Washington
CNN
 — 

Tucked beside the St. Lawrence River in northern New York and straddling the US-Canadian border, the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation has nurtured generations of indigenous artisans.

Kelly Back, a member of the Akwesasne Mohawk, handcrafts traditional beaded belts, hat bands, purses and sashes that many of the roughly 13,000 members of the tribe wear at weddings, graduations and other ceremonies.

When she first started in 2014, Back’s artwork mainly circulated within her own tribe. But after she got on social media, her small business exploded.

“My business wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for social media, because I don’t just get followers within our communities,” Back told CNN. “I get followers and customers in other communities across the world.”

Back extends her global reach through Instagram videos that walk through her production process, showing how she sketches out custom designs on paper before carefully threading beads together using her loom.

Back estimates she makes five figures a year from her artwork. So when the US government offered to help with the cost of her internet service with credits of up to $75 a month, she was grateful.

“That’s a couple meals right there,” she said. “Any bit of money helps, especially for indigenous communities, because a lot of our people are artisans and they depend on their cultural artwork to get by.”

Courtesy Kelly Back

Kelly Back is a member of the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation. She handcrafts the kind of traditional beaded belts, hat bands, purses and sashes that many of the roughly 13,000 members of the tribe wear at weddings, graduations and other ceremonies.

Now, though, that help is ending, threatening the livelihoods of indigenous creators like Back. Within weeks, the two-year-old US Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is set to run out of funds, and Congress appears unlikely to authorize more. The expected collapse this month of what US officials describe as the largest internet affordability program in history will plunge more than 23 million low-income US households into sudden financial distress.

None may be harder hit than the program’s indigenous users, who are eligible for the largest benefits and who live in some of the most remote parts of the country. Native American communities stand to be particularly affected by the ACP’s demise, because many tribal reservations are in areas where building infrastructure is extraordinarily costly and population density is even less than in many parts of rural America. Poverty often compounds the issue, putting internet plans out of reach for many tribal households.

The end of the ACP will affect nearly 1 in 5 US households, or an estimated 60 million people. Many Americans could see a spike in their internet bills or could have to give up their plans altogether if they can’t afford to pay. The FCC has already started to wind down the program and announced last month that recipients would get only partial benefits in May before the ACP is shut down for good.

Some US lawmakers have proposed bipartisan legislation to renew the program, but an apparent stumbling block is House Speaker Mike Johnson, who has shown no indication he would be willing to hold a vote to approve more funding. On Wednesday, Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. John Fetterman became the latest to introduce an ACP funding bill.

Fetterman’s previously unreported legislation, the Promoting Affordable Connectivity Act, would allow the Federal Communications Commission to borrow up to $25 billion from the US Treasury to extend the program temporarily. It also seeks to resolve future funding uncertainty by removing the ACP from congressional budget battles entirely — proposing to place it under an existing FCC fund that subsidizes internet for schools and libraries and other low-income households.

Even as many older and rural Americans may be thrust into financial hardship due to the ACP’s collapse, indigenous communities could fare even worse.

“In most of these 500-plus tribes in this country, infrastructure is still 50 years behind,” said Jonathan Nez, the former president of the Navajo Nation, in an interview. “I’ve said this many times: 30% to 40% of our Navajo people don’t have running water or electricity.”

That difficult reality is reflected in how the ACP distributes benefits: Low-income US households are eligible for up to $30 a month in credits on their internet bills. ACP recipients on tribal lands, however, may receive as much as 2.5 times more, up to $75 a month.

That makes the loss of the subsidy that much more painful for tribal households, said Loren King, a sales executive at MBO, an Oklahoma-based telecommunications provider. While millions of Americans may soon see their internet bills go up by about $360 a year, that figure may be closer to $900 a year for some indigenous families, he told CNN.

Roughly 329,500 tribal households are currently enrolled in the ACP, said FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, one of the program’s vocal proponents, in an interview.

About 90% of those households are concentrated in five US states, in descending order: Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, Alaska and South Dakota.

“Those are the states where we have worked really hard to make great progress in getting these tribal enrollments,” Starks said, “and I absolutely want us to continue that momentum. And that means keeping this program going.”

A lifeline for preserving community and culture

Like many Americans who benefit from the ACP, tribal users of the program depend on internet access to pursue education, work remote jobs and run small businesses. But the economic opportunities provided by the internet also mean much more.

Because tribal members can now work remotely, they are no longer forced to move away from their communities to seek opportunity, they told CNN. Instead, they can live closer to their tribal elders and participate in their people’s culture.

“One of the most incredible things [about having internet access] has been an increase in our ability to build programs and to engage community members in language and cultural preservation,” said Allyson Mitchell, general manager of Mohawk Networks, an internet service provider (ISP) owned and operated by the Akwesasne Mohawk tribe.

For example, Mitchell said, after decades of decline in Mohawk fluency, a growing number of tribal members are now involved in online language immersion.

“We have adult learners who maybe understood the language as a child because their grandparents spoke to them in Mohawk, and now they are going back to these immersion programs” to learn to speak the language themselves, Mitchell added. “When you have multi-generational homes, or elders who are living alone, the ability to communicate and remain connected [is critical]…. Cultural and language preservation programs have expanded because of our ability to have access to high-speed internet.”

The pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic were hard on indigenous communities, said Nez, who stepped down as Navajo President in 2023 and is now running for a US House seat in Arizona. But if there was a silver lining for Navajo members, he added, it’s that “there was a renaissance, really, during that time of Covid.”

The ACP and its pandemic-era predecessor, the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, helped Navajo members stay connected even while under lockdown, which led to renewed engagement with Navajo culture.

“There was a renaissance in our teaching, our learning, our culture, our tradition, our language,” Nez said. “The Affordable Connectivity Program helped our elders, and now some of them are comfortable with using electronic devices, and they’re even using it for telehealth where they don’t have to travel.”

According to Navajo government documents, as many as 40,000 Navajo members were signed up to the ACP as of 2023.

The ACP’s impending demise has Derrick VanSoolen’s phone ringing off the hook.

VanSoolen’s job until recently was to help members of the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma get signed up to the federal program. Lately, though, an explosion of calls from anxious Choctaw has overwhelmed VanSoolen’s telephone hotline.

“A lot of people are concerned because they’re going to lose their internet,” said VanSoolen. “I get a lot of elderly that are calling, because they’re on a fixed income and [the ACP] is the only way they can communicate with their kids anymore that have moved away. I work with a lot of single parents whose kids are reliant on the internet in order to do their schooling.”

This internet connection “is everything to them,” VanSoolen added, “and they’re really concerned that if this goes away, they’re going to lose that and it’s going to be detrimental to them.”

Some tribal governments have explored the feasibility of recreating the ACP for themselves. But it would be enormously expensive. For the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, a federally recognized tribe in Minnesota, officials estimate that building their own version of the ACP would cost $100,000 a year, or about 60% of the tribe’s entire current telecommunications budget.

“This sector of the reservation that I work on is 65 miles from any city that has a population of 5,000 or more,” said Randy Long, information technology director for the Bois Forte tribal government.

Even if tribes had the resources to step in where the US government is pulling back, it doesn’t address the feeling of betrayal that the end of the program will engender among many indigenous communities, multiple people told CNN.

“Even if [the ACP] hopefully is restored, even then, are we going to see 100% of the people that were on board before come back?” said Gary Johnson, general manager of Paul Bunyan Communications, a Minnesota-based telecom cooperative that serves tribal residents. “I worry there’s going to be a loss of trust there, particularly maybe within tribal communities, that we may not get them back.”

Seth Wenig/AP/File

Cars travel along the main road and over the St. Regis River, left, through the reservation Mohawks call Akwesasne, Tuesday, March 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Instead, some say, the collapse of the ACP will become another stain on the US government’s centuries-long track record of breaking promises to tribal communities.

Back told CNN that as she watches the US government shut down a program that’s helped sustain her small business, she may now doubt any future effort to revive the ACP.

“Even if this program, the money comes back, I’ll always be hesitant to wonder if it’s going to be taken away from us again, you know, because that trust is gone,” Back added. “So I really hope that they think about this again. Give it another chance and really just keep to their word, to support us, to help us out. Because we’re people, too.”


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