They sent body bags and toe tags. She made a ribbon dress
This segment originally aired on May 30, 2021.
Using a sewing machine and the strength of her ancestors, Abigail Echo-Hawk transformed a symbol of death — body bags intended to bury Indigenous lives lost to COVID-19 — into a healing ribbon dress.
In March 2020, Echo-Hawk and her colleagues at the Seattle Indian Health Board didn't have the masks, testing kits and resources they needed to protect their community from the spread of COVID. They sent a request to local and federal partners to send medical supplies.
Instead, they received a box of body bags.
Echo-Hawk remembers opening the box with colleagues. A toe tag fell out.
"It was almost the perfect metaphor for what the federal government has been doing to us for centuries," Echo-Hawk told CBC's Unreserved, "giving us the things to bury our people in and not giving us the resources so our people can live."
As the chief research officer at the health board, and director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, Echo-Hawk knew the devastating effects COVID could have on the people they served. She had seen Indigenous community members die from high rates of diseases and inadequate health care resourcing even prior to the pandemic.
Echo-Hawk said her eyes filled with tears as she stared at the bags, horrified but not surprised.
That night, her eyes filled with tears again as she unfolded a bag in her living room and spread it out on her couch. What could she do with bags that were meant to store human remains?
The Pawnee data researcher and artist knew she wanted to transform the bags into something empowering, to turn them into a symbol of the "hope, resiliency, strength and absolute resistance and fierceness" of Indigenous survivors.
Then she saw what they could become: a ribbon dress.
"I am the tangible manifestation of my ancestors' resiliency"
Echo-Hawk spent seven months designing and sewing a bold, intricate ribbon dress infused with metaphor and cultural teachings. As a Pawnee woman, Echo-Hawk had been taught by her aunties to approach regalia-making with good intentions, and an Anishinaabe friend encouraged her to ground her work in her traditional ways.
"You have to push aside all anger and bitterness and sadness and concentrate on the good and the well-being of the person who would wear your regalia," she said.
It was emotionally exhausting work. Touching the bags "would almost break my heart at times," she said.
One evening, as she was about to add ribbons to the sleeves, she received word that a mentor of hers, a tribal leader who had brought her so much laughter and wisdom, had died unexpectedly of COVID.
"I remember sitting there with tears falling down my eyes and I picked up the dress again and I decided to interweave those toe tags into the ribbons in honour of him."
The dress has other symbolism: her own handprints in red ink down its body to represent Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and jagged stitching to mimic autopsy stitching.
"Each of the ribbons represent the prayer of the people, and each of the stitches represent the heart, the love, the compassion, the grace and the strength of our communities," Echo-Hawk said.
Around the neck, she glued pieces of mirror. A friend who is Northern Cheyenne taught her that mirrors deflect hatred and force those who've caused harm to see their reflection.
"I put those mirrors on to reflect back to our federal government to say, 'See what you have done? And see how we will not accept it for our people?'" Echo-Hawk explained.
On Woodlands fabric, Echo-Hawk wrote her personal mantra again and again onto the skirt: "I am the tangible manifestation of my ancestors' resiliency."
The dress has since been featured in Vogue magazine and across American news outlets. But the attention Echo-Hawk most appreciates is hearing from Indigenous people who tell her seeing the dress has given them strength.
"It really is such an awesome and powerful and fierce way of reclaiming our bodies, in a way, and our lives," said Falen Johnson, host of CBC's Unreserved. "When I saw it, my mind went back to 2009 in the H1N1 pandemic when Indigenous communities in Canada received body bags. And I remember that. And, when they were afraid to send us hand sanitizer because we might drink it."
Echo-Hawk's community members continue to face disproportionate rates of illness and death. Her day job involves what she calls "decolonizing data" — the Indigenous-led gathering of information surrounding health outcomes to demonstrate that lives lost are not numbers and statistics, but grandparents, siblings and loved ones whose stories need to be honoured.
"So much has been taken from us for the last 500 years," Echo-Hawk said. "But … we are fighting for every piece of it back, and we are restitching that in bold, brilliant, beautiful colours of ribbon dresses and ribbon skirts and regalia, and words and poetry and art."