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The Impact of Covid-19 on Native American Students’ Access to Technology

By William Dunn

Native American communities across the country have experienced numerous hardships over the course of the pandemic, ranging from limited access to medical care and other basic needs to extreme isolation for the most vulnerable members. The impact on student education will be felt for years in the future no matter where students sheltered in place, and it will be especially recognizable in rural areas where geographic and social isolation have always created barriers for students. Lack of access to technology limits one’s ability to complete assignments and limits access to other resources such as classroom instruction and tutoring services. Amid the shelter-in-place orders, students have faced many barriers like this that are crucially tied to academic performance. Recognizing the historical and social factors that have exacerbated the impact that Covid-19 has had on Native American students is essential to understanding why there have been such disproportionate effects compared to the rest of the country.

            With New Mexico already facing some of the lowest rates of broadband access in the country, Native American families encountered particular struggles to adapt to stay-at-home guidelines. Lack of access to broadband and Wi-Fi services was a primary concern. In 2018, the

Federal Communications Commission estimated that roughly 35% of individuals living on tribal lands in the United States lacked access to broadband services compared to only 8% of Americans in the rest of the country.[1]  Reasons for this may include costs of Wi-Fi services, limitations on digging within historical areas on reservations, and the physical structure of adobe homes in rural communities.[2] According to the New Mexico Public Education Department, “as of April 10, 2020, approximately 23,398 Native American students were in need of broadband capabilities and devices.”[3] Many students thus had to find other ways of submitting assignments and attending classes.

            To stay on top of assignments, students have reported writing and submitting papers on their cellphones or doing assignments by hand and submitting photos.[4] There are also reports of parents driving their children to libraries, restaurants, and other, sometimes very remote, locations to have access to high-speed Internet.[5] Most students were initially able to engage in distanced learning through cell phone video services, however, limited data and call minutes removed that as a permanent solution.[6] Some students are reported to have taught themselves lesson material where they had no other resources to learn.[7] The severity of the situation is elevated by the limitations on access to basic needs such as clean water, food, and adequate medical attention.[8] Native communities were impacted at much higher rates than other demographics in the country and it is important to understand some of the systemic factors that caused the pandemic to exacerbate problems in Indian Country to such a great extent.

            The disproportionate impact that Covid-19 had on Native communities, compared to that of other demographics, laid bare the “historically embedded structural vulnerabilities” that have impacted student access to technology in Indian Country. Tribal land status and infrastructure limitations are two major factors that lie at the heart of the issue. According to a 2020 study by the University of British Columbia, “[t]ribal land status is also related to the lack of Internet access as Tribes have unique geopolitical and geophysical terrain influenced by colonization, cultural practices, sovereignty and Tribal governance.”[9] Access to Internet services is highly dependent on Tribal sovereignty and is limited by “external obstacles such as federal policies, statutory and regulatory requirements, and historically overlooked and underfunded Internet infrastructure.”[10] The study explored five “historically-identified vulnerability” variables, which have contributed to the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 among Native Americans. The five variables include “percent of housing units without telephone, percent of housing units without Internet, percent of housing units without complete plumbing, Tribal land status, and presence of abandoned uranium mines.”[11] The barriers to student education throughout the pandemic must be understood by recognizing the impact of historical racism that has created the structural vulnerabilities that Native American students have had to contend with in socially distanced learning.

             Native American students living in rural parts of the country have had to endure some of the greatest challenges to receive an education compared to students in the rest of the country. Broadband access and infrastructure continue to create barriers to student access to technology and education as well as other vital health services in tribal land. As a result, students have been forced to adapt in all sorts of ways to stay on top of schoolwork and attend remote classes. If there is any hope of creating the systemic change necessary to make educational resources more available for Native American students, it is essential to understand the factors that have created these barriers to access including the destructive impacts of federal policy and Western cultural practices.


[1] Gabriel R. Sanchez et al., Internet Access and the Impact on Tribal Communities in New Mexico, UNM Nᴀᴛɪᴠᴇ Aᴍ. Bᴜᴅɢᴇᴛ & Pᴏʟ’ʏ Iɴsᴛ. 3 https://www.iad.state.nm.us/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/nabpi-iad-broadband-report-final.pdf (last visited April 13, 2022).

[2] Id. at 4.

[3] N.M. Pᴜʙʟɪᴄ Eᴅᴜᴄ. Dᴇᴘᴛ., Iɴᴛᴇʀɴᴇᴛ Cᴏɴɴᴇᴄᴛɪᴠɪᴛʏ Cᴏɴᴄᴇʀɴs ᴏɴ Tʀɪʙᴀʟ Lᴀɴᴅs: Gᴜɪᴅᴀɴᴄᴇ Dᴏᴄᴜᴍᴇɴᴛ (2020).

[4] Anja Rudiger, Pathways to Education Sovereignty: Taking a Stand for Native Children, Tʀɪʙᴀʟ Eᴅᴜᴄ. Aʟʟ. 27 (Dec. 2020), https://nabpi.unm.edu/assets/documents/tea-full-report_12-14-20.pdf.

[5] Sanchez, supra note 1, at 4.

[6] Candi Running Bear et al., Challenges for Rural Native American Students With Disabilities During COVID-19, 40 Rᴜʀᴀʟ Sᴘᴇᴄɪᴀʟ Eᴅᴜᴄ. Q. 60, 64 (2021).

[7] Rudiger, supra note 4.

[8] Running Bear, supra note 6, at 61.

[9] Aggie J. Yellow Horse et al., COVID-19 in New Mexico Tribal Lands: Understanding the Role of Social Vulnerabilities and Historical Racisms, Fʀᴏɴᴛɪᴇʀs ɪɴ Sᴏᴄɪᴏʟᴏɢʏ 3 (2020).

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at 5.

By Tribal Law Journal Blog

The Tribal Law Journal was established in fall 1998 for the purpose of promoting indigenous self-determination by facilitating discussion of the internal law of the world’s indigenous nations. The internal law of indigenous nations encompasses traditional law, western law adopted by indigenous nations, and a blend of western and indigenous law. Underscoring this purpose is the recognition that traditional law is a source of law.

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