As the coronavirus spread across the United States in 2020, Native American communities were disproportionately affected. In February 2021, a study found that indigenous Americans were dying at twice the rate of white Americans. As of March 2021, 1 in every 390 indigenous Americans had died from Covid-19, a proportion far higher than other groups. These deaths have been undercounted due to data reporting gaps and racial classification errors, and the true number may never be known.
American Oversight has obtained documents that provide details about the number of Covid-19 cases among contractors and employees within some Bureau of Indian Education schools. The documents show that from March to December 2020, there were 159 recorded cases and 10 deaths across 54 of 183 BIE schools.
Each of these 54 schools reported at least one Covid-19 case during 2020, and seven schools reported deaths. Of these, Crow Creek Tribal Schools reported 36 cases, the highest number of any of the schools, and two deaths.
Crow Creek is located in South Dakota, where Gov. Kristi Noem refused to impose statewide mask mandates and social distancing measures even as the virus spread rapidly through the state’s population. Noem also clashed with tribal communities in the state after they imposed a mask mandate in the summer of 2020 and installed checkpoints on reservations as part of a contact-tracing program. Noem opposed the checkpoints, which tribal leaders said were crucial to protect their people from the virus.
As in the rest of the country, Covid-19 disproportionately impacted indigenous populations in South Dakota. Three other schools in South Dakota — Pine Ridge, Tiospaye Topa, and Pierre Indian Learning Center — were among the seven schools listed in the records obtained by American Oversight that reported deaths.
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