AIPI Introduces New Definition for ‘Digital Sovereignty’

“Digital sovereignty” has become a critical concept for not only Native American Tribes in their pursuit of affordable and robust internet access but also for non-Native partners in understanding the importance of partnering with Tribes.

NDIA hosted the webinar “Indigenous Digital Sovereignty: From the Digital Divide to Digital Equity” on July 12. Dr. Traci Morris, executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute (AIPI) at Arizona State University, shared her knowledge on digital equity efforts in Indian Country, including the need for accurate data in Tribal communities, and what current funding means for today and future generations. 



The Digital Landscape in Indian Country

Dr. Morris shared data acknowledging that Tribal participation in bridging the digital divide is pivotal for many states and communities. Indian Country includes 574 federally recognized Tribes on 334 reservations, in 35 states, on 100 million acres of land. That, in a nutshell, gives an idea of the vastness of Indian Country and the monumental task of bridging the digital divide.

Dr. Morris led AIPI’s efforts to gather end-user data prior to the pandemic to understand the digital divide in Tribal communities. Key points of that 2019 study include:

  • 18 percent of reservation residents have no internet access at home, either wireless or land-based internet (cable, DSL, dial-up).
  • 33 percent rely on cell phone service for at-home internet.
  • 49 percent utilize a land-based internet service provider (cable, DSL, dial-up) at home.
  • 31 percent have spotty internet or no connection at home via smartphone.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the digital divide for everyone, and for Tribal communities, we have since learned that affordability, speed, types of access, quality of access, and location of access are major barriers. Each Tribe experiences unique barriers and defines their solutions.

Funding is key to solutions for all communities. Spending needs to be tailored to the needs of each Tribal nation to promote flexibility in self-determination, whether that be in Oklahoma, Alaska, or South Dakota. 

New Definitions from the American Indian Policy Institute (AIPI) 

Indigenous Digital Sovereignty

Indigenous Digital Sovereignty is the umbrella term that overarches both Indigenous Network Sovereignty and Indigenous Data Sovereignty. Indigenous Digital Sovereignty is both the information and the physical means by which that information transfers, governed by a community’s policies and codes that control the data, infrastructure, and networks.

Indigenous Data Sovereignty

Indigenous Data Sovereignty is a subset of Indigenous Digital Sovereignty, and the terms should not be conflated. Data sovereignty refers to what flows through the network; it is intangible information. Data sovereignty refers to control over the data transmitted on the network.

Indigenous Network Sovereignty

Network sovereignty is the physical infrastructure. Network sovereignty refers to the act of building and deploying networks, which is the process of implementing Tribal self-determination policies.

What Is ‘Indigenous Digital Sovereignty’?

Major federal funding is available right now in the United States. Still, it’s important for those determining the use of those funds to first know what a Tribe is and why local entities–states, local governments, and community anchor institutions–partner with Tribes. 

Tribal Nations’ relationship with the federal government is based on treaties and other legal actions. Native American Tribes are political groups, not racial groups, defined by the government-to-government relationship with the federal government. The federal government is obligated via treaties through the federal trust relationship

Because of this relationship, Tribes have the right to manage their own resources, which includes establishing their government, building their economy, and managing natural resources. Legally, “Tribal sovereignty includes the right to govern one’s community, the ability to preserve one’s culture, and the right to control one’s own economy.”

This week, Dr. Morris and the AIPI released more insight on the term “Indigenous Digital Sovereignty” – an overarching, encompassing term that includes all the work [that Indian Country is] doing on data sovereignty, network sovereignty, installing networks, etc. 

“Sovereignty and self-determination are critical aspects of broadband and telecommunications investments in Tribal communities. Putting in a network is an act of self-determination. It is nation-building,” Dr. Morris said during the webinar. “It is exercising sovereignty in the active sense, not the philosophical sense.” 

Digital Inclusion Investments in Indian Country

The monetary investments from the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program; Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program (BEAD); and Digital Equity Act require state and local governments to partner with Tribes because it is part of the United States’ trust responsibilities to Tribal nations. 

This investment is unprecedented for Indian Country. 

Tribes are willing to bridge connectivity efforts to the rural areas where many communities are located. Dr. Morris said, “This is it. This is the work we are doing for seven generations.” 

Yet more considerable investments are still needed. Prior to the pandemic, anecdotally, Dr. Morris estimated the cost to close the digital divide in Indian Country was over $8 billion. The hope is that the work Tribal leaders and digital equity practitioners are doing today will be sustainable long after the first influx of funding is used.

Learn More & Help Advance Digital Equity Solutions


Dr. Morris acknowledged the enthusiastic interest of the webinar participants with 100 folks in attendance. The question and answer period was robust. So, in addition to talking about data and digital sovereignty, she spoke about other needs in Indian Country, such as the need to sustain and upgrade networks that are being built right now, dealing with jurisdictional considerations like permitting, rights-of-way challenges, and the need for interagency coordination, cyber security protocols, artificial intelligence regulation, and so much more. 

“Sovereignty and self-determination are critical aspects of broadband and telecommunications investments in Tribal communities. Putting in a network is an act of self-determination. It is nation buildingIt is exercising sovereignty in the active sense, not the philosophical sense.”

Dr. Traci Morris

Executive Director, American Indian Policy Institute (AIPI) at Arizona State University

View the whole webinar and reach out to Native organizations or Tribes in your area to learn more about their digital inclusion needs and actions. NDIA and AMERIND Critical Infrastructure host Indigenous Digital Inclusion Working Group monthly meetings. Tribal entities who are NDIA affiliates are welcomed to join – please join the community here and then contact Davida Delmar, [email protected], or Abi Waldrupe, [email protected], for information on the working group.