Indian Country Today

The national media is paying some attention to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Indian Country. 

The Associated Press column "The Latest" includes updates about how tribal communities are often ahead of state governments when it comes to enforcing stay at home measures.

The most recent version, published Sunday in The New York Times, looks at the Navajo Nation's emergency orders. "The Navajo Nation has been hit harder by the coronavirus than any other Native American tribe," the AP said. The post cited the number of positive coronavirus tests at 1,127 as of Friday with 44 deaths attributed to COVID-19.

Missing is the context that the Navajo Nation has more deaths than several states and U.S. territories, most with populations much larger than the Navajo Nation.


"American Indian, Alaska Natives other Indigenous people, we tend to be an asterisk type population. Where they add us to the end of their data tables and tell us 'we don't have enough numbers to count these types of things,'" said Twyla Baker, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, on MSNBC's Joy Reid show Sunday. Baker is president of Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College. She said a "lifetime ago" she was working with the National Research Center on Native American Aging. "We ended up being the entity that had to gather our own data, to do our own reporting."

Baker said the shortcomings in care related to COVID-19 reflect a healthcare system that has not worked. "We have been ringing that bell for such a long time to try to address the disparities, the inequities, the biases in care," she said. 

We're "trying to work with a system that is chronically and critically underfunded," she said. "Now you end up with a situation like the Navajo Nation that has more deaths than 13 states in the United States."

Baker's take away point: Tribes are "trying to serve their people with a broken system."

One story that continues to surface in the national media is the connection between the lack of running water on the Navajo Nation and COVID-19. National Public Radio cited a figure of 40 percent. NBC News on Friday reported 30 percent. 

The NBC story: "You're saying 20 seconds of wash your hands with water," quoting Dr. Michelle Tom "We have to haul our water … we do not have plumbing. And that's how I grew up." An estimated 30 percent of homes on the Navajo reservation, which has roughly 175,000 residents, don't have access to clean, reliable drinking water and have to haul it from local utilities, according to the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources.

Even this number is complicated by the lack of data. The Navajo Nation reports numbers ranging from 15 to 40 percent on official documents.

But it is clear there is a problem. One recent study says across Indian Country there are 58 out of every 1,000 Native American households lack plumbing, compared with 3 out of every 1,000 white households, according to the report.

It's also true that many Alaska Native villages lack running water. And, as former Lt. Gov. Valerie Nurr'araaluk Davidson, Yupik, told Indian Country Today, the focus then should be on the ways to sanitize without water with bleach and a basin.

CNN screen shot

CNN screen shot

CNN's Anderson Cooper began his Friday show saying: the Navajo Nation “coronavirus infection rate ranks only behind New York and New Jersey.”

CNN national correspondent Gary Tuchman appeared live to report on the status of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Navajo Nation.

Navajo Nation president Jonathan Nez shared the video coverage post from his personal Facebook account with a message of thanks to Cooper and Tuchman.

“Thank you to Anderson Cooper and Gary Tuchman for helping to bring awareness to the COVID-19 pandemic on the Navajo Nation. We appreciate your work and for shedding light on the challenges that our health care workers are dealing with each day. Ahe’hee’,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.

“The Navajo Nation with about 175,000 people who live here, has more cases of COVID-19 than nine entire states, more deaths than 13 states, and according to the chief medical officer of the Navajo Area Indian Health Service, ‘I do not believe we have hit our peak yet.’”

One national report came from a Native American reporter, Savannah Maher, Mashpee Wampanoag, from Wyoming Public Radio. On National Public Radio she ended her story with the "silver lining. And it is for the federal government to actually start paying attention to Indian country," said Karen Snyder, who is co-chair of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council.

The same point could be made about the media.

Vincent Schilling and Mark Trahant contributed to this story.