A COVID Winter: Washington, DC: Conversations with Jourdan Bennett-Begaye: Managing Editor, Indian Country Today.

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Author: Alex Long
Date: Spring 2021
From: The Wilson Quarterly(Vol. 45, Issue 2)
Publisher: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Document Type: Interview
Length: 2,979 words
Lexile Measure: 1010L

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The Wilson Quarterly spoke with a number of those involved in battling COVID-19 or covering its impact through a dark and challenging winter. Jourdan Bennett-Begaye spoke with Alex Long.

Stepping Up (December 2020)

COVID-19 is a global crisis. But as the Washington Editor for the publication, Indian Country Today, Jourdan Bennett-Begaye has felt responsible for tracking its devastating ripples in her own community.

"We were just trying to keep an eye on all of Indian country," Bennett-Begaye recalls, "to see where the first case would pop up. Our whole team is connected on social media, and all of us come from different communities. I'm Navajo, but we have a Pueblo on our team. Mark, our editor, is Shoshone-Bannock in Idaho. We have a couple of Ojibwes from different bands up North."

Data was essential to tell that story, even if it was hard to come by. She consulted Indian Health Service (IHS) updates but found the figures were inconsistent and not updated daily. Being in the dark about COVID-19's impact bothered her and others. "People were wondering on my Facebook feed. I could see that they wanted to know how many cases their tribe had."

Bennett-Begaye decided to compile this essential data herself. She began calling tribal clinics and health care centers one by one, asking for data on COVID-19 cases and deaths. The result was a website, Indian Country Today's COVID-19 Syllabus, as well as an open database.

"I just had this like wild idea," she continues, "once more [cases] started coming: 'Oh, it'd be pretty cool to see what would happen if we tracked it. Maybe this could be something we could use.' I didn't think about sharing it publicly, until I had about maybe seven cases in there."

State and county data were difficult to obtain at first, but it improved steadily as months unfolded. In Native communities, however, mechanisms to obtain and process reliable data are underfunded by the federal government and other entities, leaving tribally-run health clinics and sites controlled by the IHS unable to easily share data.

And to make the job even more difficult, trust proved to be in as short supply as funding. "We have a trust issue, right? Because the federal government betrayed us," observes Bennett-Begaye. "So there's definitely that trust that you have to get through. It's so difficult. Even as a Navajo woman, it's difficult ... they kind of trust you, but they still don't trust you."

The database's open format helped it gain currency, and allowed Bennett-Begaye to tell tribes and community leaders that "we are open to criticism and we are open to feedback as well."

People started to pay attention. According to a UCLA study based solely on Indian Country Today's database, the reporting tool captured data and regular reporting from 287 of the 574 federally recognized tribes. It was a huge feat, especially considering that no one else was doing this work.

The data project offered Bennett-Begaye a window into the severe costs that COVID-19...

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