Korina Emmerich has been making face masks for years that have paid appreciation to her Indigenous heritage but now that the CDC has urged the general population to cover up in public, it is tough to keep up with demand.
Hanging with a sewing machine in her Brooklyn studio, the 34-year-old former Project Runway participant makes hundreds of masks in traditional patterns and rainbow hues. His colorful creations are simple and powerful. They represent the sacred relationships between humans and animals and highlight the threat of big oil on tribal lands. Emmerich sells the masks on its website, with the caveat that they are not specifically designed to protect against the coronavirus because they are not filtered. (The CDC recommends wearing a multi-layered cotton face covering.)
She is constantly stocking up on materials and sketching out new designs. She tells ELLE.com, sewing everything by herself takes time, but the long hours are a welcome distraction from the solitude of the pandemic.
“It is such a difficult time right now trying to find ways to help in a world where you cannot be physically present, so I’m grateful that I have something to wake up to and work on every day, because the fear of stagnating and unnecessary is real. ”
Emmerich comes from a long line of Coast Salish fishermen on his father’s side. His masks are named for fishing terms, like the orange, red, yellow, and green Split Shot design, which refers to the split shot weight used on a fishing line just above the hook.
She has made around 200 so far, and plans to sew hundreds more in the coming weeks. They will similarly wear bright colors, she says, and their purpose is to bring attention to a variety of Indigenous issues, including the anti-pipeline protests that have been taking place across North America.
In Indigenous cultures, storytelling has a long tradition as a means of teaching history, says Emmerich, and masks are “often at the center of these teachings, bringing stories to life.” In the Yup´ik tribe of Alaska, for example, driftwood masks are worn in ceremonies to illustrate the relationships between humans, animals and the spirit world. The Pueblo Indians (in northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico) also hold ceremonies in which masked men play an important role.
The materials she used to make her masks come from Pendleton Mills in Portland. They are made of 80% wool and 18% cotton, which “reduces environmental damage and also damage to people as they are not made using chemicals and will biodegrade after disposal.” , explains Emmerich.
Plus, Emmerich explains, the wool is both easy to clean (she recommends disinfecting it with boiling water or with dish soap and vinegar) and very comfortable.
Making masks is just one way she pools her resources to support Indigenous populations at risk. Emmerich is also balancing his site’s sales with fundraising for the Indigenous Kinship Collective, an Indigenous group supporting tribal communities and elders during the coronavirus crisis.
Native American communities have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, with the Navajo Nation in the southwestern United States being the worst of all. On April 18, the indigenous community having 173,667 people had 1,197 cases and 44 deaths. According to The Salt Lake Tribune, if the Navajo Nation were a state, it would fall to third in COVID-19 infections per capita, behind New York and New Jersey.
Many people also lack basic human resources, such as running water.
The fear of being stagnant and unnecessary is real.
According to Vox, Congress has distributed millions of dollars to the Indian Health Service and tribal organizations, but most tribal clinics are still to receive funding. Emmerich uses his Instagram page to promote a Navajo and Hopi relief fund (an indigenous community in northeastern Arizona) through GoFundMe.
“I am grateful that I got the opportunity to speak about [the] indigenous communities fighting for rights and sovereignty. There is so much strength in finding your voice … It’s not shit, I’m not hiding behind anything. Except maybe a face mask. ”