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Healthwise: Remembering Alvin Littlehead

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I recently attended the funeral for a 22-year-old Assiniboine-Sioux singer and drummer who died from leukemia.

More than 400 people filled a Catholic church’s gymnasium to mourn Alvin Littlehead, a young man who grew up before the eyes of those of us who live in Portland, Ore., and Tacoma, Wash.

For more than a decade, his clear, strong voice rocketed through the speakers of pow wows throughout the Northwest. His mother, Linda Looking, and his father, Arnold Littlehead, both from the Fort Peck tribes in Montana, also have four daughters and two other sons.

Alvin, their youngest, was the baby of their maturity, of their sobriety. When he was an infant they lay him between them in bed and sang in his ears the far-off songs of the Plains. At 10, they gave him a Sioux language tape. It ignited him and he began writing pow wow songs which would number in the hundreds. By 11, he had formed his first drum. His second drum, Northwest Connection, is a regular at pow wows throughout the region.

The beat that this child knew was the falling rain of the Pacific Northwest and that region’s multi-tribal, multi-cultural and multi-racial urban Indian communities. It’s a young community, including many who were raised far from their own tribal traditions. It gathered to honor of one its most recognized members through an unusual and moving funeral.

Arnold Littlehead, a frequent pow wow master of ceremonies, officiated. Wheelchair-bound since last year, when diabetes forced the amputation of one of his legs, Arnold called one after another of Alvin’s friends and relatives forward to sing or play a song.

In between, he told stories of his son’s life. Alvin was muscular and tall like an athlete, but he dropped out of Little League when he learned the game schedule would conflict with pow wows. As a young adult Alvin drifted into marijuana use, but stopped after his family, friends and the broader pow wow community objected. Alvin wanted to honor the drum and live his life according to the experiences that the drum would bring his way.

He was drumming on New Year’s Eve 2003 when he noticed Tashina, a young woman from the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. After she became his girlfriend, “Alvin danced harder. He walked taller. He sang louder,” his father remembered.

Last fall, Tashina with his parents watched helplessly as Alvin unexpectedly grew weak. He refused to see a doctor until in the late fall he grew so ill that his parents took him to an emergency room. He had acute leukemia, and was immediately admitted to a hospital, where massive, inpatient rounds of chemotherapy were scheduled.

Leukemia, a cancer of the blood and the bone marrow – where blood is developed – affects one-third of children diagnosed with cancer. It affects one in four cancer patients up to age 20. Its causes are unclear and it has few symptoms, which is what allowed it to creep up on Alvin.

Unable to walk early last December, medics strapped him to a gurney and wheeled him to the chapel at Providence St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Portland, where close to 100 friends and family gathered for the first of two ceremonies.

The spirits that filled the room talked of why Alvin had cancer and what he could expect. It’s not my place to talk about what they said.

In the corner of the room, a miracle was happening. Alvin gathered strength, stepped off the gurney and knelt on the floor beside Tashina. He asked her to marry him, and she accepted.

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He was the circling eagle, everyone would say, and she, the little feather.

Alvin didn’t stop living or growing, even though the cancer was taking hold of his body. He asked for a sweat lodge leader to help him.

“We talked about being a warrior,” the man said. “And that if he was going to make real change than he’d have to work at it. In the last few months, Alvin turned his life around.”

Alvin’s weapons would be kindness, compassion and forgiveness. He got to practice on the nurses, who each day inflicted on him a million little indignities.

In January Alvin rallied: he even came to a pow wow where he presented a star quilt to a nurse whom he’d come to call “auntie.” He later returned to the hospital after developing pneumonia.

Friends filled the waiting room down the hall, where they sang songs or played the flute hoping he could hear. Sometimes they stayed all night. Alvin’s father remembered the anger that he felt during his son’s last day. But Alvin pulled the oxygen mask off his face and said, “Dad, it’s OK.”

Alvin died holding a pipe and listening to his friend’s flute song.

Arnold told the crowd at the funeral, “Whatever the Creator put in that pipe for Alvin, he went with no fear.”

After Alvin died, Tashina found on her cell phone the recording of a new song that Alvin wrote while no one was looking.

Alvin’s mentor from the sweat lodge said during the funeral, “This man, sick as he was, taught me how to pray from my heart.”

It was from the heart that Alvin’s drum played him home. Sixty young people gathered around and lent their voices to the singers. Northwest Connection sounded like a late Saturday night under the stars after someone has blown an eagle whistle. As they parted afterwards, young men pressed their foreheads together and cried.

But before the mourners broke up, Arnold and Linda – who, by sharing their deepest grief, were teaching a generation of young urban Indians how to grieve – also gave a lesson in going on by making family where there are large gaping holes.

They wrapped Alvin’s little feather, Tashina, in a Pendleton blanket. Only 20 years old, she had honored Alvin during his funeral by reading a poem in which she said many of the things she might have said during a wedding ceremony. Maybe all those weeks that she spent in Alvin’s hospital room where she tried to make life feel normal to him, she was already, in a deep sense, married.

His parents, with a spiritual leader from their reservation witnessing, announced to all of us in attendance and to Tashina, as she stood there in a lacy, white gown: “You will be our adopted daughter. Your family will be our family. Someday, your children will be our grandchildren.”