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Phoenix Rising in Resilience (AZ)

We are an online collaborative dedicated to raising awareness about ACEs, trauma-informed practice, and resilience-building in the greater Phoenix area. Given the unique history of this city and region, Phoenix Rising will explore personal and historical sources of trauma.

My First Loss to COVID-19; Remembering an Indigenous Elder with Love


Alongside two elders and a colleague, we arrived at the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health in Toronto, Canada. Our intention was to facilitate the first Canadian/American collaboration to heal Historical Trauma. I vacillated between feeling immensely excited and powerfully emotional; what an honor to be a black woman surrounded by First Nation relatives on Native land. Our first great work was to enter the sacred ceremonial space for prayer and cleansing. As a tribal African woman, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be in that moment. I am always humbled by the beauty of spirit and creator. We all come from different indigenous groups and practice in different ways, but the intent remains in alignment.

We were welcomed into the space by ceremonial leader, Kahontakwas Diane Longboat. Diane is a member of the Turtle Clan & Mohawk Nation at Six Nations Grand River Territory, Canada. I so vividly remember our eyes locking and the most extraordinary energetic exchange. The feeling was so profound that I tried to downplay our interaction as my excitement about the journey. A few hours later she pulled me aside and told me a story: first, she shared that when we embraced, she saw gold dust swirling around the room and was taken back to a meeting that occurred in the 1970s. It was a gathering of First Nations spiritual leaders from across North America. She said that a man dressed in African regalia, speaking an African tongue arrived with a message. Through a translator, he said;

“Our African people are lost because they were stolen from their land. They will need your help to find their way home. Please, hold a space for them among you and help them find their way back.”

My eyes raised in amazement. Diane hugged me again and said;

I’m so glad you are here! I’ve been waiting for you for 40 years.”

It’s true. When I am not on Mother Africa, I find great solace among First Nations people, land, ceremony and ritual. 

There are so many of our relatives dying since COVID-19. So, I know my story isn’t special. But, a dear relative recently graduated and I will remember her always. In my tradition, sustained sadness and calling the name of the deceased is unhealthy for their spiritual transition. This is my attempt to hold her high through my powerful emotions while she journeys to the ancestors.

I am a “provider” in Indian Country. Provider is a little funny to say, because I am certainly “provided” more than I could ever “provide”. I will call my recently deceased relative Thelma because as we sometimes drove around Arizona; San Carlos Apache, Tohono O’odham, Ak-Chin, Salt River Pima-Maricopa etc, chasing Alcothon meetings, people referred to us as “Thelma & Louise”. The only problem is that she was a dissident, renegade, grandma Thelma. She played no games and was willing to take on anyone in defense of the people she loves. She is loyal. We spent hours and hours in the car, stopping frequently for her to use the bathroom, talking and peeling back the onion that was her life. The stories never ended. Each time I would ask, “why didn’t you tell me that before?!” Her resilience is unmatched. She loves AJ’s mango iced tea with no sugar. When I traveled, she loved to receive a keychain from wherever I had been. Under her tutelage, I learned to navigate bureaucracy on the Community. When I went to her house, I was expected to knock and walk in. If I waited for the door to be answered, she would yell, “what are you doing? Why did you make me get up?!” I never called her by her first name; I always referred to her as mom or grandma. When in her home, she always sat in the same loveseat that faced the tv and the front door; I sat on a blue, plastic pre-schooler chair at her feet. She is an elder. I find it funny that she always called me Ms. Iya; it was her way of reminding me of the mutual respect between us. I forgot to say how much we LAUGHED. Sometimes she would fall asleep while we talked. Thelma could navigate ANYWHERE! On our long, dark drives home, often we would both be quiet and enjoy serenity together. But, she would never allow herself to fall asleep and leave me solo. And she always sent me home with chumuth to feed my son. Once she told me that I taught her how to show love. She shared her life with me and it is the greatest gift that any person could ever give. I guess, I am actually a receiver. My dear Thelma left this physical world truly as an esteemed elder. She did her work. I wish her an elegant transition and a rejoiceful reunion with the ancestors. I will always remember. One love.

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