Native Americans living in rural communities say they are shut out of modern times and don’t have access to high-speed Internet. They endured the struggle to communicate.
Governor Roy Cooper says more than a million North Carolinians are on the wrong side of the digital divide.
MaryJo Wilkes goes to school now at UNC Pembroke and loves living on campus where online logging is a seamless process.
He can vividly recall the struggles during his senior year of high school while living at home with his parents in Prospect.
Wilkes, like other Native American children, did not have high-speed Internet lines that spread to the rural community.
“I felt like we’re not important to other people, because we’re a minority because we’re a poor community and a poor county. I felt like they didn’t care that much,” said Wilkes. .
He was left feeling alone in a connected world.
“I had no sign of doing my homework here,” Wilkes said.
Some children had to go to nearby Pembroke and sit outside a McDonald’s restaurant for free, stable service.
The problem increased during the stay-at-home period of COVID-19 when everything was done online.
Hotspot buses arrive in communities to help students connect.
“It hasn’t been a good connection,” Wilkes said. “It was very difficult trying to zoom in. Half the time I couldn’t even hear the class if it was breaking.”
His mother, Danita Wilkes, ended up shelling out $200 a month for satellite Internet.
The expensive service is a luxury in Robeson County, as it is one of the poorest counties in North Carolina. More than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.
The US Census shows about 44 percent of the region’s population is American Indian and the majority are members of the Lumbee Tribe.
“They looked down on us or didn’t look at us as we were not that important,” said Danita Wilkes who contacted politicians and even urged the telecommunications company to bring the internet.
A neighborhood group willing to invest $5,000 a piece for installation.
“We said we have children, we want it. They said no,” said Danita Wilkes.
These communities will soon begin to see change.
North Carolina received a $17.5 million USDA grant to bring connectivity to distressed counties.
The grant area includes more than 200 miles of fiber lines. The changes will take place in Warren and Halifax counties, as well as people living on the Haliwa-Saponi tribal area.
The effort will help more than 2,500 unserved addresses and 100 plus businesses.
The grant will provide a $75 monthly rebate to eligible, low-income households in tribal areas.
“That will open up a lot of opportunities,” said North Carolina Indian Affairs Director Greg Richardson.
“It will mean a lot in terms of our state, education, economic development.”
Lindell Lynch lives in Halifax County and will benefit.
He tries to make a better life for himself and takes online classes that only rely on the hotspot.
“I’m excited about it. I’m excited. I hope it helps a lot of the area,” Lynch said.
The Wilks family was linked to a large freight company this past July.
The service is still spotty at times, but it brings the family into the 21st century after feeling neglected for a long time.
“We want to be successful like everybody else. I want to get a degree in biology. I want to be a doctor,” said Wilkes. “I want to stay connected to the community like everyone else.”
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