Monday, May 27, 2024

“Transforming Spaces” is a series about women driving change in sometimes unexpected places. Data has long been in the background of Abigail Echo-Hawk’s life. Growing up in rural Alaska, she remembers hearing stories about Indigenous data gatherers, like an uncle who counted beavers every spring so he’d know how many could be sustainably hunted the following winter. But it wasn’t until her early 20s that Ms. Echo-Hawk realized that data was not just information— it could also be power. After reading a report from the Urban Indian Health Institute about infant mortality in Washington State’s Native community, Ms. Echo-Hawk shared it with a volunteer commission on which she served. That led to a 2012 Seattle ordinance protecting the right to breastfeed in public, as breastfeeding is linked to reduced infant mortality. “A story by itself makes it easy for somebody to say this was just 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 a leading voice of the Indigenous data movement. She now directs the Urban Indian Health Institute, and is the executive vice president of its overseeing body, the Seattle Indian Health Board. She wields data as a tool for racial equity, using it to dismantle stereotypes, highlight disparities, and vie for funding. “Her work tackling health inequities and bringing attention to the disturbing gaps in public health data for tribal communities is nationally recognized,” Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, said in an email. “Abigail is a change maker in the truest sense of the word.”

Ms. Echo-Hawk rose to national prominence in 2018, when she released data on the high rates of sexual violence experienced by Native women. That was followed by a much-cited report on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Though Ms. Echo-Hawk was far from the first or only person to draw attention to the issue of the missing women, more than a dozen states created corresponding task forces or reports in the years following. Congress also passed two related laws.

In 2020, Ms. Echo-Hawk made waves again when she called out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for failing to share data about Covid-19’s spread among Native communities. She acknowledged there had been a “significant miscommunication” and promised to get tribal epidemiologists the data they needed. The following year, Ms. Echo-Hawk landed in Vogue after making a traditional dress from body bags that were 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 adopted grandmother fought for subsistence fishing rights all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. One uncle helped found the Native American Rights Fund; another helped write the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. One sister ran for mayor of Seattle in 2021.

Though several people were effusive in their praise of Ms. Echo-Hawk, one Indigenous public health expert suggested that others had made more measurable impacts in the field but had garnered less attention. That is both a critique and a compliment, as many say that’s exactly where Ms. Echo-Hawk shines: in drawing the public eye.

Ms. Echo-Hawk now spends much of her time doing what she’s best at: talking. In the past four years, she has testified in front of Congress numerous times, and has consulted with several lawmakers to make their bills’ language more inclusive. She answers dozens of emails each month from tribes interested in beginning their own data gathering projects. She serves on a dizzying array of committees, including at the National Institutes of Health and at The Lancet, a leading medical journal. “She asks the questions that people shy away from,” said Dr. Aletha Maybank, the chief health equity officer for the American Medical Association and a co-chair of The Lancet commission on antiracism on which Ms. Echo-Hawk serves.

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