or four students to nearly 18 at each center, or chapter house.

Whitehorse understood that technology without cultural relevance was meaningless to the Navajo elders. Today, she logs hundreds of miles each week traveling to and from chapter houses to teach computer skills and prepare residents for the next technology wave — and this one is a tsunami.

Over the Bridge

The Navajo Nation is building the largest and most complex wireless mesh network in Indian Country, and possibly the entire country. The idea behind this project, dubbed Internet to the Hogan (the traditional Navajo dwelling), is not just to bridge the digital divide but catapult the Navajo over the bridge and into the forefront of radio, wireless and supercomputer technology.

The Navajo see limitless opportunities for economic development, telemedicine, distance learning, research, emergency services, language and cultural preservation — all possible through a network designed, owned and operated by their own people.

“We are moving the Navajo Nation from the caboose of the technology train and putting them in the engine,” says Tom Davis, dean of instruction at Navajo Technical College, which is a key partner in the initiative. “We want to change the economic dynamic for the nation, so like Ireland or India, the economy turns around and tackles the poverty that’s been endemic on their reservation.”

The statistics tell the story: 44 percent unemployment, 56 percent of its 250,000 residents living below the poverty line, per capita income of $6,217, according to the Navajo Nation Economic Development Division. Many Navajo residences still lack telephones, water and electricity; and most reservation roads are unpaved. Although the telephone penetration rate in the United States hovers at 95 percent, on the reservation it’s about 37 percent, according to the 2000 Census.

Roughly the size of West Virginia, Navajo land encompasses 16 million acres in northeastern Arizona and parts of Utah and New Mexico. Its dramatic desert vistas draw thousands of tourists each year, but the reservation fails to attract the businesses and service providers needed to build its economy. And though undeniably beautiful, the remote and rugged terrain has made it difficult to develop an effective and affordable telecommunications system.

But that is changing.

A year ago, the first of the nation’s 110 chapter houses went wireless using Cisco Systems Voice over Internet Protocol telephony and video services.

The White Rock Chapter house is in a remote area 160 miles northwest of Albuquerque. Residents used to drive seven miles on dirt roads to use the nearest pay phone. When Harold Skow, the nation’s IT director, tried to obtain standard landline phone service, a local provider quoted a price of $100,000 — and that was without broadband.

Skow and his team began looking at microwave towers and came up with a more viable solution: a 75-mile microwave connection that could provide high-speed Internet, VoIP and videoconferencing.

“The real benefit wasn’t cost savings, but the ability to bring these services immediately to our children who are falling behind on a daily basis without access to the Internet,” Skow says.

The team, which included IT staff from Skow’s organization, Cisco and Motorola, outfitted the White Rock Chapter house with Cisco routers and 7940 and 7940G VoIP phones and videoconferencing equipment, which ties in with the Cisco VoIP equipment already installed in the Navajo Nation’s capitol of Window Rock, Ariz. Each chapter house has about five PCs running Microsoft Windows.

“We’re creating a huge virtual network with our chapter houses and schools and government institutions,” says Skow, who estimates the number of computers in use on the reservation at more than 10,000. “Our initial focus was on the children. Some have a one- to two-hour bus ride to and from school. Now, just like municipal buses in Albuquerque with Wi-Fi, the children will be able to connect and do their homework during that time.”

In January, a blessing ceremony for the project’s first microwave tower was held at Navajo Technical College in Crownpoint. The tower is the first step in building a major wireless pipe between Crownpoint and a data Gigapop at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, using high-bandwidth OC3 155-megabit-per-second transmissions to connect to National Lambda Rail and Internet2 services. Lambda Rail is a high-speed national computer network owned and controlled by a consortium of universities and research institutions. Completion of the tower is slated for early June.

From there, backhaul and Canopy technology from Motorola will provide broadband connectivity to New Mexico’s 31 chapter houses and eventually to the hogans. Homes within a 30-mile radius of each chapter house will have Internet access. Each chapter house will also have a LittleFe, a six-node Beowulf-style portable computational cluster that interfaces with the TeraGrid, the world’s largest supercomputer. On the reservation, this supercomputer network will be called the Dine’ Grid. Dine’ (pronounced duh-neigh) is what the Navajo call themselves.

“Students will have the same access to research tools as any student at Yale or Harvard,” Navajo Technical College’s Davis says.

Slow Roll

Over the next few years, as more towers go up, the reservation’s schools, medical clinics, hospitals, police and fire departments and other agencies will gain services. Eventually, the network will spread in Arizona and Utah until it serves all chapter houses and agencies. To support the growing network and its applications, Skow hopes to add more IT technicians to his staff of 24 in the coming months.

“Right now we are about 10 percent covered,” says Skow, whose timeline lays out 100 percent connectivity throughout the nation within the next two years, depending on funding. Last year, the nation received $1.8 million from the state and has a federal grant pending. “We look for different ways of funding this on a daily basis,” Skow says. So far, the project has received about $4.5 million in tribal, state and federal funding, he says.

In addition to the Navajo, Cisco, the University of New Mexico, the Navajo Technical College and Motorola, dozens of other entities and experts are participating in the effort, Skow says. And many of them are donating their time, such as research scientist Hans-Werner Braun, head of the High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network in San Diego. Braun has helped tribes in Southern California develop their own network, similar to the Navajo project.

“All you need is to find good people who are willing to learn and have a good time,” Braun says, referring to the San Diego’s Tribal Digital Village, which links several remote reservation communities. “The human element is more interesting than the technical side. It’s about helping people to enable themselves. All I did is give them advice on how to put things together, and that’s what’s happening with the Navajo.”

Geoffrey Blackwell, director of strategic relations for Chickasaw Nation Industries and the former senior attorney and liaison to tribal governments at the Federal Communications Commission, says it is inspiring how the Navajo are adapting IT tools and expertise “to suit their unique geopolitical, social and cultural needs.”

American Indian tribes “have always been among the most adaptive societies on the face of the Earth, and we have overcome incredible challenges,” says Blackwell, who is also chairman of the Telecommunications Subcommittee of the National Congress of American Indians. “For the Navajo Nation, you don’t just do a wireless propagation model, you also have to think very carefully about how and where you touch the Earth. You don’t just put a spade in the ground to begin erecting a tower; it must be done in the Navajo way. That’s what’s so exciting — they are doing it their own way.”

Tribal legislator Leonard Tsosie, who was a New Mexico state senator when he began lobbying for the project three years ago, says that from the start everyone from New Mexico — from Gov. Bill Richardson to corporations and community members — was enthusiastic.

“There is no paper that binds us, but we are all committed. We all want to see this work,” Tsosie says. “The partners are proud that they are contributing to bridging the Indian digital divide. We are setting up communication between two totally different worlds, and that’s exciting.”

Future Leaders

Perhaps no one is more excited than the students of Navajo Technical College who are helping to design and build the network and, in the process, are becoming experts themselves. Last year, students built an IBM blade cluster and began constructing a supercomputing grid using the LittleFe systems, which they will manufacture on campus and distribute to the chapter houses.

“We wanted to make experts of young Navajos, and we’ve done that,” Davis says. “I tell each of them that I better see them in a Ph.D. program. Some of them are already at that level.”

Photo: Chris Corrie
In Crownpoint, N.M., librarian Jeannie Whitehorse and student Jared Ribble are examples of Navajo technology evangelists, pushing out new tools with old-world respect for their nation’s culture.

Jared Ribble, a 27-year-old Navajo student who works in the campus IT Office, isn’t so sure about that, but his technical knowledge is impressive enough to surprise a local official from the Education Department.

“Once when I was giving a tour, he said, ‘Where did you graduate from? Stanford? Berkley?’ I said, ‘No. I just have an associate’s degree.’ He was shocked.”

While Ribble laughs at the memory, some reactions haven’t been so amusing.

“Sometimes people ask if I’m Navajo, and that hurts because some people don’t think a Navajo can do this — even our own people,” he says. Last year, while explaining the college’s supercomputer system to a visiting law enforcement official, the official stopped Ribble to ask where he was from.

“I was puzzled. My mom’s full-blooded Navajo and my dad’s Anglo, but I’ve lived here all my life. I said, ‘I’m from here.’ He was so surprised.”

Ribble has big plans that focus on helping his people. He is entering an online master’s program through the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the fall and eventually wants to earn his doctorate.

Tsosie remembers the first time he overheard NTC students “talking tech.”

“To me it was gibberish, but they could understand it,” he says. “I was proud that our children were learning this, that it could be sustained inter-generationally,” Tsosie says. “When we’re gone, this network is something we can pass on to the younger generations. When it comes to technology, we are not leaders, but our children are. I’m pretty proud of that.”

Internet to the Hogan will impact education in many ways, says Dr. Tommy Lewis, superintendent of the Navajo Education Department. One way is by helping the Navajo take back control of their educational system.

The Arizona, New Mexico and Utah Education departments, as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, oversee reservation schools. Parochial schools are under the purview of the Diocese of Gallup in New Mexico. Navajo legislators want to change that and aim to have a Navajo school board and superintendent of schools in place by 2017.

Lewis sees all 258 schools connected wirelessly and academically through a unified curriculum — as he says, computers, research tools and “anything else needed to run a quality, culturally appropriate education program.”

Although improving education spawned the Navajo networking project, the potential to improve health-care quality and enhance emergency response and other services have gained equal importance.

“There are unique health aspects in our Native American populations,” says Dr. Dale Alverson, director of the University of New Mexico’s Center for Telehealth. “For instance, increasing diabetes. How do we help prevent it in a way that’s culturally sensitive? Or drug abuse and alcoholism? The Navajo may have a different cultural perspective. You can improve holistic health by integrating the medicine man with conventional approaches.”

Alverson sees connecting the spiritual and the medical through the wireless network. It will allow videoconferencing with doctors and traditional healers as well as community health workers.

While all these initiatives are under way, Whitehorse will be busy preparing Navajo elders for a new way of life. “I joke with them and say, ‘Grandma, pretty soon you’ll be able to e-mail while you graze your sheep and let your family know you’re on your way, so get dinner ready.’ They just smile.”