Standing with Native American indigenous populations
Korina Emmerich, a descendant of the Coast Salish Territory Puyallup Tribe, has been designing unique face masks made out of Pendleton blankets. Credit: Courtesy Korina Emmerich
But such devastation is not new to Native American communities — coronavirus serves as a grim reminder of the measles and smallpox epidemics that first decimated the indigenous population.
Native Americans are particularly susceptible to the coronavirus because they suffer from disproportionate rates of asthma, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. Add to that lack of access to health care and pervasive poverty among the estimated 5.2 million people that identity as Native American or Alaskan native.
Amid the pandemic, some Native American designers decided to use their craft to help their community combat the virus.
The masks were meant to be a fashion statement highlighting the “biological warfare and pollution destroying Indigenous lands and our health,” she said. Instead, they have transformed into protection for the Native American community against the virus.
“As designers, we are storytellers,” Emmerich, 34, told CNN. “And our clothing is an extension of the non-verbal stories we’re sharing about ourselves. Fashion is becoming more and more political as a way to express solidarity.”
The masks, made out of Pendleton blankets, which have significant meaning in gifting and ceremony, are made out of 82% wool and 18% cotton. The mask’s lining is 100% cotton. Wool, which has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, can be sanitized in boiling water, or with dish soap and vinegar, and even pine oil disinfectant, Emmerich said.
“Anishinaabe/Ojibwe people have always made our utilitarian objects beautiful,” Howes told CNN. “It’s really our way of operating. We are endlessly innovative and adaptive.”
Along with designing the masks, Howes teaches others in her community how to make the masks themselves. The 43-year-old mother of two also donates her masks to nurses, doctors, and public workers in the community.
“When we have something beautiful, we take better care of it,” she said. “We want to wear them. When we wear masks, we protect our elders and our high risk loved ones. As we have seen with the Navajo nation, we know that our communities are very high risk.”
Greensky, an RN, wearing a mask designed and donated by Howes. Credit: Courtesy Naomi Greensky
Naomi Greensky, a registered nurse at Fond du Lac Clinic, a local tribal clinic on the reservation, is among those who received a face mask from Howes.
“I saw the design, her artwork, and am so proud to wear it,” Greensky told CNN. “For me the patterns are relevant to our culture. People in the community see them and ask, ‘Who made that? Where can I get one?'”
“It seems as when people have a mask that is representative to them they want to wear it and are proud to wear it. In the medical community we are happy to see individuals being safer and an added bonus: sense of style. It’s a pretty neat thing to see how our culture can be tied, literally, into a mask.”
Honoring Mexican icons and traditions
Tipton showing off two of her favorite masks. Credit: Courtesy Cathy Kaczmarczyk
In just weeks, plus size fashion designer Ashley Nell Tipton went from making skirts and dresses to creating face masks and headbands for people to wear during the pandemic.
“It is not only important to be safe and wear a mask, but also that the mask can evoke a feeling while wearing it,” Tipton, 28, told CNN.
Tipton, who won Season 14 “Project Runway,” did not waste a moment before finding unique ways to weave her Latina culture into her masks’ designs. For her, this means incorporating a lot of Frida Kahlo.
“Not only can you feel secure but also proud of your heritage and culture,” she said of her masks. “People buy these masks because during these challenging times wearing ‘art’ brings them joy. If you are going to wear anything, then why not have it be a reflection of your comfort, personal style and sense of safety?”
“These masks represent my culture and how I grew up. We play Lotería every time my familia gets together,” Tipton said. “Every time I see the Lotería mask it brings back great times and memories.”
Celebrating African, Indigenous, and Latinx cultures
Marisol Catchings wearing and holding her face masks. Credit: Courtesy Marisol Catchings
Now, the 31-year-old designer of Chicana and Black heritage and her mom, Norma Saavedra, are introducing the distinctive beauty of their cultures to the world of face masks.
“As a woman of color, it is truly heartbreaking to know that the Black, Latinx, and low income communities in this country are being disproportionately affected and have a higher barrier of access to essential items, such as masks,” Catchings said.
The pair are continuing to “honor their values” by merging culturally representative African and Mexican fabrics in her unique designs. The masks feature various culturally significant patterns, including a serape, a shawl commonly worn in Mexico and Latin America, as well as sugar skulls, or calaveras.
“In a time of such uncertainty and fear, wearing culturally representative masks can be a way to reclaim some of our sense of safety and joy,” Catchings said. “If we are now incorporating masks to our daily routine, safety is the first pro, and the added benefit is being able to express yourself through this small and very necessary item.”
Merging African and Hawaiian cultures with Ankara prints
Williams’ brother, Ikenna Ware (r), and her son, Kaileb Williams (l), wearing her Ankara print face masks. Credit: Courtesy Alexis Williams
For Air Force veteran Alexis Williams, designing face masks has become a way to represent her two cultures while also honoring her daughter’s memory.
“My daughter being born of African Blood in Hawaii gave me the idea to merge the two cultures to create the term Afrowaiian for my Afrowaiian princess, Lauren Taylor,” Williams, 36, told CNN. “It was important for me to honor her through our mask because it keeps her spirit alive.”
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the US, Williams was also determined to continue representing her lineage — which traces back to the Balanta Tribe in Guinea Bissau — by selling face masks with colorful Ankara prints.
“What an unprecedented opportunity face masks are for expressing one’s culture, an opinion or what you stand for. Maybe our new normal will provide an opportunity to grow one’s business or help a movement reach more people.”
Representing the Palestinian struggle
Mohammad Turaani wearing Kadadah’s keffiyeh face mask. Credit: Courtesy Mohammad Turaani
Motasem Kadadah believes there has never been a better excuse to wear a keffiyeh, the checkered black and white scarf and headdress known as a symbol of Palestinian culture and nationalism.
The 22-year-old from Minneapolis, Minnesota, said he is selling keffiyeh masks “to help spread awareness of the Palestinian identity throughout this pandemic.”
“What better way to show off your Palestinian blood, sweat, and tears than to wear a keffiyeh face mask that hundreds of thousands of people wear as a symbol of resistance?” Kadadah, who is Palestinian-American, said.
“Previously, if you were to wear a keffiyeh around your face, society might get uncomfortable. Now, it’s become (part of) a social norm.”
For every mask sold, Kadadah donates two meals to families in the Palestinian Territories.