I remember sitting in the lobby of the Maricopa County Health Clinic on a scorching summer day in Phoenix, Ariz. The counselor had drawn blood 20 minutes prior, and I was waiting for the results. My heart was racing a mile a minute. A young white woman opened the door and motioned me to follow. Nervously, I entered a small room where she turned and said, “I’m sorry, your results came back positive.”
That was May 2, 2002. Many Native people in America have been told the same thing. Too many have passed away, while others cling to the notion that they are not infected, too afraid to take an HIV test for fear of knowing the results. Many struggle with issues such as homelessness, disclosure, acceptance, fear, stigma and confidentiality, to name a few. Twenty-five years after the first AIDS case, funding continues to be cut and agencies are closing their doors. Help is becoming unavailable. Or is it?
I recently attended a regional HIV/AIDS training a few weeks ago here in Phoenix. I was surprised, like several others in the room, to learn that there are medicine men who will not get close to Natives living with HIV/AIDS. I wondered how many American Indian people across the country are in need of traditional medicine but are turned away out of ignorance and fear. Something more must be done to help my fellow brothers and sisters – gay or straight – living with this virus. What can I do?
I recently wrote a memo to my local, tribal and state leaders about the need for a retreat for Native people living with HIV/AIDS. We need a place – a respite from the world, to gather and create a community that is safe, loving and caring. An emphasis would be on celebrating life and appreciating the beauty and joy of living. As an AIDS survivor, it has been my experience that love brings healing where medication does not.
I began asking people nationwide about a retreat, only to be told that it is nonexistent.
Yvonne Davis, board of directors president/interim executive director of the National Native American AIDS Prevention Center, said, “There is none, per se, for Native Americans, but for sub-populations such as women and/or two-spirited, but not in general.” She also said that “there are three organizations that are planning a National Native American AIDS Awareness Day in March 2007.”
In response to the memo, I received many e-mails from all over the country, including Washington, D.C., and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
After 25 years since the first AIDS case, there are many more questions than answers. It’s been four years since I was told I have AIDS. My partner, who is also Apache, is a long-term AIDS survivor. We are both undetectable. We work and live in downtown Phoenix, where each day we see homeless Natives who have AIDS getting sicker and sicker. We hold car washes to raise money to travel to do AIDS education/awareness, to buy materials for the AIDS memorial quilt and to travel to an AIDS conference in Alaska.
Is having a national retreat for Natives living with HIV/AIDS possible? I believe so. It will take a “national community” to make it happen. It will take dedicated individuals, local and national agencies, working in collaboration to make it happen. How many people have attended a conference or gathering and felt a sense of security, community or empowerment? I can only imagine a place where Native people living with HIV/AIDS can also gather to strengthen ourselves and each other. A place where our traditional healers will embrace and help heal us of our ailments. A place where we are accepted, and a place where there is no shame.
Until a cure for AIDS is found, we will continue to be like our ancestral warriors by fighting this debilitating disease to the bitter end and offering our love and support to our Native brothers and sisters who are in the same predicament.
If you have any ideas, comments or questions please feel free to contact me at isadore firstname.lastname@example.org.
Isadore Boni, San Carlos Apache Tribe, is an AIDS and Hepatitis C survivor who lives in Phoenix.