Abigail Echo-Hawk knew people were going to die even before COVID-19 reached Seattle. Based on the resources she and her fellow leadership team members had at the Seattle Indian Health Board, the public health researcher and registered member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma prepared for the toll the pandemic would have on Washington’s Indigenous communities.

“I was terrified, absolutely terrified,” she said. “‘How are we going to do this? And how are we going to do it well?’ With the resources we have right now, I knew that it was going to have a devastating impact on our people.”

What Echo-Hawk didn’t expect was the box of body bags she and her fellow board members received in March 2020. The Seattle Indian Health Board had sent out a request to state and federal partners for more PPE supplies. Instead, they received the body bags, an act that, Echo-Hawk says, mirrors the government’s devaluing of Indigenous lives — something that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Echo-Hawk drove home that night in tears, wondering how to move forward. The Seattle Indian Health Board had no use for body bags — they call an ambulance if someone dies at their facility. 

Eventually, she found a way to transform one of the body bags into a traditional Native ribbon dress, drawing upon the regalia-making knowledge passed on to her from the rural Alaska community in which she was raised. 

“I can take these teachings and I can apply them to making this ribbon dress,” Echo-Hawk said. “All of the teachings that I was taught about making it were healing for me.”

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Abigail Echo-Hawk decided to turn a body bag into a ribbon dress, as a symbol of healing and resilience. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

Ribbon dresses originated in the 1800s, when Indigenous crafters decorated garments with fabric they had acquired from trading with European settlers. Each ribbon represents a prayer, Echo-Hawk said.  

With her cultural knowledge guiding her, Echo-Hawk created a dress with intricately stitched ribbons, fringe sleeves, mirror embellishments and striking red handprints. Each detail of the garment displays a message of healing and resilience. 

The finished project would go on to be featured in Vogue magazine, and is slated to appear at the Indigenous Film and Arts Festival in Denver in October 2021. 

The project is intended to draw attention to the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on Indigenous communities, as well as highlighting the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Native Americans are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, as they are 3.5 times more likely to contract the disease and 1.8 times as likely to die from it as white people.   

This new disparity compounds the danger faced by Indigenous women and girls, who are 1.7 times more likely to experience violence than white women, and who experience murder rates 10 times higher than the national average in some countries, according to the National Congress of American Indians. In 2018, Echo-Hawk’s work with the Urban Indian Health Institute found that Washington state has the second-highest number of missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls in the country.

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With these harsh realities in mind, Echo-Hawk struggled to sew into the stiff plastic body bag. She described her grappling with the material as a metaphor for her workplace struggles to secure the resources and supplies Washington’s Native population needed. 

“We’ve never accepted body bags for our people,” she said. “We’ve only ever accepted a world where we are thriving, and where our next generations are ever continuing. So I saw my struggles with the textile as part of that, and kind of match the struggle that I was having at work across the year that the pandemic has been going on.” 

As soon as she began folding the body bag, Echo-Hawk said, she could see the shape of the dress. The toe tags that came with the bag were transformed into the fringe sleeves, laden with red thread deliberately resembling autopsy stitches, “to represent the trauma that my people have experienced, and the loss of life during COVID-19,” Echo-Hawk said. 

Identification toe tags came with the body bags, and Abigail Echo-Hawk used them to make the sleeves. Red thread is used for visible stitches that go jagged and smooth again, symbolizing moments of hardship, with recovery and resilience following. The red handprints are a symbol of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

Along the collar of the dress are rows of small mirrors, meant to deflect ill thoughts and spirits. These mirrors, Echo-Hawk told her kids as they watched her glue them down, would reflect back on the people who dared to send body bags to the Indigenous community instead of PPE. 

On a fold of the body bag, near an opening that had been lined with yellow floral fabric representative of the Anishinaabe people of the Midwest, Echo-Hawk wrote a personal mantra: “I am a tangible manifestation of my ancestors resiliency,” referring to her ancestors of the Pawnee tribe, whose numbers fell from an estimated 38,000 people to less than 700 in under a century. 

“I am a tangible manifestation of my ancestors resiliency” reads the mantra along the sash of this dress made by Abigail Echo-Hawk. The inside of the dress is lined with special fabric. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

Three red handprints mark the front of the dress, to honor the MMIW movement. They are striking, with each of Echo-Hawk’s fingerprints visible. Although Echo-Hawk’s husband suggested obscuring the prints for safety, she argued that they might be the key if she ever went missing. “If I ever go missing, my handprints, all of my fingerprints are here,” she told her two sons. “Use them to find me. Never stop looking.”

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After six months of work, Echo-Hawk revealed the finished dress on her Instagram account. Out of what was once a representation of Indigenous erasure rose a symbol of resilience and healing. 

“Indigenous peoples — we are leading,” Echo-Hawk said. “We need people to come to us because they know we have the answers, not because they think we have all the problems.”