MANDAREE, N.D. — Skye Hall has enjoyed sewing her own clothes for years. Her hobby began when she was 13, motivated by her desire to make her own dancing regalia to wear at powwows.
A close friend since childhood and a fellow dancer when they were on the powwow circuit, Tara DeMarce, works as the administrative assistant at the Elbowoods Memorial Health Care Center in New Town, N.D.
The two were talking about the clinic’s need for protective face masks, which are in short supply because of high global demand during the coronavirus pandemic.
So it seemed natural for Hall to apply her skills as a seamstress to making face masks for clinic workers. Hall has a sewing room in her home, which became a small factory as she went to work, cutting and stitching masks designed to be worn over N95 respirator masks to keep them from getting soiled and prolong their usefulness.
The next day, DeMarce picked up a batch of 150 masks, which also were designed to allow insertion of a filter to block the highly contagious virus.
It wasn’t long before Hall decided that many others needed masks on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, home to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. She did some research to determine what filters would be effective against the virus and went back to work.
As of Friday, April 24, Hall had made 597 filtered masks, distributed free to health care workers, paramedics and elders — all groups at higher risk of being infected or developing complications COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
Abel Felts, a paramedic with Mandaree Emergency Medical Services, was surprised when Hall called him, offering to deliver protective masks that could be worn over N95 respirators.
“She gave us a good number of them,” delivered the next day, he said, adding that she did the same for other ambulance services on the reservation. “She made them very quick for us."
“We’ve been mostly using them to make our masks last longer,” he said. “I don’t even know how she made ‘em that quick. She must be pretty good with a sewing machine.”
He added: “I’m happy to have one for when I go out. They’re really well-made. They’re soft, they’re comfortable. They’re really great masks. We’re happy to have them.”
Hall’s masks, many with fabric with floral patterns, are distinctive and easy to spot, DeMarce said.
“There’s a lot of people wearing her masks,” she said. “I’ve seen people at the gas station, the post office, the tribal building, people coming in and out of the clinic wearing her masks.”
Hall even made a couple especially for DeMarce, who shares her interest in fashion.
“They are gorgeous, they are beautiful,” DeMarce said. “She thinks they should be free with everything that’s going on. Her heart is so kind and warm. She’s just a wonderful person.”
Skye Hall was 18 months old when she started dancing. Her maternal grandmother wanted to introduce her to traditional native customs, which she wanted to instill at a young age.
“As soon as her feet hit the ground, she’s going to start dancing,” said her mother, Lovina Fox, recalling the grandmother’s wishes. “She loved to dance.”
- How smallpox brought the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes together
Hall participated in dance competitions at powwows. At the age of 13, she won a $500 first prize, which she used to buy a sewing machine so she could make her own dancing outfits.
Over the years, her skills grew. She designed her own costumes and did her own embroidery and beadwork, which grew in sophistication. She participated in powwows all over the United States and Canada, a pursuit she’s had to set aside in recent years as a single mother of three young children.
“She’s always looked for challenges,” Fox said. “She’s always been that way. She likes doing new things. She likes helping people. Her mind is always going, thinking about this and thinking about that. As a mother I’m very proud of her. Skye is a very kind-hearted person. I’m so blessed to have her.”
Hall had plenty of fabric on hand when she embarked on her mask-making crusade. But the filters were a challenge. After researching online, she determined that MERV 13 home air conditioner filters should be able to block the virus — so she bought furnace filters, which require her to disentangle the material from wire mesh, then cut to fit. She sews together three layers of filter material.
“It’s a process, that’s for sure,” she said.
It wasn’t long before she ran out of her supply of fabric. Once word of her work got around Fort Berthold and on Facebook, $700 in donations came in, allowing her to keep going.
Her mother, who’s been watching her children while Hall makes masks, has helped cut materials, but Hall does all the sewing.
“I’ll go all day with the help of my mom,” Hall said. “My babies know that Mommy’s busy.”
The deadly coronavirus pandemic resonates deeply at Fort Berthold, where outbreaks of smallpox and other infectious diseases devastated the Mandans, Hidatsas and Arikaras.
All three tribes were heavily involved in the fur trade along the Missouri River in the 1700s and 1800s. Their villages were the center of a vast trading network — but also left them vulnerable to contagion. The first disastrous epidemic came in 1781, when smallpox struck the Mandans, who lacked immunity to the disease, especially hard.
“It wiped out about 70% of the Mandan,” with a population in several villages estimated at 15,000, said Calvin Grinell, a historian for the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Nation. “So that would mean about 10,000 people died.”
The remnants moved from their villages near Bismarck-Mandan up to the Knife River, where they joined the Hidatsas for strength in numbers to protect against rival Sioux tribes. Years later, in 1862, the Arikaras joined them at Fort Berthold, becoming the Three Affiliated Tribes.
Today, according to health experts, American Indians are especially vulnerable to infections or complications from the coronavirus. Housing is scarce, forcing extended families to crowd together, and chronic diseases that make people more susceptible to complications from coronavirus infection, such as diabetes and heart disease, are more prevalent among Native Americans.
The tragic legacy of past epidemics is not forgotten at Fort Berthold, Grinnell said. “I’m sure it crosses people’s mind,” he said.
It's crossed Hall's mind, she said, as she’s making her masks.
After completing a batch of 250 masks, Hall said she planned a pause in her mask making.
“I might take a break,” she said. “This has been a very, very busy two weeks for me. I’m kind of tired.”
But her break didn’t last long. On Friday, less than two days after uttering those words, she announced on Facebook that she was back at the sewing machine. She’s run out of masks.
Her immediate priority is making masks for the Navajo Nation in Arizona and New Mexico, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus epidemic, and mandates people to wear masks in public.
“I’m currently going to work on 15 families for the Navajo nation including a nursing staff and dialysis patients,” she wrote on Facebook. She’d also like to make masks sized for children; thus far, her masks have been sized to fit ages 12 and up, she said.
Despite her passion for sewing, Hall has no interest in turning her skills into an enterprise when the pandemic is over. She graduated from culinary school but never was able to pursue a career as a chef.
She wants to return to college and has a different career path in mind.
“I do want to pursue nursing,” she said. “That’s hopefully in the future.”
And she wants her children to follow in her footsteps by taking up dancing.
How you can help
Make donations via PayPal to help Skye Hall buy fabric and filter material for protective face by emailing her at Skyelovesfashion@hotmail.com. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.