Investing in Connection
Blackfeet Nation gains independence through telecoms
Written by Meghan Jonas, Photos by Liliana Acosta
The benefits of mountain living are obvious and plentiful: Theda New Breast has lived on the eastern side of Lower St. Mary’s Lake for 26 winters. She sees the first fissures in the frozen lake and she hypothesizes how and where it will collapse. She walks past bear dens. Moose cross her front yard.
The detriments of mountain living are slim but monumental: New Breast cannot rely on her cell service or internet access, leaving her particularly remote and vulnerable whenever the wind, winter or tourist season takes away the little signal she has, removing her from the rest of her community and the world.
As much of the United States dove headfirst into new technologies, New Breast, and the rest of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, were being left behind. And as the country settles in with high-speed broadband, with many communities already using fiber-to-home technology, the Blackfeet Nation is just now catching up, still trying to cross the inherently unequal digital divide.
New Breast remembers when they dug the first landline for her phone, itself now a technological relic. That was in 1997; 26 years ago.
The line is still there, although physically delicate. New Breast explains that the pink streamers tied to tree branches along the road to her home are there to prevent the winter plows from severing the phone line.
The internet is so unreliable, it’s practically science fiction.
“We have drinking water,” New Breast said. “But it’s also internet access. It’s just as important as water. It’s like, we need water to survive our new world. We need the internet to survive. Yeah, it’s like a utility. And it should be fair.”
In a world that has become more and more digital, it’s becoming increasingly important to have quality access to the internet. But according to a 2019 FCC report on broadband deployment in Indian Country, only 47% of homes on rural tribal lands have access to a fixed broadband service. There are 10,000 people living on the Blackfeet reservation. Of those, about 1,000 live in Browning, which leave most of the reservation’s population living in rural communities.
Phone and internet access used to be seen as a privilege. However, the pandemic has exposed virtual connection as an absolute essential. It has also exposed the inequality of access in Montana, which has far-reaching impacts on education and economic development, as well as personal wellbeing.
For instance, similarly remote communities like Big Sky and Ennis have been enjoying state-of-the-art fiber-to-home installations for years. However, the Blackfeet Nation has been using a decaying copper system. The digital divide that separates those with access from those without has long been a problem in Indian Country.
A combination of the Blackfeet Nation’s business arm, Siyeh Corporation, and federal CARES Act money, a response to the pandemic and its impact throughout the nation, has opened new opportunities to close the digital divide for the Blackfeet.
The tribe recieved $38.6 million in CARES Act funding, $7.5 million of which went to the telecoms project.
The Blackfeet Nation now hopes to be back in the driver’s seat, providing connectivity to people like New Breast, who have never had quality cell service or internet access while living on the Blackfeet reservation.
The process of getting quality technology to those living on the Blackfeet reservation is 20 years in the making, Siyeh Corporation CEO Dennis Fitzpatrick said.
The Siyeh Corporation formed in 1999 as the business arm of the tribal council with the intent of separating business development from political influence. It was profitable after taking over management of the tribe’s Bingo Hall.
In 2000, the corporation set its sights on the digital divide and started a cable TV service throughout the Blackfeet region, marking the beginning of what would become the current telecommunications project, Fitzpatrick said.
Siyeh joined forces with Turtle Island Communications, eventually managing to secure a $500,0000 grant from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community out of Minnesota, which helped as Siyeh acquired the Browning Telephone Exchange from 3 Rivers Cooperative, including its rights to provide telecoms services in the area, as required by the FCC.
The Blackfeet Nation is now in the process of providing high-speed broadband throughout the reservation. New Breast, who lives just outside of the Browning Telephone Exchange, should see her internet improve as Siyeh Communications technicians update their decaying copper system with fiber, providing over 1,000 times more bandwidth and 100 times faster speeds.
David Gibson, CEO and general manager of 3 Rivers, said that the Browning Exchange was going to be upgraded eventually, but that the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council had asked them to hold off as the Siyeh Corporation started looking at becoming the telecommunications carrier of the area. However, negotiations with newly-formed Siyeh Communications began in 2018, a decade after 3 Rivers had started upgrading other, smaller exchanges with fiber-to-home. Today, 22 of the 25 exchanges 3 Rivers operates have been fully upgraded with fiber-to-home.
Siyeh Communications has already begun the work of improving access for its community as it awaits the closing of the 3 Rivers deal in early summer.
“It was kind of to the point where we were asking, who’s going to invest in this community,” Fitzpatrick said.
Verna Billedeaux has spent 22 years, her entire life, in Duck Lake, Montana. It’s a life she loves, where she can walk less than a mile to family members’ homes or walk down to work at her cousin’s businesses, Suzie’s Store and the Leaning Tree Cafe. During the summer, she’s a businesswoman taking Glacier National Park tourists on trail rides. But in her two decades in Duck Lake, she’s never had internet access.
If she wants to talk to her friends on Snapchat, many of whom are located in Browning where she went to high school, she has to wait at least an hour for their messages to load. She can text most days, but there are also long stretches of time where cell service goes out. This would be difficult for anyone living through an isolating, and often devastating, pandemic. That isolation becomes much worse when people are confined to rural communities with little communication with those outside of their own homes.
“Living in the country, the pandemic wasn’t that big of a deal,” Billedeaux said. She was still able to see her family and do the things she loved. But she missed seeing her friends. And when North American Indian Days, the four-day event held in Browning, got canceled, the disappointment of not being able to see her community stung. She was planning on attending an electrical apprentice program in Great Falls but was unable to attend when the pandemic hit.
Yes, it was hard to text and watch Netflix, which may seem trivial, but in a year that has been isolating for many, reliable internet and cell service allowed people to stay connected and provide a sense of sanity amidst uncertainty.
Her service becomes even worse during the summer months when tourists flood to Glacier National Park, taking up the finite bandwidth on the Blackfeet reservation.
Billedeaux’s brother, Tal, Zooms into Browning High School most of the day. He gets one hour off for lunch, and gets marked absent by teachers when he has to go do chores that are vital for the survival of his family’s ranching business.
“The teachers don’t understand the work we do,” Verna said. “If we lose a calf, that’s $600 down the drain.”
If he didn’t have a school-issued Jetpack which acts as a hotspot and was paid for with CARES Act funding, he wouldn’t be able to attend his classes at all. And even then, Jetpacks fail, forcing the family to operate off of a single hotspot.
The Leaning Tree Cafe and Suzie’s Store where Billedeaux works are the only businesses in Duck Lake open year-round, says owner Triston Fitzgerald. Both stores operate off of HughesNet, using satellites rather than fixed cables or wireless carriers.
“It’s pretty slow and frustrating,” Fitzgerald said.
Occasionally, their whole system, which operates almost entirely on the internet, will go down, forcing it to go into offline mode. If they have to update anything, they have to drive to Browning or Great Falls where the internet signal is consistent.
There have been times when Billedeaux finished a trail ride, tried to charge her customers for her service, discovered the internet was down, and didn’t get paid at all.
Chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Tim Davis heard the word radio defined by a fluent Blackfeet speaker as iakiinaan, translating to “spirit of truth.” Davis and the rest of the Council know the profound impact that comes from telecommunications access, allowing people to connect with the rest of the world and pull themselves out of poverty.
Davis, who grew up in rural Starr School, remembers when transistor radios were the most advanced technology on the reservation. His grandmother, who lived east of Browning, didn’t get running water or electricity until the ‘60s. Davis has seen how far technology on the reservation has come.
Davis knows the importance of technology firsthand. His son had a difficult time coping with the challenges of being in school online, struggling to turn in papers or connect with professors virtually.
Davis’ mother was able to FaceTime with family members from her nursing home. She died of COVID-19 shortly after. Davis and his family treasure the moments they got to spend with her, even if it was virtual. They were lucky. They had the internet, connecting them with their loved ones. Many still don’t have that access. “It’s hard to fathom what being isolated like that is like,” Davis said.
According to Davis and Siyeh Communications general manager Mike Sheard, 3 Rivers was allotted federal funding for rural development of broadband. But, Davis says, “We were kind of like, what would you say, last on the totem pole there for development.”
The Blackfeet Nation used $8 million in CARES Act funding to purchase the Browning telephone exchange and build a fueling station in Heart Butte, helping the large majority of the community that is rural.
“Without that investment, we probably would still be here with outdated technology and antiquated equipment on the front lines,” Davis said. Fitzpatrick agrees, estimating that the purchase would have been delayed at least two years — a lifetime — for rapidly developing technology.
The technology that Siyeh Communications has begun to provide, whether that’s fiber-to-home or a simple wireless internet installation, is vital. The work they’ve done, including fiber installations, impacts a variety of community members, allowing a rancher to check the price of feed, providing a school-age child with additional resources, letting a remote community member use telehealth, or helping a local business reach customers outside of their community.
Technician Lockley Bremner has been working for Siyeh Communications since 2006, back when it was still Oki Communications. He says the process of getting quality internet to those on the Blackfeet reservation is slow-moving, but he’s seen it accelerate in the last two years with the 3 Rivers purchase.
Bremner is one of Siyeh Communication’s most dedicated employees, says general manager Mike Sheard. Bremner grew up in Browning, so he understands the needs of the community better than most.
Sheard is excited about helping provide quality internet access on the Blackfeet reservation, but he’s just as excited about creating jobs for Siyeh Communications.
“It’s exactly part of what we want to do,” he said. “I mean, this is about more than just bringing much needed services to the Blackfeet reservation. It’s about creating jobs.”
Sheard was recently able to send out a job offer to a potential employee that had moved away from Browning to work in Flathead County. He missed his home and wanted to come back to raise his family, Sheard said. And now, if he accepts the job offer, he can.
Siyeh Communications is stimulating the economy in more ways than one, Sheard said. Not only are they providing jobs, but they’re also looking forward to reinvesting their profits back into the community.
“Broadband has impacts outside of education. It can pull people out of poverty. It’s an equalizer,” Fitzpatrick said. “It provides opportunities that aren’t necessarily here in this town.”
One family that has already felt the positive impacts of quality internet access is Conrad and Mary Ellen LaFromboise, who live in Starr School. Bremner installed better wireless internet in their home on the morning of March 16, and the couple could already tell the difference.
While sitting with Bremner and Sheard, Mary Ellen and Conrad talked about the increase in speed they were already experiencing, showing the difference between it and the Wi-Fi they had installed in 2010.
Many people living on the Blackfeet reservation don’t know what they’re missing out on, say Bremner and Sheard. They may think their landline or old cable television is good enough, they said. But they still deserve the option of having the technology that the rest of the country has.
Both Conrad and Mary Ellen are technically retired, although they still work as consultants for their business LaFromboise Associates. And with retirement comes hopeful relaxation. Their daughter sent them a Roku stick, but they hadn’t gotten it hooked up yet. So far, they were enjoying finding ways to watch their favorite shows.
“We’re just finding out you can order stuff on Amazon,” Conrad said. “It’s too damn easy.”
But it hasn’t all been easy. In the past year, 11 members of Mary Ellen’s family died from COVID-19. Many of them lived in Starr School, but the family was unable to grieve together. Mary Ellen says that’s been the hardest part of the pandemic.
In the last four or five months, Mary Ellen and Conrad have been able to virtually attend live-stream memorials. It made all the difference.
“It made everybody feel better,” Mary Ellen said. “We actually see each other and talk. It’s everything. I think that’s what just really hurt people, not being able to gather and comfort each other and do all those things that make a death easier to get through. I couldn’t do it without the internet.”