Fond du Lac takes steps to close the ‘digital divide’
Step into any gathering place on the Fond du Lac Reservation — the Sawyer Community Center, the powwow grounds, the Mashkawisen clinic, the Tribal Center — and you will be able to access high-speed wireless, absolutely free.
The name of the free wireless is Maada Ookii, which means “to share something.”
Two years after becoming a Blandin Broadband Community, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has completed four different broadband initiatives and vastly increased Internet connectivity on the reservation.
- The Band created a total of 13 hotspots with free wifi access across the reservation (covering a total of about 10 square miles) which also extend to about 40 nearby homes. Download speeds exceed the state’s broadband goals.
- In a program coordinated through the Cloquet Public Library and PCs for People, they distributed 49 refurbished computers to income-qualified families, who also completed training for the computers.
- Band and other community members can take free Internet and computer training classes or work one-on-one with a computer training specialist. Classes range from Internet safety to basic computer skills or more advanced classes in Excel and Word programs, as well as buying and selling online and blogging, or storytelling.
- Ten young people on the reservation spent two weeks at App Camp, learning how and creating their own apps, which were all related to the Ojibwe culture.
“We understand communities need to be connected to thrive in the new knowledge economy,” said Blandin’s Bernadine Joselyn, explaining the foundation’s mission is to strengthen rural Minnesota communities.
Fred Underwood, IT director for the Band, explained how things have changed over the past 16 years since he started working at Fond du Lac.
When he started, there was no Internet. Then the Band installed a business network for all the Band-owned businesses, the school and the Tribal Center, but there was still nothing for regular community members.
“Internet connectivity in rural Minnesota is just abysmal. Depending where you live on the reservation, you may have Internet access. On the edge of Cloquet there is cable, then some DSL access. But a lot of places have no affordable options,” Underwood said, noting that satellite Internet costs upwards of $200 a month.
“With this project, we put in wifi access on the top of buildings and they’re reaching speeds of 30mb for downloads and 10mb for uploads,” he added. They’re more like ‘super hotspots.’ And they’re completely free and accessible to anyone to use however they want to use it. Because no one tells you how to use your electricity, do they?
“In my personal view, we live in an era where the Internet is a utility; it’s not a luxury.”
The people at the Blandin Foundation agree. Fond du Lac was one of nine communities chosen for the non-profit’s most recent round of broadband grants, and the Band received a $75,000 grant to help implement the goals that a local committee selected.
Consultant Bill Coleman worked with five of the communities selected by Blandin. He said Fond du Lac chose a nice combination approach of improving access to the Internet and training activities.
“I think the emphasis on youth and skills is really good, very future- oriented,” he said, referring to the App Camp. “Plus, when kids learn something, they bring it home and share those skills with other family members. They realize what’s possible and parents see how important it is.”
Fond du Lac Planning Director Jason Hollinday agreed.
“I think [the broadband projects] will make a big difference,” he said. “They’ve already raised awareness of what the Internet is and what it can be used for. It opens up opportunities for education, entertainment, work and more.”
Underwood compared having good Internet access in today’s world to having access to encyclopedias when he was growing up.
On Thursday, the 10 students who were selected to participate in the App Camp (based on essays and a recommendation from an adult) talked about App Camp.
“We started with no knowledge of how to build an app and the students had to design their own apps, first by learning how to build it, the software, then testing it,” said Charles Hilliard, technology and eLearning coordinator for FDL Ojibwe School. “They also learned how to give constructive feedback to each other.”
Camp mentor Brian Robinson, 17, said it was an interesting camp, with lots of challenges.
He points to freshman Joe Bauer, sitting next to him, who made an app of powwow information, crafting his own entry for powwow etiquette and then linking to other categories on his app including photos, songs, basic powwow information and dances, for which he linked to classmate Keith Defoe’s app.
“I can see Joe going on and actually making a really great app,” Robinson said. “I can see a lot of these kids doing that.”
The group of students sat at a horseshoe-shaped collection of tables with their iPads Thursday, explaining their apps to anyone who asked.
James Friedman, 13, called his app “noodewiziwiim,” which translates from Ojibwe into English as “my relatives, or family.” There are two sections: one for “your family” in which the words all start with “gi” and one for “my family,” in which the words all start with “ni.” Each word to describe a relative is defined and pronounced in Ojibwe.
“It links to a site that tells you how to say things like ‘younger sibling’ in Ojibwe,” said Friedman, an avid student of the Ojibwe language who said he’d really like to make an app that shows users how to say almost every word in Ojibwe. “I chose this app because I thought of the Ojibwe language disappearing and I wanted to make an app that helps people learn about it and maybe helps restore it.”
Next to Friedman was 12-year-old Justin Belanger, who designed an app to teach people about Native American tragedies, and included links to websites with information about the Dakota War, Sandy Lake and the Leech Lake tragedies.
“I enjoyed coming [to App Camp] and being able to make an app that I could show everyone, like my mom and dad” he said. “I’m proud that I did it and that anyone can download it.”
He reveals that he chose that topic because he learned about the Dakota Wars in sixth grade social studies and smiles at Sam Ammesmaki, who will be in the sixth grade next year.
“You can learn about it from my app before Ms. Garsow teaches you,” he said to Ammesmaki.
For their efforts, each of the students got an iPad of their own.
“Kids need tools, they need to be able to take [the iPad] home and share it,” Underwood said.
In an ideal world, Underwood said, every home would have free or very cheap “universal access” to the Internet.
“In my view, the ‘haves’ had encyclopedia sets in their homes, while the ‘have-nots’ had to wait in line at the library to do any research,” Underwood said. “Today’s high-speed Internet can be used for anything: school, work, shopping, communication. Really, this is about doing away with the digital divide.”