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Chippewa Cree elder Alan Parker survives major heart attack

OLYMPIA, Wash. - Word spread around the world in late September: Chippewa Cree elder Alan Parker had suffered a major heart attack and was not expected to live. Indians and non-Indians alike began praying for his recovery. His diplomatic style of leadership has endeared him to thousands of people from the Arctic shores of the United States to Sweden, India, Japan, Australia, South America, Mexico, Canada and New Zealand.

Parker grew up on the Rocky Boy's Reservation in northern Montana. He initially studied for the priesthood, but after being drafted and serving in Vietnam, he turned to law. He graduated in 1972 from the UCLA School of Law and began a legal career with the Department of the Interior Solicitor's Office in Washington, D.C.

Parker's dedication to tribal affairs landed him a job as the first American Indian chief counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee of Indian Affairs from 1977 to 1981. He was appointed by Sen. Daniel Inouye to be staff director from 1987 to 1990. During that time, his participation was vital to the passage of the Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Indian Child Welfare Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Tribal Self-Governance Act and the American Indian Development Finance Corporation Act. He assisted in the settlement of many tribal land and water claims.

From 1982 to 1987 he was president of the American Indian National Bank; later, he organized the National Indian Policy Center at George Washington University. In 2000 he was the first Native attorney appointed to serve on the Washington State Gambling Commission in that state.

In 1997, he was hired as faculty at Evergreen State College in Olympia. He eventually founded and became director of the Northwest Indian Applied Research Institute at Evergreen. He established and was teaching the first graduate-level tribal governance concentration courses in the country there.

The institute opened doors for Parker to travel to New Zealand, where he began working to join all indigenous peoples together in a united league. That effort became the United League of Indigenous Nations, which was formed this past summer, and resulted in the first Indigenous Nations Treaty being signed by Maori, aboriginal, First Nation and U.S. tribal delegates.

Parker's busy schedule began to take its toll on his body. On Aug. 27 he had a mild heart attack and his doctor decided a triple bypass was needed to eliminate the blockage. His remarkable recovery after the Aug. 29 surgery led the doctor to grant his request to fly to New Zealand.

The story took a different turn, as Parker's wife, Sharon, explained. ''We left for New Zealand on Sept. 22. I was going to have my doctoral graduation from Auckland University and Alan was going to talk to people about signing the Treaty of Indigenous Nations. Alan flew to Wellington from Auckland on the 25th to attend a gathering of Maori to speak about the passage of the Declaration of Indigenous Rights in the United Nations.''

Sept. 27 was graduation day, and the event went smoothly. Afterwards, Alan returned to his room to rest. Sharon was concerned, as he didn't look well. She said, ''I went into his room to check on him and he wasn't in the bed. I found him passed out on the floor in the bathroom. He wasn't breathing right. I screamed for help. Our friends came running in. I put his head in my lap and the breath went out of him like when a person takes their last breath and nothing went back in. I started crying and screaming, 'Alan, you can't leave me, you can't go!'''

Friends began performing CPR, assisted by a nurse who happened to be walking by, until paramedics arrived and transported him to the hospital. Sharon continued: ''A Choctaw friend began singing Indian healing songs and later I learned the songs were to draw his spirit back into his body. She had seen his spirit walking around the apartment looking dazed and confused.''

The paramedics were able to restart Alan's heart, but the question was how long had the brain been without oxygen. ''The doctors said if it had been over five minutes he had suffered severe brain damage. He was put in intensive care on life support. All of us stood around the bed for hours talking and singing to him to try to keep him with us,'' explained Sharon.

The family was told Alan would not survive and to prepare him to make his ''long home journey.'' An Eagle Feather ceremony was preformed at his bedside by a Menomonee friend, and songs to release his spirit were sung by a Modoc, a Puyallup, the Maori and the Parker family. The lifeline was unplugged Sept. 30 at 4 p.m., U.S. time.

He woke up the next day from his coma and said ''hello'' to his intensive care nurse.

Parker returned to the United States Oct. 29. He has regained full use of his body and his memory is coming back. He said in a recent interview, ''Respect is important in all of our relationships. We, as indigenous people, have a common vision from our ancestors and elders. Can we agree we have this common idea presented as a Treaty of the Indigenous People? The time is now. People share a sense of protecting the world around us and we are connected with others who are fighting against the dangers and damages of global warming.''

Sharon added, ''Alan said, when he could not speak very well, that what he went through - and his coming back - is to help show the value of indigenous knowledge, the power of indigenous healing, and without it he wouldn't be here. It can work with Western medicine, but the healing is beyond that and it is needed in the world.''