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Fri Feb 5, 2021, 10:47 PM

They Asked for PPE and Got Body Bags Instead--She Turned Them Into a Healing Dress

They Asked for PPE and Got Body Bags Instead—She Turned Them Into a Healing Dress
February 4, 2021 2:31 PM

In March, public health researcher Abigail Echo-Hawk (Pawnee) and her colleagues at the Seattle Indian Health Board reached out to their local and federal partners for more PPE so they could continue serving Washington’s Native population. When they received a large package a few weeks later they were elated—until they opened it and found a stack of body bags inside.

“We’re not a hospital system. We don’t have inpatient, we don’t have hospital beds. If somebody died here, we would call an ambulance,” said Echo-Hawk. “I went home and I just cried that night, which I unfortunately do often.” To her, the body bags were a symbol of how little the United States values Native lives and a foreshadowing of the massive outbreaks that would take hold on reservations like the Navajo Nation. In Native communities, the mortality rate from COVID has been nearly double that of the rate among white populations—revealing weaknesses in the Indian Health Service and putting Indigenous elders at risk.

Later, Echo-Hawk took some of the body bags home, where slowly, a vision emerged: She decided to transform one of the body bags into a traditional ribbon dress. The dress would comment on the ways the pandemic has disproportionately impacted Native communities and honor the women whose lives have been put in danger by rising rates of domestic violence and assault.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, Native women are 10 times more likely to be murdered than women of other ethnicities. Echo-Hawk’s team at the Urban Indian Health Institute, a division within the Seattle Indian Health Board, reports that Native women are also 2.5 times more likely to experience rape or sexual assault. This tragedy has only increased during the pandemic. In August, Debra O’Gara (Tlingit and Yup’ik), senior policy specialist at the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center published a press release outlining how COVID had exacerbated the long-standing problem.


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