Family reflects on 3 beloved Seneca women

In this Oct. 23, 2010, photo, Norma Kennedy, center, stands for a photo with her daughters Diane Kennedy, left, and Cindy Mohr in La Jolla, California, during the wedding of Cindy's daughter Jessica. (Courtesy of Marc Papaj via AP)

Joaqlin Estus

Norma Kennedy and her daughters Diane Kennedy and Cindy Mohr died within weeks of each other from COVID-19.  *A version of this story was previously published as part of our Portraits From a Pandemic series

Joaqlin Estus

Indian Country Today 

During a recent procession for three Seneca women who died of COVID-19, community members lined the streets. 

A giant Seneca Nation flag hung over a roadway as roughly 100 vehicles — school buses, ambulances, police cruisers and loved ones in cars — made their way through Salamanca, in the Allegany Territory of the tribe's New York reservation.

"They've never done anything like that before for anyone," said Jessica Ludwick, whose mother, grandmother and aunt died within weeks of each other. "It was a lot to take in, but it also, it made our hearts happy."

The three women were well-known, well-loved tribal citizens and fell ill in May. Norma Kennedy, 91, died on May 23, followed by her daughters, Diane Kennedy, 71, on May 29 and Cindy Mohr, 65 — Ludwick's mother — on June 12.

They left what Seneca Nation President Ricky Armstrong described as an "unmistakable emptiness" in the tribe. All three served the community, in their careers and beyond.

From left to right, Norma Kennedy and her two daughters, Diane Kennedy and Cindy Mohr. (Photo courtesy of their family)
This Thanksgiving 2005 photo shows, from left to right, Norma Kennedy and her two daughters Diane Kennedy and Cindy Mohr, at Norma Kennedy's home in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. (Courtesy of Marc Papaj)
In this June 20, 2020, photo provided by Clayton Ludwick, the Seneca Nation flag is raised over the road in honor of Cindy Mohr during her funeral procession near Salamanca, N.Y. (Courtesy of Clayton Ludwick via AP)
In this June 20 photo, the Seneca Nation flag is raised over the road in honor of Cindy Mohr during her funeral procession near Salamanca, N.Y. (Courtesy of Clayton Ludwick via AP)

Norma Kennedy worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs for many years, became one of the first credentialed Native American alcohol counselors, chartered the Seneca Nation's first social services program in the 1980s and served in tribal government, including as a peacemaker judge in tribal court. 

Even at age 91, up until her illness, she taught a language program, referring to her adult students as "the kids."

"She'd go, 'The kids made me laugh today,'" her son-in-law Brian Mohr said. "But most of the 'kids' were 55 years old, and she was 91, you know?"

Her daughter Diane Kennedy also worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, traveling across the country to help distribute funds and set up programs for Native communities.

"She did that for almost 30 years until she retired and then returned back to the territory," her son Marc Papaj said. "She became involved in tribal politics, got on a ticket and was elected tribal clerk. So she served our nation, as well."

In this 2017 photo provided by Marc Papaj, he poses for a photo with his grandmother Norma Kennedy, right, and his mother, Diane Kennedy, at Allegany State Park, in New York state. (Courtesy of Keiko Papaj via AP)
In this 2017 photo, Marc Papaj poses with his grandmother Norma Kennedy, right, and his mother, Diane Kennedy, at Allegany State Park, in New York state. (Courtesy of Keiko Papaj via AP)
In this 1998 photo provided by Marc Papaj, Norma Kennedy, left, stands for a photo with her daughters Diane Kennedy, right, and Cindy Mohr in southern Maryland during Diane's wedding to Frank Murth. (Courtesy of Marc Papaj via AP)
In this 1998 photo, Norma Kennedy, left, stands for a photo with her daughters Diane Kennedy, right, and Cindy Mohr in southern Maryland during Diane's wedding to Frank Murth. (Courtesy of Marc Papaj via AP)

Norma's younger daughter Cindy Mohr was the first Native American teacher in New York state to have dual certification in elementary and special education. She earned her master's degree in education from St. Bonaventure University as a reading specialist. She taught in local schools for 36 years, helping shape the lives of hundreds of children.

A school district statement said Mohr loved teaching and was a beloved "molder of minds, leaders and our future."

"It's impossible to truly quantify the impact they made in their lifetimes, whether serving the Seneca people, working on important Native American issues or inspiring generations of elementary school students," Armstrong said of the three women.

In this January 2005 photo provided by Keiko Papaj, Norma Kennedy, left, sits for a photo with her daughter Diane Kennedy, center, and her grandson Marc Papaj as he holds his daughter Ayana in Westwood Village, in Los Angeles. (Courtesy Keiko Papaj via AP)
In this January 2005 photo, Norma Kennedy, left, sits for a photo with her daughter Diane Kennedy, center, and her grandson Marc Papaj as he holds his daughter Ayana in Westwood Village, in Los Angeles. (Courtesy Keiko Papaj via AP)

Papaj said the family had been taking precautions, but the virus found its way in and "just came on so quickly."

As hard as it is to talk about their deaths, the family wants to get the word out about the seriousness of COVID-19.

"It can happen to you," Ludwick said. "We live out in the middle of the woods, and we feel that we were social distancing from people in the territory. We don't know where the virus came from, and it did affect our family."

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