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Wahzhazhe Connect breaks ground on broadband expansion project

The Osage Nation is launching the first of several projects to increase broadband internet availability across the reservation thanks to two grants totaling $54.5 million

The Osage Nation is launching the first of several projects to increase broadband internet availability across the reservation thanks to two grants totaling $54.5 million – starting with the Nation’s Senior Housing residents.

On Feb. 6, the Nation’s newly formed Wahzhazhe Connect, along with tribal officials, project partners and invited guests attended a groundbreaking commemoration at the Pawhuska Senior Housing Complex. The construction project will lay more than 200 miles of fiber optics and erect 16 towers throughout the Nation’s service area over the next two years.

In summer of 2022, the Nation received a $40.6 million Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program Grant and a $13.9 million ReConnect3 Grant Program from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and formed Wahzhazhe Connect in response, said Russ Tallchief, the entity’s communications specialist.

Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear lauded the broadband project because increased internet availability will be beneficial to Osages living away who may be considering moves to Oklahoma. “We believe this broadband is going to help bring them home because now when we say we have ‘remote work,’ we’re talking about the internet,” Standing Bear said, adding he spoke with BIA Regional Director Eddie Streater earlier that morning who informed him that a recently selected Osage Agency Superintendent declined the job after deciding to take another BIA remote job – thanks to internet access.

A groundbreaking for Wahzhazhe Connect took place in Pawhuska at the ON Senior Housing complex on Feb. 6, 2023. Attendees from the public and Osage Nation departments attended. ECHO REED/Osage News

Attendees gathered for the occasion including several Executive Branch employees Standing Bear acknowledged who worked and attended school away from the reservation and are now working for the government, as well as Wahzhazhe Connect. “I’m proud to be Osage today, when I look around and I see you young people and I see what you’re doing, it’s overwhelming. When we saw all of our elders, all of our relatives, they would come together and they would share things together and now that’s us today and it’s going to be you younger people in doing great things,” Standing Bear said.

Wahzhazhe Connect’s director is Dr. James Trumbly, who is a retired college educator, an Army veteran and has 40-plus years’ experience in project management and the broadband entity is under Executive Branch Secretary of Development Christian “Casey” Johnson.

Trumbly said his prior project experience includes helping install a local area network while in graduate school and while serving in Afghanistan, he and military colleagues installed satellite internet connectivity in orphanages. He touted his experiences in leading to his Wahzhazhe Connect work to come.

Trumbly also acknowledged other individuals including Information Technology Director Bill Fenton and former IT Director Robert Mark Kirk, who is also working on the broadband project, for their expertise and work efforts for expanding broadband across the reservation.

Referring to the first broadband project, Trumbly said he is happy it means “providing broadband to our seniors here in Pawhuska, our Senior Housing is our first project we’re doing – it’s the first of many we’re going to be doing.”

Trumbly introduced Wahzhazhe Broadband staff members also working on the project including: Administrative Manager Emily Aker; Project Manager Kelbie Witham; Procurement Manager Kiersten Dailey and Drew Tiger, who will also serve as a project manager.

“We’ve got a total of 18 projects that are going on concurrently over the next 2-5 years depending on how long they go,” Trumbly said and acknowledged the Nation’s grants department for its work on the applications.

Christa Fulkerson, director of the Nation’s Grants Management and Compliance Department, said the project will be beneficial to those who move back to the reservation like she did after college and past work experience away from home. “You see all these people with education that are Osage … coming back, so this broadband is really going to bring back a whole load of talent that we probably have never seen before, so it’s very exciting to talk about and I’m very proud to be a part of this project,” Fulkerson said.

For the project, Trumbly said 16 different towers will be installed throughout the reservation that will rise about 195 feet tall and “we’re installing fiber optic connections to Native households in Osage County and for the rest of Osage County population, we’re going to be providing high speed fixed Wi-Fi connections with speeds up to 100 megabits, both download and upload. The big takeaway is when we’re finished, Osage County will have a broadband infrastructure that will rival the network capabilities of big cities like Los Angeles, New York and Dallas,” he said.

A groundbreaking for Wahzhazhe Connect took place in Pawhuska at the ON Senior Housing complex on Feb. 6, 2023. The Wahzhazhe Connect team, from L-R are: Kiersten Dailey, Wahzhazhe Connect Procurement Manager; Drew Tiger, Wahzhazhe Connect Project Manager; Emily Akers, Wahzhazhe Connect Administrative Manager; Kelbie Witham, Wahzhazhe Connect Project Manager; Dr. James Trumbly, Wahzhazhe Connect Director; Russ Tallchief, Wahzhazhe Connect Communications Specialist. ECHO REED/Osage News

Trumbly also discussed the newly formed partnership with the Nation’s Financial Assistance Office and Tri County Technical Center to provide paid training for Native Americans who will work as technicians to help install the broadband infrastructure going forward.

Financial Assistance Department Director Andrea Kemble said the first training cohort team comprises “100% Osage members who are looking to start a career on this project and so we’re very pleased about that and during their work and their studies here, we will provide paid training, lunch, transportation for them and then they go on-site for work experience.” Kemble added there is lots of interest in starting a second cohort training as well.

“Tri County is very pleased to partner with the Osage Nation on the development and delivery of this training,” Tara Gotwalt, Chief Instruction Officer for Tri County Tech said in a statement. “Tri County Tech was recently the recipient of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to be directly used for providing Broadband Fiber Optic Training in our district. Tri County looks forward to providing a variety of short-term training courses for those looking for new careers in the Broadband Fiber Optic industry.”

In response to a Senior Housing resident’s question on possible internet usage training opportunities for elders, Trumbly said “yes” he hopes to start a training program with younger tech-experienced people to work with the elders, which he had seen during a past college teaching post in Texas.  

In closing, Tallchief told attendees to “keep an eye out for our construction crews and our new trainees starting out their new careers … We’ll be trenching in the yards and we might have to get in your backyards too, but we’ll let you know when we’re coming.”

Author

  • Benny Polacca

    Title: Senior Reporter

    Email: bpolacca@osagenation-nsn.gov

    Instagram: @bpolacca

    Topic Expertise: Government, Tribal Government, Community

    Languages spoken: English, basic knowledge of Spanish and French

    Benny Polacca (Hopi/ Havasupai/ Pima/ Tohono O’odham) started working at the Osage News in 2009 as a reporter in Pawhuska, Okla., where he’s covered various stories and events that impact the Osage Nation and Osage people. Those newspaper contributions cover a broad spectrum of topics and issues from tribal government matters to features. As a result, Polacca has gained an immeasurable amount of experience in covering Native American affairs, government issues and features so the Osage readership can be better informed about the tribal current affairs the newspaper covers.

    Polacca is part of the Osage News team that was awarded the Native American Journalists Association's Elias Boudinet Free Press Award in 2014 and has won numerous NAJA media awards, as well as awards from the Oklahoma Press Association and SPJ Oklahoma Pro Chapter, for storytelling coverage and photography.

    Polacca earned his bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University and also participated in the former American Indian Journalism Institute at the University of South Dakota where he was introduced to the basics of journalism and worked with seasoned journalists there and later at The Forum daily newspaper covering the Fargo, N.D. area where he worked as the weeknight reporter.

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Benny Polacca
Benny Polaccahttps://osagenews.org

Title: Senior Reporter

Email: bpolacca@osagenation-nsn.gov

Instagram: @bpolacca

Topic Expertise: Government, Tribal Government, Community

Languages spoken: English, basic knowledge of Spanish and French

Benny Polacca (Hopi/ Havasupai/ Pima/ Tohono O’odham) started working at the Osage News in 2009 as a reporter in Pawhuska, Okla., where he’s covered various stories and events that impact the Osage Nation and Osage people. Those newspaper contributions cover a broad spectrum of topics and issues from tribal government matters to features. As a result, Polacca has gained an immeasurable amount of experience in covering Native American affairs, government issues and features so the Osage readership can be better informed about the tribal current affairs the newspaper covers.

Polacca is part of the Osage News team that was awarded the Native American Journalists Association's Elias Boudinet Free Press Award in 2014 and has won numerous NAJA media awards, as well as awards from the Oklahoma Press Association and SPJ Oklahoma Pro Chapter, for storytelling coverage and photography.

Polacca earned his bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University and also participated in the former American Indian Journalism Institute at the University of South Dakota where he was introduced to the basics of journalism and worked with seasoned journalists there and later at The Forum daily newspaper covering the Fargo, N.D. area where he worked as the weeknight reporter.

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