Courtesy Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
President Obama: “We can’t reverse centuries of history, broken treaties, broken promises. But I do believe we can come together as partners and forge ahead, based on trust.”

Obama Announces Broadband ‘Game-Changer’ While Visiting Choctaw Nation

Kristi Eaton

President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced a new initiative to connect low-income homes with high-speed Internet during a visit to the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, saying access to the Internet is not a luxury but a necessity in today’s world.

Obama, who addressed tribal citizens from across Oklahoma at Durant High School, the capital of the Choctaw Nation, said the initiative ConnectHome is another step to help close the digital divide in America.

“I don’t really have to tell you why this is important,” he said. “In this digital age, where you can apply for a job, take a course, pay your bills or find a date by checking your phone, the Internet is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.”

Obama noted that more than 90 percent of homes headed by a college graduate use the Internet, but fewer than half of households headed by someone with less than a high school education are plugged into the Internet. “In other words, the people who could benefit the most from the latest technology are the least likely to have it,” he said.

ConnectHome builds upon an earlier initiative Connect ED that is connecting 99 percent of K-12 students to high-speed Internet access in their classrooms and libraries over the next five years.

In addition to the Choctaw Nation, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development selected the following cities for ConnectHome: Albany, Georgia; Atlanta; Baltimore; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Boston; Camden, New Jersey; Cleveland; Denver; Durham, North Carolina; Fresno, California; Kansas City, Missouri; Little Rock, Arkansas; Los Angeles; Macon, Georgia; Memphis, Tennessee; Meriden, Connecticut; Nashville, Tennessee; New Orleans; New York; Newark, New Jersey; Philadelphia; Rockford, Illinois; San Antonio; Seattle; Springfield, Massachusetts; Tampa, Florida; and the District of Columbia.

The pilot program is expected to reach more than 275,000 low-income homes, including 200,000 children, according to the administration.

During the speech, Obama highlighted the story of Kelsey, a 16-year-old member of the Choctaw Nation whose family lacked connectivity. While growing up, Kelsey had to stand on a rock in her family’s yard to get phone reception, Obama recounted.

“This might be the game-changer for her,” he said.

This is not the first time the Obama Administration has partnered with the Choctaw Nation. The administration earlier designated the Choctaw Nation a “promise zone,” a declaration that allows for tax incentives and competitive advantages when applying for federal grants, among other things.

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“We can’t reverse centuries of history, broken treaties, broken promises. But I do believe we can come together as partners and forge ahead, based on trust,” Obama said of Indian country, mentioning increased power to tribal courts and police and expanding opportunities for renewable energy projects as evidence of improvements.

Obama has made Indian country a priority during his presidency, first visiting the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation in North Dakota last summer. He annually hosts a gathering of tribal nations in Washington D.C., and last week the White House hosted the first-ever Tribal Youth Gathering with members from more than 230 tribes.

RELATED: White House Youth Gathering: Native Youth Have First Lady and President Behind Them

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Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton, who spoke ahead of Obama, said the president has been a “great partner” for Indian country. The chief said the tribe’s selection as a promise zone has turned a nation-to-nation relationship into a nation-to-nation partnership.

Batton said the tribe recently received a $5 million federal grant to reduce teen pregnancy.

“It takes a remarkable leader to govern in a way that heals wounds,” Batton said, adding that the Obama administration has resolved more than 80 disputes between American Indian tribes and the U.S., including a case involving the Choctaw Nation that alleged the U.S. government mismanaged land promised to the tribe and the Chickasaw Nation during removal from the southeastern United States.

Obama also took time to meet with several young Native Americans before his speech. Taylor Armbrister, 16, was among 15 young people from tribes across the state selected to meet with the president.

Armbrister, a member of the Cherokee Nation, said Obama shook each young person’s hand and asked them to share their personal story or ask him a question. Armbrister decided to ask Obama why he decided to become involved in Indian country.

Obama told Armbrister that his interest in civil rights and Martin Luther King led him to learn more about the government’s broken treaties with tribes.

“It was a great honor to speak with him,” the 11th-grader said. “This could be a once-in-lifetime opportunity.”

Though Armbrister said that access to the Internet has not been an issue for him, he said he has friends who don’t have regular access like he does.

“Having that kind of access opens the world up to you. There are so many opportunities,” he said.

The invite-only event in Durant was part of a two-day trip to Oklahoma for the president. Obama was also expected to visit with law enforcement officials and inmates during a tour of the El Reno Federal Correctional Institute outside of Oklahoma City. The medium-security facility holds about 1,300 inmates. It was to be the first time a sitting president visited a federal prison.

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