Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
August 26, 2000 - Issue 17

Tulalips Hope to Join the Computer Age While Protecting Their Heritage
by Lisa Stiffler Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter

TULALIP -- On the Tulalip Indian Reservation, high tech means electronic slot machines in the casino, not PCs in the homes. And although the glow of new technology is just a glimmer on the horizon, the old ways of the tribe are fading.

Younger generations aren't learning the native Lushootseed language -- the tricky alphabet with upside-down and backward e's, and k's adorned with superscript w's. Traditional songs and stories are imperiled as decades-old reel-to-reel recordings crumble.

But a technology partnership involving the Tulalips, the University of Washington and Everett Community College could modernize reservation homes and businesses and protect the tribe's heritage.

"Preserving the past and building a future" is the motto of the project, spearheaded by John McCoy, executive director of governmental affairs for the 3,300-member tribe.

Ideas proposed for the technology infrastructure include a computer in all 600 Tulalip homes, connected to the schools and youth center. A "smart card" for tribal members could track health-care information and bank balances and be a card key providing access to reservation businesses.

Databases could be modernized for tribal businesses and government. McCoy would even like to explore the creation of a tribal telecommunications company to provide Internet, telephone and cell phone service on the reservation.

Implementation of the plan could cost anywhere from $10 million to $20 million.

Although the ambitious project has many supporters, some Tulalip members hesitate to embrace the technology and are concerned about outsiders having unfettered access to the tribe's heritage through the Internet.

Tribal leaders have underwritten the first phase of the project -- called the Tulalip Technology Leap -- with a $300,000 grant. The money is paying for research into what technology the tribe needs and will be used to train local residents and Tulalip members in the "care and feeding" of computers. In addition, a grant writer will be hired to scour the Web for additional government and charitable funding.

This spring, 16 Tulalip and non-native students completed a year of computer classes offered by Everett Community College at the reservation education center. The students are enrolled in a two-year program that will prepare them for computer jobs on and off the reservation.

McCoy predicts that in three years there will be more jobs than can be filled on the 22,000-acre reservation near Marysville.

In addition to new technology-related positions, there are plans to open an office park with a Wal-Mart and to build a new casino. The majority of the 1,140 jobs on the reservation currently are at the casino, the remainder with tribal government, the smoke shop and other businesses.

But the task of bringing the reservation into the 21st century is challenging.

"Your biggest ticket item was personnel costs," McCoy said. So he thought, "Let's use students. They're learning and let's give them a project to learn on."

The UW was approached and a group of students from the Bothell branch campus was given the task of assessing existing technology and finding out what was needed and wanted.

"It's a wonderful experience," said Laini McDaniel, a junior. "We're students, and we're working on a project that's going to impact people's lives."

The project has been hard at times. The students have struggled to figure out how to work with people often unfamiliar with the technology and with a different cultural perspective. In her work with tribal members, McDaniel has learned to take care not to interrupt her interviewees, to address them respectfully and to deal with unexpected hurdles.

McDaniel and Hank Gobin, manager of cultural resources for the Tulalips, are working together on another key component of the project -- the preservation of Tulalip heritage.

At the cultural center, filing cabinets are packed with historical documents. There are binders filled with contact sheets of photos capturing tribal activities from the 1920s to the 1970s. Ornate, hand-woven baskets sit in cases, seen only by the center's visitors.

With technology, the artifacts and information can be digitized and made available online to be shared among the Tulalip members and beyond.

"There is so much richness to the culture that people outside the reservation don't really understand or can't identify," said Bill Erdly, UW Bothell director of computing and software services and the instructor overseeing the students.

But although technology can seem like the potential savior of the culture -- a means of preserving information in a permanent format, making it accessible to tribal members rediscovering their heritage and a world curious about American Indian cultures -- there are serious issues to be resolved.

Gobin and others are concerned about opening up the access to Tulalip heritage.

"That is an issue for this tribe and all tribes," he said.

By putting Tulalip art, language and music on the Web, the door is opened for people to use their artifacts and information for financial gain, Gobin said. He compared the appropriation of the Tulalip culture to people using music for personal benefit without an artist's permission.

By Dec. 31, the students will have completed a proposal to wire the reservation. Then it is up to the tribe to take the next step in a project that could serve as a model for other reservations.

"It is a big dream," McCoy said. "There is a lot to do, but with time and patience, we can get it done."

The Tulalip Tribes-History

The Tulalip Tribes Natural Resources Programs



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