Enhancing connectivity and transforming critical communications for Tribal agencies

by Malori Johnson - Intern, Tribal Affairs, FirstNet Program at AT&T

November 27, 2023

I grew up in the Navajo Nation – specifically in a place known as Upper Fruitland, in what most people identify as the state of New Mexico. Our community was nestled on the outskirts of the reservation.

As an intern this summer with Tribal Affairs, FirstNet® Program at AT&T, I was introduced to FirstNet. It was an eye-opener. FirstNet is the  dedicated nationwide communications platform built with and for public safety that is underpinning many public safety initiatives. And it’s a new tool that Tribal public safety and healthcare leaders are embracing and adopting by to serve Tribal populations in rural and urban settings.

I spent most of my time as a Tribal Affairs Intern immersed on the use of FirstNet within Tribal public safety agencies. This gave me some valuable insights into the important role of communication and access to data in serving a community and managing inter-agency collaboration.

I also had the opportunity to meet visionary leaders from organizations committed to serving Native communities. Below are some strategies these leaders employed and how they  harnessed technology and the power of the prioritized connectivity of FirstNet  to enhance their communications and their organization’s mission.

  • Catawba Nation Police Department: The Catawba Nation – known as Yeh is-WAH h’reh, meaning “People of the River” – is made up of 3,800 citizens and has a 700-acre reservation in Rock Hill, South Carolina, along with another reservation in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, home of its Two Kings Casino.1 Through a recent COPS Office’s Tribal Resources Grant, the nation is establishing its first police department.
  • Nebraska Urban Indian Health CoalitionSince 1986, the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition has provided community health care and services to the Urban American Indian and Alaska Native population in the greater Omaha metropolitan area, Lincoln-Lancaster metropolitan area, and Sioux City, Iowa. Some services and programs are offered to eligible Native patients only. But most primary care services are available to everyone regardless of race, color, sex, national origin, disability, religion, sexual orientation or ability to pay.
  • Susanville Indian RancheriaThe Susanville Indian Rancheria is a federally recognized Ranchería in northeastern California. Founded in 1923, the Rancheria is roughly 1,300 acres with diverse topography varying from desert plains to mountains. As of Sept 5, 2019, the Tribe has a voting membership of 843.2

Visionary Leadership

Behind any effective organization is a team of motivated and effective individuals who are dedicated to the mission. That’s certainly the case for these three organizations and their leaders:

  • Shawn Butler, Chief of Police for the Catawba Indian Nation
  • Dr. Donna Polk, from the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition
  • Ken Capistrand, IT Manager at Susanville Indian Ranchería.

They have implemented FirstNet and are using it to advance their organizations’ missions.

Chief Shawn Butler

With 26 years in law enforcement, Chief Butler brings leadership and expertise to the Catawba Nation Police Department. He was responsible for building a police department from the ground up. In this role, he recognized the importance of fostering strong relationships with the community and other jurisdictional partners.

Chief Butler collaborated with local and federal agencies, organizations and community leaders to develop enduring partnerships. And he’s using FirstNet to help bridge communication gaps. FirstNet has provided an essential line of communication that enables Catawba Indian Nation to collaborate with mutual aid partners and overcome challenges resulting from the Tribe’s difficult terrain – covered with dense trees and a valley range.

“As the Catawba Indian Nation strives to establish its law enforcement agency, FirstNet has been an invaluable partner,” said Chief Butler. “FirstNet is providing technology and the equipment we need for seamless communication with the local Sherriff’s office. It’s helping us transcend geographical barriers.”

The inter-jurisdictional collaboration helps the Catawba Nation Police Department respond quickly and effectively to emergency incidents, contributing to the overall security and welfare of the community.

Dr. Donna Polk

Health clinics in rural, urban and suburban geographies provide a vital resource to communities across the United States. For over three decades, Dr. Polk has served as the CEO of the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition, with locations in Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska, offering behavioral health services for patients across the country.

The organization is a recognized leader in serving urban American Indian populations in Nebraska and across the country. By harnessing the prioritized access on FirstNet, Nebraska Urban Indian Health has helped improve communication between the community and its healthcare providers.

“The Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition is dedicated to delivering community healthcare and services that specifically cater to the urban Native population,” said Dr. Polk. “Using FirstNet on critical devices helped us improve coordination and efficiency between our patients and our medical clinics. This has enabled us to provide prompt assistance and essential health services to the elderly and other individuals in need.”

The organization secured funding for FirstNet implementation and other technological advancements through the Connected Care Pilot Program, an FCC grant, allowing Nebraska Urban Indian Health to extend the delivery of its services beyond its clinic’s physical footprint.

Ken Capistrand

As the  IT Manager at Susanville Indian Ranchería, Capistrand said FirstNet has helped enhance communications for emergency response personnel.

“With a single platform on FirstNet for our cell phones, we no longer worry about phone reliability – they simply work,” Capistrand said. “Consolidating all departments onto FirstNet has streamlined operations and provided standardized phones. This has led to increased efficiency and consistent communication [across Tribal departments]. “Overall, FirstNet has significantly improved our communications and empowered us to engage in community outreach initiatives more efficiently.”

The leaders featured here are just a few examples of those embracing FirstNet to enhance communications, drive positive health outcomes and keep their communities safe.  FirstNet has played a critical role in building out connectivity into Native communities. And the expansion of FirstNet coverage in rural areas and boosting network capacity in more urban environments has benefited Tribal populations in both urban and rural regions.  Organizational leaders for Tribal organizations have taken notice and are harnessing the power of FirstNet to reduce response times, support inter-agency collaboration and promote streamlined operations.


Malori Johnson, a member of the Navajo Nation, is a recent graduate of Fort Lewis College with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. She spent the summer of 2023 interning with the FirstNet Program at AT&T, with a focus on Tribal Affairs.

¹ https://cops.usdoj.gov/html/Dispatch/01-2023/catawba_public_safety.html

² https://www.sir-nsn.gov/history/


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