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Native American leaders yesterday announced a first-of-its-kind initiative to help tribal governments and  communities establish comprehensive digital sovereignty plans. 

The American Indian Policy Institute (AIPI) at Arizona State University and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) launched the new Center for Tribal Digital Sovereignty during the NCAI 2024 Mid Year Convention & Marketplace.

“Tribal Digital Sovereignty is all-encompassing. It's about governance, economics, and self-determination in the digital world,” Dr. Traci Morris, executive director of AIPI and research professor at ASU Law, said in a statement. 

Digital sovereignty encompasses all aspects of a Tribal Nation's digital plan and footprint, such as tribal codes, managing data protection, digital equity, network infrastructure, development of funding sources, and capacity building, according to  the statement. 

The Center recognizes the unique needs of each of the 574 federally recognized Tribal Nations. There's no one-size-fits-all approach to digital sovereignty, the statement notes, and the Center will address this by offering a clearinghouse of information and comprehensive expertise to assist Tribes in crafting personalized, long-term plans.

“Broadband and digital technologies are essential tools for Tribal self-determination in the 21st century,” NCAI General Counsel and Chief of Staff Geoffrey Blackwell said in a statement. “We are excited to partner with ASU to empower Tribal Nations with the analysis, scholarship, advocacy, and resources needed to develop their digital environments and exercise their sovereign rights.”

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The center will provide research, convene conferences, and advocate for Indian Country.  Initial funding comes from the nonprofit Ford Foundation and Google.org, the charitable arm of the global technology and search company.   

The new tribal digital sovereignty initiative coincides with efforts by other Native-led organizations to gather better data about Indian Country while respecting data sovereignty.  In 2022, the Center for Indian Country Development, expanded its data collection and analysis efforts in a bid to help improve economic policy for tribal governments and communities, per prior Tribal Business News reporting.  

The lack of data about Indian Country stymies investor interest in tribal economies, rendering them “invisible” according to a report by Wells Fargo. The report suggests that improving data collection, respecting tribal sovereignty, and leveraging models like the National Indian Gaming Commission's data aggregation can enhance visibility and attract investment, ultimately fostering economic resilience and diversification in Indian Country.

“This is a landmark moment,” NCAI President Mark Macarro said in a statement. “Digital sovereignty is crucial for upholding Tribal cultural integrity and advancing our priorities. This partnership represents a powerful alliance that will empower Tribal Nations to shape their digital futures with autonomy and confidence. The Center will also serve as a foundation for building a coalition of trusted organizations with proven experience in this field.”