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Indian Country Today

We will remember 2020 as a year when we lost so many of our people. Of course not everyone who died this past year was a victim of the novel coronavirus.

It just seems that way.

We lost Ron Senungetuk, Inupiaq, before the pandemic hit. He changed the course of Alaska art history. And not just Native art. Art. He was also a scholar and a teacher.

“He was a wonderful, incredible artist,” said his friend and fellow artist Annette Bellamy, of Homer, Alaska. And while he’s remembered as an artist, he also influenced countless students, “young artists that have moved on and are some of the most well-known artists in Alaska now.”

Read: Global artist Ron Senungetuk, died at age 86

Also in January we lost singer Bill Runsabove. He composed many of the songs you hear today on the powwow trail. He composed honor songs for people and for special events that have had a significant impact.

Drum groups and singers asked for songs from him, so they could sing a Bill Runsabove tune. He composed a song for Eloise Cobell. He composed the theme song for Idle No More in Canada. Some of his significant compositions have been sung and adopted by runners, many family giveaways and Native American causes.

Runsabove and the Bad Land Singers performed at Carnegie Hall in 1990, in New York, Folk Masters, and Traditional Music in the Americas.

Read: William 'Bill' Runsabove: Singer, composer and collector of Original and Traditional style songs

The 1970s are often seen as a defining era for treaty rights, tribal governments, and activism. Much of that era was propelled by the strategies conjured by Hank Adams, Assiniboine-Sioux. He was a quiet, humble genius. And one of the main reasons why tribes won a Supreme Court decision affirming the right to fish and hunt as outlined in treaties.

Vine Deloria Jr. called Adams one of the most important Indians of the last 60 years.

Read: Hank Adams: Indian Country’s prolific genius

Then in 2020 we lost so many leaders.

Shoshone-Bannock elder Maxine Edmo passed away Sept. 17, 2020 at the age of 91 (Photo by Lori Ann Edmo)

Maxine Edmo advocated for her Bannock people — and for tribes across the country.

She was a community leader and an educator, appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the Indian Education Advisory Board. She was a translator and taught the Bannock language. She illustrated children’s books of Bannock stories.

Once traveling near Yellowstone with her granddaughter she was upset by someone she met.

‘You have nothing about the Bannocks in here ... Did you know that Bannocks lived here? Our people are still here … ’

Read: Maxine Edmo leaves legacy of education, language, culture

Another educator, another leader was David Gipp. Gipp was one of the nation’s longest-serving college presidents, holding the title at the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota, for more than 37 years, from 1977 to 2014.

Read: Longtime leader in Native higher education dies

Jesse Taken Alive advocated for tribes as they sought the return of the remains of ancestors, as well as artifacts taken from their graves.

His advocacy prompted Congress in 1990 to pass the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which spells out the process by which remains and items are to be returned to tribes from museums, federal agencies and elsewhere.

Read: Standing Rock man remembered for his service to tribe

In this Nov. 4, 1971 file photo, Eddie Benton, a holy man of the Chippewa Indian Tribe, shows a prayer he wrote to Linda Jeffers, of Vineyard Haven, Martha's Vineyard, Mass., a member of the Wampanoag Tribe in Cambridge, Mass. Eddie Benton-Banai, one of the founders of the American Indian Movement that was formed partly in response to alleged police brutality against Indigenous people, has died. He was 89. A family friend says Benton-Banai died Monday, Nov. 30, 2020 at a care center in Hayward, Wis., where he had been staying for months. (AP Photo/J. Walter Green, File)

Eddie Benton Benai was a leader on many levels, a spiritual leader and one of the founders of the American Indian Movement.

Edward Benton-Banai was born Bawdwaywidun Benaisee, “The Sounding Out of a Thunderbird” in the old Ojibway Indian Village of Round Lake.

Benton was a member of the local Chidaywagun — the Big Drum Society — and recognized among members of the Three Fires Midewin Lodge as their Grand Chief, who presided over ceremonies of all types from naming to funerals rites.

The number of namesakes is in the hundreds, the number of ceremonies uncountable.

Read: The essence of spiritual authority

Sadly we cannot note all of those we lost. This is a tiny reflection of those lives who have touched all of us.

Cheryl and Corrina Thinn were almost joined at the hip. 

The sisters, citizens of the Navajo Nation, shared an office at Arizona’s Tuba City Regional Health Care. Cheryl conducted reviews to make sure patients were receiving adequate care. Corrina was a social worker. Their desks were just inches apart.

They lived together, along with their mother, Mary Thinn. They helped raise each other’s children.

And they died just weeks apart, at ages 40 and 44, after falling ill with COVID-19.

Read: Two Navajo sisters were inseparable

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)

Three Seneca women were well-known, well-loved tribal citizens who 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, 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.

Read: Family reflects on 3 beloved Seneca women

Michelle Eaglehawk reminded people of home, said her friend, Ani Begay Auld. “Every warm, fuzzy feeling you get when thinking about home.”

“She was a beautiful soul,” Begay Auld said. “She was always laughing, and she had a very infectious laugh.”

She was only 48 when she died from COVID-19.

Read: Navajo mom and community leader was ‘a beautiful soul’

Elvia “Rose” Ramirez was a 17-year-old who was fitted for a cap and gown, ready to graduate Parshall High School in Parshall, North Dakota. 

She was planning to attend college, take her siblings to Disneyland and go on a trip with her boyfriend to meet her father’s family. Then the coronavirus hit, and none of her plans happened.

Read: Teenager was always smiling

Lilly Tsosie worked at the San Juan Medical Center in New Mexico. In June, she died from COVID-19 after serving so many.

The artist Arigon Starr told her story as a graphic novel, "Dispatch from the Navajo Nation," with help from Indian Country Today reporter Kalle Benallie and others:


Tsosie did her job to help others. And sometime around May 11 she was exposed, became ill and eventually passed. 

On June 19, her community stayed Tsosie Strong, following her from the hospital in Albuquerque to her home in Farmington.

Her final message. Please wear your mask. Whether you want to or not, it’s protecting someone’s loved one.

Read: Health care worker ‘was a great grandma’

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Read more Portraits from the Pandemic

"Dispatch from the Navajo Nation" previously appeared in The Nib

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