Body Bags for Native Americans

Body bags sent to Seattle Native American health center that asked for Covid-19 supplies.

SEATTLE — Health officials who work with Seattle’s Native American population asked for supplies to fight Covid-19, but what they received instead, they say, is much more gruesome.

Now, they’re left wondering who sent them body bags instead of testing kits and protective gear — and why.

Seattle’s Indian Health Board serves 6,000 patients a year. About 67 percent of those patients are Native Americans or Alaska natives.

They received the body bags shipment back in April. At first they thought it came from the King County Health Department, but since the department receives supplies from FEMA, it may have come from there.

At this point, they just don’t know. But one thing is clear: For the Indian Health Board, this shipment is illustrative of how Native Americans and tribes have been treated throughout the pandemic.

“We kind of thought it was a mistake,” said Seattle Indian Health Board CEO Esther Lucero. “But when we actually opened up one of the bags, all of us had to take a deep breath, and there were tears when we saw the toe tags. For a moment, for whatever reason, it was that experience that it just really hit home. And we were wondering if there were other communities who’ve received these.”

The box of body bags is sitting in an office as they figure out who sent them.

Lucero says she’s using the national attention to shine a spotlight on the Native American populations battling this virus. Many are homeless, she says, or part of multi-generational households. The risk of exposure is very high, and supplies are desperately needed.

Tuesday, The U.S. Treasury Secretary announced more than $4 billion in funding that will be released to tribes for coronavirus relief. The tribes asked for $8 billion.

The money is being distributed based on population data from the U.S. Census. The rest of the money will be distributed at a later date, based on how many people in a tribe are employed.

Q13 reached out to FEMA to see if the body bags were mistakenly sent to the Seattle Indian Health Board, or if they had any leads on where it may have come from.

A FEMA spokesperson said on Thursday, that requests for assistance at the local and county level must first be sent to a respective state first.

“Prioritization and distribution of supplies to tribal organizations can be arranged through state emergency management, Indian Health Service, and Non-governmental organizations. Federally recognized tribes may work directly with FEMA,” said a FEMA spokesperson through a statement.