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From tragedy, a new purpose

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At this year’s Denver March pow wow, a young lady limped across the arena to accept the top award for the adult Jingle Dress contest. It was an amazing feat for Willow Abramson Jack, 28. Walking was something her doctors doubted she would ever do; dancing was thought impossible. But the Lemhi Shoshone-Bannock woman from Fort Hall, Idaho had other plans.

On Aug. 12, 2005, Willow, her husband, Daryl, their two children, 4-year-old daughter Maliah and 6-year-old son Nakeezaka, and Willow’s sister, Lela, were in a car accident on their way home from a pow wow in Montana. Her husband and daughter were killed; her sister suffered head injuries; Willow had three cracked vertebrae and crushed pubic and pelvic bones. Amazingly, her young son escaped with only a bruised eye.

While she laid in recovery, she received flowers, letters of encouragement, and food donations from all over the world. His Holiness the Dalai Lama received word of her tragedy and requested an audience with Willow and her son. In a private ceremony a month after the fatal accident, he told her she must remember the blessings, to not feel sorry for herself, and to be strong for her son and family.

The special blessing was a “humbling experience” for Willow.

Less than two years later, tragedy struck again. Willow and her son were in another car accident. This time, her son sustained serious injuries, including a broken arm and leg. Willow needed facial and scalp reconstruction. She also broke her tibia plateau, both knees, reinjured her pelvic bone and knocked out her SR joint. Doctors predicted she would never walk again.

Through prayer and belief in her traditional ways, Willow amazed physicians and began walking on her own. Four days before the start of her senior year at Haskell Indian Nations University, she got out of her wheelchair and walked.

Willow’s last year at Haskell was difficult. Aside from her physical injuries, she carried the pain of losing her husband and daughter. She coordinated two memorials to honor their memory. Every day she struggled to walk, stay positive, continue her studies and care for her now 8-year-old son. Prayer became an important part of her existence, partaking in traditional ceremonies and returning to pow wows and Jingle Dress – a healing dance she mastered years before the accidents.

It was during this time Willow began thinking about her blessings, friendships and the network of people from all walks of life who had supported her. She believes this support was instrumental in helping her recover so quickly. That got her thinking about the power of bringing people together for change.

“I knew that creating networks was important to getting things done, I saw [what is possible] when we as Indian people call out to one another. We find a way to help each other. I noticed that various people in the past had united and been successful, like AIM for example, and their takeover of Alcatraz. I learned about the strategy implemented to resist oppression of our people, and how working together is the only way we have survived. I began to think, why don’t all Indian youth know what [Native American Rights Fund] is? Or what [National Indian Gaming Association] does? Why don’t Indian higher learning institutions social network the way Harvard, Columbia, Stanford and Yale do?”

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Willow started meeting with her advisers, who encouraged her to take action. Her mission was to create a summit to get students coming up with ways to combat stereotypes and become educated about issues affecting indigenous people across the Americas and around the world.

She created a strategic plan, and laid out the framework of the event she hoped to create. After months of work and reaching out to educators, students, tribal leaders, members of Congress, and anyone else who wanted to help, the first Indigenous Empowerment Summit was created.

The spring 2008 event was a success, featuring guest speakers, workshops, live music, performances, book signings and, most importantly, the power of Indians from across America networking, sharing and coming together. Haskell University hosted the summit in April. With the new challenge of pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Kansas, Willow was unable to serve as coordinator this year, though she did assist and mentor event organizers, and presented a workshop on medicine and empowerment. Willow hopes to return as coordinator for the 2010 summit.

As a graduate student in social work she is interested in international indigenous people, community development and advocacy. In April, Willow traveled to New York City on scholarship to attend the United Nations International Social Workers Day. She was impressed with the pride people have in their cultures around the city. At the UN she met social work delegates from around the world.

“It almost brought me to tears thinking it has only been a few years since the United Nations has recognized indigenous people,” Willow said.

She wore a traditional dress and walked the halls of the UN as a traditional Native American woman – not to romanticize her culture, but to show fellow delegates that she is an indigenous social worker, a Lemhi Shoshone-Bannock, and her people are still here. Many students told her they wished they had worn their cultural attire. Africans, Middle Easterners, Indians and many students from different nations approached her and were impressed in the pride she showed for her culture and people.

Willow became reacquainted with Ora Wise, whom she met at Haskell. Wise is one of the producers of “Slingshot Hip Hop,” a film depicting the struggles of youth in Palestine and the hip hop movement.

Haskell has become a partner to send a delegation of indigenous youth to Palestine. The goals of the program are for young people to share their views and experiences of colonization, assimilation, occupation, loss of language and to create dialogue between young people struggling around the world. Wise asked Willow to co-host the Home Land Hip Hop fundraiser in Brooklyn.

“I was so nervous, I’m a country girl from Idaho, and thought they would think I’m a hick,” Willow said. By the end of the night she was a hit with the crowd, introducing performers and handling the packed hall like a seasoned professional. “I could not believe how much fun I had and how supportive the people were.” Willow was also part of the delegation that traveled to Palestine.

Willow continues to work though her pain to be a role model for her family, her community, Indian people and other young survivors of tragedy.