For our “Leading the Field” Q&A series, we’re speaking with leaders in the civic/gov tech space who are driving important change to make government work by the people, for the people, in the digital age. For Native American Heritage Month, we’re lifting up the voices of Indigenous leaders who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect. This week, we spoke with H. Rose Trostle (they/them), a Senior Policy Analyst for the Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. At Code for America, we welcome a broad diversity of viewpoints—and we strive to let people speak in their own words about their own unique experiences. With that in mind, the following has received only minor edits for length and clarity, and the views expressed here reflect those of the author.
What’s the story of your community and how did that lead you to where you are now?
I have two communities: my hometown in North-Central Minnesota and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.
My hometown is about 500 people and very rural. There are no stoplights, and I grew up on a dirt road—not gravel, dirt. I’m one of nine children, and my family was low income. My parents had sent my three older sisters to public school but decided to homeschool us younger six children, in part because new internet access brought so many more educational opportunities than the rural school offered at the time. While in high school, I took online classes in Latin, writing, and history, and then online classes in communication and English through the community college that was an hour away. Despite being in Minnesota, I found connection to the Cherokee Nation through online language learning and cultural revitalization groups. Since then, I have been to the Cherokee Nation several times—most recently to get married. But growing up, I depended on the internet for a lot of my access to education and to the wider Cherokee community.
Because of my upbringing, I am committed to expanding internet access, especially in rural areas and on Tribal lands. Everyone should have the opportunities I had growing up with the internet—and the fact is, there are even more opportunities now! I have been working in this public policy space for more than seven years. During that time, I have watched my hometown move from slow, unreliable DSL connections to a top-of-the-line fiber network through a local telephone cooperative. Cherokee Nation has been working to improve internet connectivity within Oklahoma, and there are now so many more Cherokee groups on social media discussing language learning and cultural revitalization.
What are some barriers Tribal communities face with internet connectivity?
Expanding internet access is a complex problem, and there are no simple solutions that will solve the problem once and for all. Several government entities have identified key barriers over the years. One of the largest issues has been inaccurate broadband mapping of Tribal lands—and it’s hard to solve a problem when you don’t know where it is. The broadband maps are supposed to show which areas in our communities have broadband access, but because of data quality issues they often mark entire swaths of reservations as having broadband when they don’t. There’s an ongoing attempt with the latest broadband data collection program to improve the quality of the data.
Other commonly identified barriers have to do with government grants and loan programs. Complex applications make it harder for Native Nations without a lot of staff capacity to compete for funding. Matching funds from Tribes are sometimes required by the grant and loan programs. This can put a major strain on Tribal budgets. Recently, the federal government has started changing its grant and loan programs to try to streamline applications. One of the most exciting changes was in a US Department of Agriculture program which no longer requires matching funds from Native Nations.
(There are many more barriers to Tribal broadband, and they are all interconnected. If you want to learn more, check out these government reports: FCC Native Nations Task Force 2019, Department of Interior National Tribal Broadband Strategy 2020, and the Government Accountability Office Tribal Broadband Report 2022.)
Expanding internet access is a complex problem, and there are no simple solutions that will solve the problem once and for all.
How have Native Nations worked to address the problem so far? What more needs to be done?
Native Nations have been working on this issue for a long time. Through the National Congress of American Indians, they pushed for a Tribal Priority window for spectrum allocation. Lack of access to spectrum, which enables wireless communication, has long been a barrier to building wireless networks on reservations. A Tribal priority window gives Native Nations the opportunity to claim spectrum before it is auctioned off to private companies. In 2020, the federal government responded and allowed Native Nations to apply for a limited amount of spectrum over their own lands for free.
Rather than waiting on providers, some Native Nations have been building their own networks themselves. Some have built wireless networks, while others have invested in physical lines, such as fiber-optics. For instance, the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona created their own telephone service in 1988, and in recent years, the Gila River Telecommunications has been investing in a Fiber-to-the-Home network, running next-generation infrastructure straight to people’s homes on the reservation.
How do you employ empathy in spreading awareness around a subject like broadband access?
A lot of the time when the media talks about the lack of broadband access, they generate sympathy rather than empathy. They tell stories about people having to drive far away to a McDonald’s to access the internet to do their homework. While these stories are powerful, I feel like they end up making people feel pity rather than empathy. Pity is not necessarily helpful.
When I speak about my work, I try to highlight stories that are relatable to a broad audience with a broadband connection now. We have all been somewhere with a lack of cell service. Many of us remember the days of dial-up and unreliable connections. Connecting those experiences to what is currently available on many Tribal lands is helpful for generating empathy, generating understanding. Too often I have heard people equate internet access with access to Netflix. It is important to remind people that they use the internet for far more than watching TV: they use it to check their bank accounts, to read the news, to FaceTime loved ones, to do homework, etc. I try to focus on how the internet permeates our daily lives and how much harder it is when people do not have reliable, high-speed internet access.
What does it mean to bring your full self to work in the field of tech and government?
This is a good question. I think it is important to reflect on your identities and how intersectional they all are. For me: I am a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. I was a first-generation college student. I have disabilities. I am Two-Spirit. To bring my full self to work, I focus on building authentic relationships, and that means I cannot hide or downplay any part of myself.
My values drive my work. ᎦᏚᎩ (Gadugi) is a Cherokee value that I try to live by. It basically means “working together within community,” and I see community support as key to bringing my full self to work. I would not be able to do the work that I do if I didn’t have community building me up. And I always try to align my work with community. Right now, I am working for the Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, and its mission is to strengthen Tribal economies. When I analyze policy, I draw on my experiences, my values, and my communities to make sure that I am on the right track.