Native Americans are often racially misclassified when it comes to their positive COVID-19 test results and death certificates, according to USA Today.
In California, approximately 163 Native Americans were reported to have died from COVID-19 and nearly 9,000 were sickened from the coronavirus, according to the state public health authority, reported the Feb. 28 article.
Under state guidelines, Native Americans with a combination of any other race or ethnicity are counted as Hispanic/Latino or multiracial. The California Department of Public Health said that in recent years it has worked to decrease racial misclassification.
“The problem is in the data itself,” Virginia Hedrick, executive director of the Consortium for Urban Indian Health, told USA Today. “I don’t trust the state data. I haven’t ever. For me, this is a culminating event. This is historical trauma playing out in real-time.”
Leticia Aguilar, 37, from the Pinoleville Pomo Nation, lives in Sacramento and lost her grandmother and her aunt to COVID-19 within 11 days of each other. Aguilar filled out their death certificates and designated each one as “Native American.”
“I’m so glad that we were able to have them counted,” said Aguilar. “It meant a lot for us as natives.” Aguilar cut her hair in mourning and sang traditional songs and gave offerings, according to the Pinoleville Pomo Nation tradition. She lit a fire and let it burn for four days and nights for her loved ones’ year-long journey to their final resting place.
“We were born Indian and we die White,” Hedrick said of the Consortium for Urban Indian Health. “I would argue that there are likely more Native Americans in hospital beds that are racially misclassified [than are realized].”
Tribal leaders report that some counties refused to share death and case data with them. The counties cited health privacy protection laws, according to USA Today. The Yurok Tribe, whose reservations are in both Del Norte and Humboldt counties, had to hire a health officer to get the information it sought.
“Basically the way we looked at it, nobody’s coming, nobody’s going to help us,” said Joseph James, Yurok Tribal Chairman. “We’re a sovereign government. There’s things we need to work on to improve our daily lives and provide for our own people.”
The Tule River Tribe in Tulare County reported it was also denied access to the COVID-19 data.
“Having access to that system would make it easier for us to identify who should be isolating based on those test results, and monitoring them for quarantine and contact tracing,” said Adam Christman, chair of the Tule River Indian Health Center and Tule River Tribe Public Health Authority.
In November 2020, California State Assemblyman James Ramos of the Serrano/Cahuilla tribes and chair of the Committee of Native Affairs held a hearing on the high rate of COVID-19 among the state’s indigenous population.
During the hearing, Ramos learned that California officials refused to allow tribal leaders access to the California Reportable Disease Information Exchange. That is where all testing entities reported their COVID-19 testing results. The state also refused to tell tribal leaders if someone on their reservations had tested positive.
Underreporting of coronavirus deaths in the Native American population is only part of the problem. A Center for Disease Control study in 2016 found that nationally, Native Americans were misclassified up to 40% of the time on their death certificates, reported USA Today.
“That only contributes to the invisibility of our people, which makes it harder for us to even access resources because we can’t prove we exist,” said Aguilar. “There is so much more meaning behind making sure we are properly counted as native people.”
“We’ve been trying to go through the motions of grieving and burying people,” said Britta Guerrero, a San Carlos Apache tribe member and Executive Director of the Sacramento Native American Health Center. “We know a lot of people are missing, and we won’t understand the gravity of that until we’re back together and we see who is gone.”