Navajos work to clear autopsy bill with N.M. medical investigator

By Felicia Fonseca
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) 3-08

The Navajo Nation is reaching out to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to try to settle a nearly $200,000 debt that has led to fewer autopsies being performed for the tribe.

Patrick Sandoval, chief of staff for Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr., said the BIA has recommended approval of using federal funds from a previous year to clear the debt the tribe has with the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator.

“It’s enough money to pay the entire bill in addition to paying some other outstanding bills,” Sandoval said.

A spokeswoman for the BIA, Nedra Darling, said the funding request is “making its way through the process.” Darling could not say when the request might be approved.

The state OMI was performing autopsies for the Navajo Nation on credit until the tribe’s bill peaked at $300,000 in April 2006 and the OMI placed a moratorium on the services.

The tribe has made two payments of about $50,000 each in the past two years, and the OMI has required that the tribe pay for all services up front.

Tribal Council delegates and the executive branch have wrangled during the past year over who is responsible for paying the bill. Meanwhile, some New Mexico legislators and a number of Navajo chapter houses have urged the tribal government to settle the debt.

“They really need to get their priorities straight for the sake of the people,” said Etta Arviso, a Navajo woman who has been advocating for payment. “It’s not a good example for our young people that there is unfinished business. That doesn’t show our young people to be responsible, and that’s what we always talk to our youth and children about.”

Sandoval said the tribe has “excellent credit” and generally pays its bills in a fairly timely fashion.

“Obviously we’re going to make sure we look into the people who manage these costs and find out where it went array,” he said. “We were too focused on trying to get the bill paid. We haven’t had time to look into that.”

OMI associate director Tim Stepetic said the moratorium will be lifted once his office receives payment from the tribe.

“We’re anxious to restore the relationship that existed a couple of years ago,” he said Thursday.

The Navajo Nation is the OMI’s largest tribal customer with between 60 and 80 requests per year for autopsies, Stepetic said. That number fell to about a dozen over the past two years, and the FBI has agreed to pay for another dozen autopsies for the tribe, Stepetic said.

The FBI deals with the most extreme homicide cases on the reservation, while the tribe handles investigations of other death cases – which can include those that are drug-related, accidental or suicides – without federal help.

Samson Cowboy, director of public safety for the tribe, said most of his investigators are trained to determine the cause and manner of deaths on the reservation, though Stepetic said such training is not as extensive as that required by investigators in his office.

In January, the tribe’s Division of Public Safety handled 24 deaths. One case was referred to the FBI and no autopsies were requested, Cowboy said. During the first three weeks of February, 22 people had died on the reservation. The tribe requested three autopsies and referred four cases to the FBI, he said.

Tribal Council Delegate Rex Lee Jim, chairman of the Public Safety Committee that oversees Cowboy’s division, said most deaths – especially those involving healthy young individuals and criminal activity – require an autopsy.

“Due to civil and criminal liability concerns, all deaths should require an autopsy to determine exact cause of death,” he said in a Feb. 13 letter to BIA Director Patrick Ragsdale.

Cowboy and criminal investigations supervisor Gordon Toadlena agree that the autopsy bill has been difficult to address because death is a touchy subject among some Navajos.

“It’s taught to us that you shouldn’t be talking about this,” Toadlena said. “I respect that, but then again ... we have to continue to support them (our officers) because they are the ones protecting us.