Urban Indians are largely invisible from COVID-19 reporting

The National Mall is pictured on Monday, April 6, 2020. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

The Associated Press

COVID-19 related news for Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Washington has long been an urban Indian population center. Some tribal citizens move to the city to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs or another federal agency. Others serve tribes or inter tribal organizations. And some move for career opportunities. Then again a lot of Native families are Indigenous to the area or have been in the nation’s capital for a long time.

The District of Columbia announced 99 new cases Wednesday, including one American Indian. Nothing else is known yet about the person yet. 

But it shows that urban Indian populations are facing the same threat from the virus that has been reported by tribal communities across the country.  And that even in a pandemic urban American Indians and Alaska Natives are largely invisible. 

The Urban Indian Health Institute says 7 out of 10 American Indians and Alaska Natives live in an urban setting. But so little information has been collected or reported about how these populations are faring during the pandemic. Indian Country Today includes urban Indians in its database -- at least when the information is available. The Indian Health System does not collect that data although some tribes do when referring to their own tribal citizens.

The reporting of data, including tribal citizenship, is a complex issue. 

Public health officials Wednesday released data about African Americans across the country showing that coronavirus is proving particularly devastating. Of the victims whose demographic data was publicly shared by officials — nearly 3,300 of the nation’s 13,000 deaths thus far — about 42 percent were black, according to an Associated Press analysis. African Americans account for roughly 21 percent of the total population in the areas covered by the analysis.

But that same detail has yet to be reported for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

For example a county by county view shows the situation where people live, but does not explain if they are tribal citizens or even what part of the county that people live.

The Navajo Nation reports its data at the county level instead of  tribal communities. So the report only says Navajo County, 186, instead of where in the Navajo Nation those clusters are most pronounced.

New cases

Meanwhile the number of positive cases and deaths from COVID-19 related illnesses continues to grow across Indian Country.

Cases confirmed in the Indian health system: 723

Total deaths in the Indian health system: 31

On the Navajo Nation, the number of positive tests for COVID-19 has reached 488 for the Navajo Nation as of Wednesday – an increase of 62 positive cases since Tuesday, according to the Navajo Department of Health and Navajo Area Indian Health Service, in coordination with the Navajo Epidemiology Center.

The Navajo Nation's daily update also includes 2,221 total negative test results as of Wednesday. There are 20 confirmed deaths related to COVID-19. 

"Per capita, our numbers are very alarming," said Nation President Jonathan Nez. "The only way we’re going to beat COVID-19 is by practicing T’áá hwó’ ajít’éego, self-determination. The teachings of our Navajo elders still help and guide us to this day. Each and every one of us has to take it upon ourselves to self-isolate – when we isolate ourselves, we isolate the virus."

This weekend the Navajo Nation begins a 57-hour weekend curfew at 8 pm on Friday until Monday at 5 am.

Federal money expected soon

At a Wednesday press conference, U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska, said he’s following through to see tribes quickly get the $8 billion for COVID-19 relief allocated in the Cares Act. He said it would be fair for at least $750,000 to go to each tribe.

Sullivan said the Alaska Congressional delegation is in touch with the secretaries of the departments of Interior and of Treasury, and with Tara Sweeney, Inupiaq. She’s originally from Alaska and now serves as assistant secretary for Indian affairs in the Department of Interior.

He said Alaska has half the country’s federally recognized tribes, many of them small, and he wants to make sure they get “very significant funding.” And that they get it quickly. “The goal is within three to four weeks and then they [tribes] need to be able to use that in a broad sense in addressing the challenges of the pandemic.”

It’s up to the Administration to make the final call on funding for tribes, “But as the two Alaskan senators who worked hard to get that set aside, we're hoping they're gonna listen to us on this minimum per tribe throughout the country,” Sullivan said.

New Mexico pueblo to help with quarantine

A pueblo in northern New Mexico has reopened up its casino’s hotel as a temporary quarantine facility for Native people waiting for COVID-19 testing results.

The Pueblo of Pojoaque opened its Hilton Santa Fe Buffalo Thunder Resort on Tuesday to house low-risk tribal citizens of New Mexico pueblos and other tribal citizens in the state referred by the state health department, according to a news release.

“Our goal is to prevent virus spread and reduce risk to tribal families by providing tribal members with potential illness, who are referred by DOH, a comfortable, safe place to stay,” Pojoaque Gov. Joseph Talachy said in a statement. “Buffalo Thunder Resort is an ideal housing solution for this emergency situation.”

Talachy was not able to be reached for further comment.

The news of the hotel opening comes as Zia Pueblo and San Felipe saw a spike in coronavirus cases. Zuni Pueblo recently reported its first tribal citizen death due to the coronavirus.

It’s unclear how many have been referred to the hotel. The state health department and the New Mexico Emergency Operations Center have final approval on who to send to the hotel.

A spokeswoman for the health department didn’t immediately respond to related questions via a preferred email request.


Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, and vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, held a media conference call on Wednesday. He said he’s been in contact with tribal and Indian Health Service leaders around the state.

“I led a bipartisan, bicameral letter from Congress urging the president to make sure federal agencies honor their trust and treaty responsibilities to tribes and quickly deploy critical funding,” he said. “The Navajo Nation is getting hit particularly hard and we are getting distressing updates about outbreaks at San Felipe Pueblo and Zia Pueblo.”

New tribal cases reported

On Wednesday, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe was notified by Indian Health Service of a positive coronavirus case in Corson County, S.D. It’s believed to be the first positive case on the reservation.

Chairman Mike Faith said in a statement that the case was found through contact tracing from Burleigh County, N.D., north of the reservation. The patient is self-quarantined with family and the family has verified no symptoms as of Wednesday, according to a news release.

The Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes in Montana reported two positive cases Wednesday. Two health care employees at Riverside Family Clinic on the reservation tested positive, according to a public notice post on Facebook. No other details were provided about the two employees.

On Tuesday, Chairman Floyd Azure issued a new release condemning the spread of misinformation on social media. “Remember that spreading false information that has not been verified, through word of mouth, advertising and social media that creates a public panic can be prosecuted, which includes a fine of up to $500 and possible jail time,” Azure said.

The Quechen Indian Tribe in Arizona reported a positive case on Tuesday. A stay at home order is in place on the reservation. No other details about the case were made available.

“There are people still being out in public and putting each other at risk. This is a very serious situation and we need to urge all members of our community to stay at home now more than ever,” President Jordan Joaquin said in a statement. “We ask that you consider the health of our elders, and those at high-risk. We must do our best to remember COVID-19 is extremely dangerous for our elders, over 60, those with pre-existing medical conditions.”

Morgan Howard, ounder of NativeCo.com and Morgan Howard ProductionsSealaska board finance committee chair Morgan Howard, Tlingit.

Alaska Native corporation donates $1 million

The for-profit Alaska Native corporation Sealaska is donating $1 million to tribes and nonprofit organizations for COVID-19 response services. In a prepared statement, the corporation said the money is for immediate support for shareholders until federal and local relief is rolled out. The goal is to stabilize families, make sure essentials such as food are distributed, and help the homeless and others struggling in the COVID-19 crisis.

“The board felt strongly that we needed to move — and move quickly — to help our shareholder families and neighbors,” Morgan Howard, Sealaska finance committee chair said. “None of us know what the greatest needs will be in the future. So, in order to be strategic and nimble we are moving resources to local organizations that know how to prevent the most vulnerable people from falling through the gaps.”

Sealaska wrote that half a million dollars will go to the 19 federally recognized tribes in Southeast Alaska, the Blood Bank of Alaska, and Capital City Fire and Rescue in Juneau. Earlier, Sealaska donated $25,000 to Alaska and Southeast Alaska food banks. The corporation is also partnering with the Juneau School District to provide food to students while schools are closed.

Sealaska will distribute the rest of the $1 million over the next several months to help people recover and rebuild in the long term.

Sealaska board chair Joe Nelson said, “We understand all too well that our relatives are over-represented in vulnerable populations during normal times. We will get through this crisis together.”

Sealaska is one of 12 regional for-profit Alaska Native corporations created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.

COVID-19 highlights the lack of Internet access

As Covid-19 drives people out of classrooms and offices and onto the Internet, Indigenus Americans are handicapped by the lack of Internet access. And that hampers their ability to succeed while engaging in social distancing. The Arizona State University American Indian Policy Institute has issued two policy briefs on the digital divide.

“The assumption that Indigenous students have Internet access once they return to their home communities is a grave, and unfortunate, misunderstanding,” states one paper, written by Research and Policy Analyst Brian Howard and Policy Communications Coordinator Mikhail Sundust.

They quote a 2016 report by the Federal Communications Commission, “More than 68 percent of Americans living on Tribal lands in rural areas lack access to advanced telecommunications [including high-speed Internet] capability.”

The authors say a 2019 study by the policy institute shows 18 percent of tribal reservation residents have no Internet access at home. In major metropolitan cities, 97.9 percent of Americans do have access to high-speed fixed broadband services.

And when Native Americans do have Internet access affordability, speed and quality of access, and the location of access put them on the “disadvantaged side of the digital divide.” With 20 percent of indigenous students having Internet access only on a smartphone, they may struggle to complete homework assignments or take part in video-conferencing.

“These data intensive forms of engagement and participation present additional barriers for Native students,” the authors wrote.

The authors go on to say the spread of COVID-19 impacts students in three ways. Closures of schools and libraries take away an important access point to the Internet for students. Limited Internet access limits student’s participation in data in data intense activities. And they may be forced to withdraw from school due the cost of Internet access.

Most people will recover

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.

Here are the symptoms of the virus compared with the common flu.

One of the best ways to prevent spread of the virus is washing your hands with soap and water. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends first washing with warm or cold water and then lathering soap for 20 seconds to get it on the backs of hands, between fingers and under fingernails before rinsing off.

You should wash your phone, too. Here’s how.

Indian Country Today - small phone logo

Jordan Bennett-Begaye, Mark Trahant, Joaqlin Estus, Aliyah Chavez and Dalton Walker contributed to this story. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

(More information: Indian Country's COVID-19 syllabus -- Data, story summaries, lists of closures, resources)

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