July 23, 2021

We may never know how many American Indians or Alaska Natives died of COVID-19. The Indian Health Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is not keeping track. The Centers for Disease Control cannot tell us. And some state health authorities will not disclose that data, despite multiple public records requests, even though it would shed light on the pandemic’s death toll in Indian Country.

Earlier this year, the Indigenous Investigative Collective, a network of reporters from multiple outlets working collaboratively to investigate stories in Indigenous communities, attempted to report and analyze COVID-19 death numbers in and around the Navajo Nation.

News media across the United States had reported on high Navajo COVID-19 mortality rates, but that coverage primarily focused on communities within the Navajo Nation’s borders. IIC journalists Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Sunnie Clahchischiligi, and Christine Trudeau knew that to get a more accurate picture of how the pandemic had affected Navajo citizens, they would have to look beyond those borders, at communities and towns adjacent to the reservation where thousands of Navajo citizens live.

The goal was to gather death certificates and examine names, locations, and other data to identify any Navajo people who may have died of COVID-19 but not been counted in statistics from the Navajo Nation or other government agencies, possibly due to place-of-residence details or documentation errors. Such misidentification is a common problem in Native death records: In 2016, a National Center for Health Statistics report found that nearly half of all individuals who identified themselves as American Indian or Alaska Native were classified differently on their death certificates.

Immediately, the IIC reporters met resistance. Public records requests they filed in states that straddle the Navajo Nation — Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah — were denied, purportedly due to privacy issues covered in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. New Mexico officials explained that the death records requested were considered protected health information and contained data “reasonably believed to allow (unauthorized) identification of patients.”

There are 55 Indigenous nations in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, with large populations and territories. With all four of those states denying access to public records, the IIC reporters knew the situation had nationwide implications: If they couldn’t get records to examine COVID-19’s Indigenous impact in this region, it would be impossible to extrapolate any meaningful information that could provide a general perspective on how the pandemic affected 576 nations across the U.S.

Even if evidence suggests Indigenous communities have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19, no central system exists to measure the pandemic’s impact in Indian Country. Many tribes rely on state or federal authorities for data collection. A refusal by states to release such information, including death documents, not only violates the spirit of open records laws; it undermines trust in the transparency and accountability of all government agencies. It also further marginalizes and disenfranchises Indigenous nations and impedes journalists from doing their jobs. With tribal governments sometimes imposing their own restrictions on media freedom, Indigenous people are often left without access to important information from either their own nations as well as federal and state governments.

Although nearly 75% of Indigenous nations in the U.S. express support for a free press in their constitutions or articles of incorporation, only a handful allow public records access. Many newsrooms that serve Indigenous communities are funded by tribal governments, and with few other financial resources available from the media industry to support truly independent newsrooms, Indigenous reporters often contend with censorship, budget restriction, intimidation and harassment by elected officials. The result is an informational black hole for many Indigenous communities.

While dozens of Indigenous Affairs desks exist nationwide, the day-to-day reporting that’s crucial to inform tribal citizens is in dire need of backing from the journalism community and from advocacy organizations. The National Congress of American Indians, for instance, could push for legislation supporting greater access to information for Indigenous reporters at the tribal government level. Tribes also could adopt clear and enforceable laws around public records access for citizens and Indigenous journalists.

Of course, state and federal governments should also do more to ensure legally valid information access. But as state legislatures nationwide attempt to clamp down on everything from voting rights to study of race and racism, and authorities flout public records laws by charging inordinate amounts for documents or rejecting legitimate requests, expecting more governmental transparency seems naive.

Yet such transparency is now more important than ever — to hold officials accountable and to give Indigenous people a true picture of how Indian Country has been affected by COVID-19.

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Tristan Ahtone is a member of the Kiowa Tribe, editor-in-chief of the Texas Observer, and co-founder of the Indigenous Investigative Collective.
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