Abigail Echo-Hawk standing beside her ribbon dress. (Samuel Fu)

Originally published on April 21, 2021 12:36 pm

Indigenous Americans are almost four times more likely to contract COVID-19 — and twice as likely to die from it than white people.

This disparity didn’t come as a surprise to Abigail Echo-Hawk, a public health researcher for the Seattle Indian Health Board and a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma. When her workplace requested more personal protective equipment last year, they got a box of body bags instead, leaving Echo-Hawk feeling like the U.S. government didn’t value the lives of Native Americans.

With no use for the body bags — the facility calls an ambulance if someone dies there — Echo-Hawk decided to transform one into a traditional Native ribbon dress. It’s since been featured in Vogue and will appear at the Indigenous Film and Arts Festival in Colorado later this year.

Native women wore this type of regalia prior to colonization, she says, and now sport ribbon dresses at traditional ceremonies and powwows. Women from different tribes wear this type of dress, which Echo-Hawk learned how to make from her aunts starting at 8 years old.

Feeling devastated and traumatized after receiving the body bags, Echo-Hawk made the dress to symbolize resilience during the pandemic.

“I remember opening them up and the first thing that happened is I kind of tilted the bag as toe tags fell out on the table,” she says, “and I immediately had tears in my eyes.”

Echo-Hawk cried her entire drive home that day. But she says she realized that to best serve her community, she needed to deal with the trauma she experiences as a public health researcher who works in a clinic that serves Native people.

When she found out she could take some of the body bags home, she started to think about how she could repurpose them as a healing tool.

“I refuse to accept that the federal government only will give us body bags,” she says. “I am going to push them to ensure that they give us the resources that we need so our communities just don’t survive, but they thrive.”

The company that sent the bags reached out and apologized after seeing the story in the news, Echo-Hawk says. But the company couldn’t explain why the clinic received the body bags.

The dress features intricate embellishments with mirrors, red handprints and writing. Echo-Hawk says she was surprised by how much her art — which she uses for her own healing — resonated with other Native people and raised awareness around what the community faces during the pandemic.

The coronavirus continues to disproportionately impact Native tribes in the Seattle area and nationwide, she says. Native people have higher rates of hospitalization and the highest death rate of any racial or ethnic group in the U.S.

“It is absolutely devastating. I’ve lost family members, I’ve lost friends, and I am not alone in that,” she says. “We are fighting every single day.”

Nonprofits such as the Seattle Indian Health Board, where Echo-Hawk works, and their tribal partners are working hard to stop the spread of the virus within the Native community.

Washington state is now seeing some of the highest vaccination rates among Native Americans and Alaska Natives, she says. And within the local community at large, the Seattle Indian Health Board helped vaccinate Seattle Public School teachers even before the state did.

“I’ve seen the strength of our community and taking care of everybody around us,” she says. “But I know that the impact of this pandemic has not ended.”

Samantha Raphelson produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

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