MILLE LACS RESERVATION — When Ishkodekwe sews moccasins in her apartment near Lake Mille Lacs, she likes to stream a TV show or movie for some background noise.

"But the building itself doesn't have internet," Ishkodekwe, 72, said of the elder housing near the southwestern shore of Mille Lacs.

Ishkodekwe, whose English name is Carol Hernandez, found a provider to set up internet in her unit. But the service is glitchy and slow at best.

That should change within the coming months as work begins on a tribe-owned high-speed fiber network that will connect to hundreds of homes and businesses across the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe tribal lands, including more than 350 households and seven businesses that currently have no internet access.

The lack of reliable internet has made it difficult for members to apply for jobs, work from home or participate in virtual learning. Leaders expect it will be transformative, bringing schools, businesses and health clinics firmly across the digital divide.

The project is being funded by an $11.4 million grant from the federal government to improve broadband access on tribal lands.

"We're isolated — in a communications desert," said Melanie Benjamin, chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, noting it often takes 20 minutes or more to connect to the internet. Even then, service often drops without warning, leaving her in the dark about whether she's missing important messages.

"That's what happens," she said. "It's spotty. It comes in and comes out so you don't really have the ability to know when that happens."

Not only is that frustrating, it can be dangerous when the government or tribal leadership need to share important messages. And during the pandemic, when remote learning became the norm for months on end, it was particularly difficult.

"A lot of kids fell way behind because of that," Benjamin said. "I think when you're in an urban setting it is really difficult for people to understand because the convenience of having reliable high-speed internet — a lot of people take that for granted."

The project, which will install more than 230 miles of fiber-optic cable, is also expected to be a catalyst for better health on the reservation.

"Living in rural Minnesota, it is so time-consuming to go anywhere to get health care," Benjamin said. "So having the ability to have telehealth really is going to improve the lives of many people."

Benjamin described Mille Lacs lands as a "checkerboard reservation," with tribal territory speckled across several counties.

"The reservation and the reservation lands within the counties — we're going to connect all those together now," Benjamin said. "And all the people that live off the reservation that's contiguous to our reservation are going to benefit with better services. It's not limited to the reservation."

That's welcome news to band member Tania Aubid, who lives near McGregor, about 60 miles northeast of the tribal headquarters on the southwest side of Mille Lacs.

"We have hardly any connectivity to stay in touch with people, either by data use on our phone or on our home computers," she said. "Why did it take so long for these grants to come through?"

The state and many counties have prioritized broadband connectivity in recent years, with much of the funding coming from federal pandemic relief. Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe leaders started on the project more than 18 months ago in partnership with Consolidated Telephone Company, a Brainerd-based telecommunications cooperative.

"It's about time, especially in rural communities," said Travis Zimmerman, site manager at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post, a museum in the heart of the reservation near the casino and tribal headquarters. "We even have a hard time getting a signal in the Trading Post."

Ishkodekwe said the lack of access has made it difficult for homebound seniors who became increasingly isolated during the pandemic.

"Most elders don't even have internet service," she said.

"I just want to jump for joy," Benjamin said Friday, which was a holiday for tribal members. On that date in 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the band had protected rights to hunt, fish and gather on lands ceded to the U.S. government by treaty in 1837.

"It's a great day for us," she continued. "Not only do we get to recognize our ancestors and all the great work they did on our behalf to secure our reservation — now we can connect everybody."