By Kate Cimini, USA TODAY

For years, Betty Sigala spoke to her family about her death: she didn’t want to be put on a machine and she didn’t want to die alone. 

When she was admitted in June to the COVID-19 care ward at her local hospital, her family refused a ventilator. One of her grandsons convinced the nurses to ignore the no visitors rule and let him in. 

He set up an iPad so the family could speak with her, then held her hand as she died.

Her granddaughter, Leticia Aguilar, 37, lit a fire for her that lasted four days and four nights, a tradition of their Pinoleville Pomo Nation. She cut her hair in mourning, and sang and gave offerings to help her grandmother on the yearlong journey she would take to her final resting place, according to their traditions. 

Leticia Aguilar poses for a portrait holding a picture of her gandmother Betty Ann Sigala in her home.
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As Aguilar arranged for her grandmother’s burial, Liz Sigala, Aguilar’s aunt and Betty Sigala’s daughter, was admitted to emergency room care. She couldn’t breathe, gasping for air when she tried to speak.

Eleven days after her mother’s death, Liz Sigala died from COVID-19. The family held a double burial. Aguilar lit the fire once again. 

Photos of Elizabeth Sigala and Betty Ann Sigala who passed away from Covid-19 last year, in Leticia Aguilar’s home in Elk Grove, Calif. on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021.
SALGU WISSMATH FOR USA TODAY

Amid the ceremony and grieving, Aguilar made sure to fill out both death certificates, marking each of them “Native American.” She was proud she could do this last thing for them.  

“I’m so glad that we were able to have them counted,” she recalled nearly eight months later. “It meant a lot for us as natives.”

From left, Sergio Hinojosa Jr., Leticia Aguilar, Jordan Hinojosa, Jenny Sigala, Sergio Hinojosa III, and Angelina Hinojosa pose for a portrait in their home in Elk Grove, Calif. on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021.
SALGU WISSMATH FOR USA TODAY

Aguilar, who lives in Sacramento, feared that if she let hospital staff fill out the form her family would be misclassified as Latino, white or marked as “other.” 

Native American leaders across California said COVID-19 deaths have shrouded their communities, yet state figures show few American Indian people have died here compared with other states with significant Indigenous populations. Leaders and experts fear deaths in their communities have been undercounted because of a long history of Native Americans being racially misclassified.

This damaging practice can bar native people from getting the help and resources they actually need, they said.

Evidence of racial misclassification of American Indians stretches back decades. 

A 1997 American Journal of Public Health study that compared birth certificates of American Indians in California from 1979 to 1993 with death certificates during the same time span found that at the time of death, about 75% of native children were racially misclassified. 

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