How Abigail Echo-Hawk is using Indigenous data to close the equity gap

How Abigail Echo-Hawk is using Indigenous data to close the equity gap

“Transforming Spaces” is a series about women who drive change in sometimes unexpected places.

Data has long been central to Abigail Echo-Hawk’s life. Growing up in rural Alaska, she remembers hearing stories about Native data collectors, like an uncle who counted beavers each spring to find out how many of them could be sustainably hunted the following winter .

But it wasn’t until her early 20s that Ms. Echo-Hawk realized that data wasn’t just information: It could also be power. After reading a report of the Urban Indian Health Institute on infant mortality in the Native community in Washington state, Ms. Echo-Hawk shared it with a volunteer commission on which she served. This led to a Seattle ordinance of 2012 protect the right to breastfeed in public, because breastfeeding is linked to a reduction in infant mortality.

“A story itself makes it easy for someone to say that this is one person’s experience,” said Ms. Echo-Hawk, who lives outside Seattle and is a citizen of the Pawnee Nation. Data, on the other hand, makes people pay attention.

Ms. Echo-Hawk has since become an important voice in the Indigenous data movement. She now directs the Urban Indian Health Institute and serves as executive vice president of its oversight agency, the Seattle Indian Health Board. She uses data as a tool for racial equity, using it to dismantle stereotypes, highlight disparities, and fight for funding.

Although Echo-Hawk admitted that even her own mother doesn’t really understand what she does, a lot of it comes down to making sure Indigenous people are taken into account.

“Her work to address health inequities and call attention to troubling gaps in public health data for tribal communities is recognized nationally,” said Sen. Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, in an email. “Abigail is a changemaker in the truest sense of the word. »

Ms. Echo-Hawk spoke national importance In 2018, when it published data on the high rates of sexual violence experienced by indigenous women. This was followed by a much cited report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Although Ms. Echo-Hawk was far from the first or only person to draw attention to the issue of missing women, more than a dozen states created corresponding working groups or reports in subsequent years. Congress also adopted two related laws.

In an email, Sen. Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington, credited the report with increasing national awareness of missing and murdered indigenous women. “Abigail Echo-Hawk will remain one of the great Indian leaders of the 21st century,” she said.

In 2020, Ms. Echo-Hawk made waves again when she called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for failing to share data on the spread of Covid-19 among indigenous communities. The agency recognized there had been a “significant communication issue” and promised to provide tribal epidemiologists with the data they needed. The following year, Ms. Echo-Hawk landed at Vogue after making a traditional dress from body bags sent to her organization in lieu of the personal protective equipment she had requested.

Ms Echo-Hawk, 44, comes from a well-known family of indigenous advocates. Her adoptive grandmother fought for subsistence fishing rights all the way to the United States Supreme Court. An uncle helped found the Native American Rights Fund; another helped write the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. A sister ran for mayor of Seattle in 2021.

Sofia Locklear, a member of the Lumbee Tribe and assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto-Mississauga, said Ms. Echo-Hawk, her former mentor, forced researchers to rethink fundamental questions such as: Who do we collect data on? data ? Who collects it? And what story are we trying to tell?

Because the American Indian and Alaska Native population is relatively small – 9.7 million people — some studies relegate it to an asterisk: “not statistically significant”. Still, some public health experts say it’s harmful.

The lack of data is “a way of erasing Indigenous people from mainstream society,” said Melissa Walls, of Anishinaabe descent and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Indigenous Health. “Many policy decisions are made based on data. And if there isn’t data to tell the story of a given community, the money won’t flow in our direction. »

On the other hand, good data can lead to changes in policy – ​​and mentality. As an example, Ms. Echo-Hawk cited her organization’s report on sexual violence. “It changes the perception of what’s happening,” she said. “We don’t all kill ourselves because there’s something wrong with us. We have high rates of suicide due to trauma. »

Ms. Echo-Hawk is a trauma survivor herself. She was first sexually assaulted when she was 6 years old and attempted suicide for the first time when she was 9 years old. In her late teens, she moved to Seattle, where she married and became pregnant with the first of two sons. After feeling stigmatized at the local hospital by a medical assistant who checked her arms for signs of drug use, Ms. Echo-Hawk went to the Seattle Indian Health Board.

“They gave me food stamps, they provided me with medical services and they did it in a culturally grounded way,” said Ms. Echo-Hawk, who is now divorced. “I was able to start this healing process.”

For the next decade, Ms. Echo-Hawk cut hair by day and took classes at night. In 2016, she joined the research department at the Seattle Indian Health Board. In the years since, his departments’ annual operating budget has increased from about $1 million to $9 million, an increase he credits.

In addition to publishing studies, Echo-Hawk teaches researchers how to include Indigenous people in data. It also helps hospitals and law enforcement agencies change their data collection practices to reduce racial misclassification. (As Ms. Echo-Hawk said: “A common saying in Indian country is that you are born native and you die white – that’s how they mark you on the death certificate because no one asks you.”)

Although several people praised Echo-Hawk, an Indigenous public health expert suggested others had had more measurable impacts on the ground but received less attention. This is both a criticism and a compliment, as many say this is exactly where Ms. Echo-Hawk shines: in grabbing the audience’s attention.

“If you’ve ever been in a room with her or seen her speak in person, you’ll never forget it,” Ms. Locklear said. Many have called Ms Echo-Hawk “bold” and “unapologetic”, traits reflected in the animal prints, high heels and “big native aunt laugh” for which she is known.

Ms. Echo-Hawk now spends much of her time doing what she is best at: talking. Over the past four years, she has testified before Congress numerous times and consulted with several legislators to make the language of their bills more inclusive. She responds to dozens of emails each month from tribes interested in starting their own data collection projects. She serves on a dizzying number of committees, including at the National Institutes of Health and The Lancet, a leading medical journal.

“She asks the questions that people avoid,” said Dr. Aletha Maybank, chief health equity officer at the American Medical Association and co-chair of The Lancet Commission on Antiracism on which Ms. Echo serves. Hawk.

Mrs. Echo-Hawk still cuts her loved ones’ hair: a throwback to her days as a young mother starting school. She enjoys the opportunity to be creative, as well as the ability to know when work is finished.

“You have to have something in your life that, you know, you can see it through,” she said.

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Eric D. Eilerman

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