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Randall Akee
Kelly Lytle Hernandez
Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear
Shannon Speed
Mariah Tso

We live in an age of pandemic. As of May 10, 2020, nearly 290,000 people have died worldwide while more than 4.1M people have been diagnosed with COVID-19, a new and highly-infectious virus. To contain the virus, governments the world over have taken extraordinary steps. For example, businesses have been shuttered and schools have been closed. In turn, unemployment is soaring, food supplies are threatened, and hunger is spreading. Experts do not predict a return to normal soon, if ever. In other words, the emergence of COVID-19 is a turning point in human history, marking the old world from the new. Yet this moment is all too familiar to Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, Pacific islands and elsewhere.

Since the beginning of European colonization, new and highly-infectious viruses, such as smallpox, measles, and influenza, have repeatedly whipsawed Indigenous communities of the Americas and Pacific islands. Somewhere between two-thirds and nine-tenths of the people on this continent died within 150 years of European arrival.

In the United States today, all extant evidence suggests that COVID-19 is deeply and disproportionately impacting Indigenous communities.

Recent reporting has found that Zia and San Felipe Pueblos and the Navajo Reservation have some of the highest COVID-19 case rates in the country. Similarly, in California, state and county authorities have documented that another group of Indigenous Peoples -- Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders --are experiencing the state’s highest mortality rates, currently at three times their population proportion. However, this data is almost certainly incomplete as scholars have routinely shown how American Indian and Alaska Natives (and other Indigenous Peoples as well) are often misidentified and undercounted in various administrative and vital statistics records. Meanwhile, many tribal governments lack funding for dedicated public health officers to track and count the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

To address certain data gaps regarding COVID-19 infections and deaths in Indian Country, Indian Country Today established a public-use website to identify and document the daily increase in media coverage for COVID-19 cases and deaths for American Indian reservations and Alaska Native villages. According to the database created by Indian Country Today, infection and death rates on American Indian reservations and in Alaska Native villages may be even higher than previously reported. 

For example, according to the database created by Indian Country Today, the case rate in at least two tribal communities exceeds that of New York and New Jersey. In these small communities, the potential impact on families and communities may be devastating.

Figure 1

In Figure 2, we provide an interactive graph that allows the user to select a single tribal government and examine the COVID-19 case and death rates over time. (Note that the red bars indicate deaths and the yellow bars indicate cases.) This type of data that provides information at the tribal nation level is the type of tool that tribal leaders, planners and public health officials need in a time of emergency. It helps to justify funding for these populations that often suffer from a severe lack of adequate financial resources. Other existing data for the American Indian and Alaska Native exists at regional or state level; this data set collected by Indian Country Today is the only one that provides a community by community representation of these cases for Indian country. 

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Figure 2

Accurately monitoring case and death rates on American Indian reservations and in Alaska Native villages is vital as we confront COVID-19 in the months and years ahead. We are currently in the first wave of COVID-19 cases and deaths, in the event that a second wave arrives, comprehensive and inclusive research on disparate impact by race, ethnic, tribal, and geographic groups will be informative for future protective and preventative measures. This is especially important as Indigenous Peoples are regularly undercounted or misidentified, and tribal affiliation is rarely collected and we must strive to improve data collection methods. Many of the smaller and medium-sized tribes do not have the resources to track their own COVID-19 cases. With the majority of American Indians and Alaska Natives living in urban areas, data must also be collected on those who do not live on American Indian reservations and in Alaska Native villages. For example, L.A. County, with the largest urban Indigenous population in the country, has only 18 recorded cases for individuals who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native.

Tribal nations need data on all of their citizens, regardless of reservation, homeland, village, or urban residence. Indigenous data sovereignty asserts that Indigenous Peoples have the right to access and collect data specific to their communities, nations and peoples. The COVID-19 pandemic exposes the urgency of this call for data disaggregation and is crucial for effective governance, public health efforts and emergency planning. We support and champion this work.

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Randall Akee (Native Hawaiian) is an associate professor in the departments of Public Policy and American Indian Studies at UCLA. Dr. Akee is an applied microeconomist and has worked in the areas of Labor Economics, Economic Development and Migration. He is a research fellow at the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development and a Non-Resident Fellow at Brookings Institution. He also served on the National Advisory Council on Race, Ethnic, and Other Populations at the US Census Bureau. He is also a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Professor of History, African American Studies, and Urban Planning at UCLA, The Thomas E. Lifka Endowed Chair of History Director, Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA Director, Million Dollar Hoods. 2019 MacArthur Fellow.

Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear, a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Arizona

Shannon Speed is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. She is Director of the American Indian Studies Center (AISC) and Professor of Gender Studies and Anthropology at UCLA. Dr. Speed has worked for the last two decades in Mexico and in the United States on issues of indigenous autonomy, sovereignty, gender, neoliberalism, violence, migration, social justice, and activist research.

Mariah Tso, GIS Specialist, Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, UCLA