Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Five people, two generations of a Seneca Nation family living on the reservation, got sick with COVID-19. Three died.

The deaths of 91-year-old Norma Kennedy and her two daughters, Diane Kennedy, 71, and Cindy Mohr, 65, represented a devastating loss not only to their family but the entire tribe.

"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,” Seneca Nation President Ricky Armstrong said.

In Salamanca, in the Allegany Territory of the Seneca reservation, the tribe held a procession in the family’s honor with school buses, EMS, police and SWAT officers and a “giant, nation flag hanging right over the expressway,” said Norma Kennedy’s granddaughter and Cindy Mohr's daughter Jessica Ludwick.

Each woman followed a notable career path and leaves a lasting legacy.

Norma Kennedy 

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

Until her illness, she also taught in a language program, where she referred to her adult students as “kids.”

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

Norma’s grandson and Diane Kennedy’s son Marc Papaj said many people offering their condolences have noted that the family matriarch lived a long, fulfilling life.

“And if you knew my grandma, she was going to live past 100, no problem. She was a healthy, very energetic lady. She was full of life, as was my mom, as was my aunt Cindy. And, the thought that this virus could leave us like this is just unfathomable.”

Norma Kennedy died on May 23.

Diane Kennedy 

Her daughter Diane Kennedy made a career of working for the Bureau of Indian affairs, and traveled across the country helping to 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 [Allegany] territory,” Papaj said. “She became involved in tribal politics, got on a ticket and was elected tribal clerk. So she served our nation as well. And it’s funny ’cause she followed in my grandmother’s steps.”

Diane Kennedy enjoyed spending time with her family, traveling, gardening, cooking and being outdoors, according to her family.

“She took great care,” Papaj said of his mother. “When she bought property in Salamanca, she had one of the nicest homes on Broad Street, right through the center of town. She took a lot of pride in making it look beautiful. It's something that now I have to kind of follow and continue to give back to our community in ways that my family did.”

Diane Kennedy died on May 29.

Cindy Mohr 

Norma’s younger daughter and Diane’s sister 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.

“As a loving mother and wife, Cindy was nurturing, compassionate and cared with all of her heart,” her obituary read. “Cindy radiated positivity wherever she went and always made everyone feel welcome and included.”

As a teacher, Cindy loved her students like they were her own.

“She assured them that they were safe, supported, cared for and loved. Her classroom was a safe place for all, and her students felt it as soon as they entered the school,” the obituary continued. “Cindy was patient, a great listener, and she always found the positive in others. She praised everyone, children and adults, and naturally wanted to lift them up.”

Cindy Mohr died on June 12.

'Every day I miss my wife'

The family had been taking precautions, but the novel coronavirus “just came on so quickly,” Papaj said.

Elder Norma Kennedy had a broken wrist and had been staying with Cindy and Brian. Diane stopped by every day to help.

Papaj said the trouble started when a cousin fell ill, and contact tracing led to his mother, aunt and grandmother.

He said his mother, Diane, tested negative but was told to quarantine. He and his wife dropped off a Mother’s Day basket.

“We just kind of waved across from a distance and then said, you know, ‘Enjoy these treats and some things, all your favorites, in there. And we'll see you when this 10-, 14-day stretch passes.’”

Not even a week later she was on a ventilator.

“My aunt [Cindy] was put on a ventilator within an hour of my mom, and by Saturday morning all three of them were in ICU together,” Papaj said. “It was just alarming how fast it had taken over them.”

The hospital said several times that medications that were showing promise and being used in New York City were not available. After Norma died, the family contacted everyone they could think of and pleaded for the medications, which finally “miraculously” showed up.

But the disease had progressed to the point they weren’t effective, Papaj said.

Brian Mohr noted all three women had diabetes.

“I think that that's what really hurt them the most because in Native country, you got bad diabetes. You know that it runs in a lot of families,” he said. “And I think the deadly mix of diabetes and COVID, really, really did significant damage that made it impossible for her [Cindy] to recover.

“Every day I miss my wife,” Brian Mohr said.

Family works to spread word

The family sees a few silver linings, though. One is knowing they did everything they were told would help them avoid catching the virus. Another is feeling the love and support of their tribe.

“The Seneca Nation has been very very wonderful throughout this whole difficult process,” Papaj said. “This [spread of disease] doesn’t reflect at all on the efforts, the great efforts that Seneca Nation has put forward in communication and all of its steps of keeping our people on our territories safe.”

Armstrong, the tribe’s president, has done an exceptional job giving weekly updates, limiting activities and issuing tribal orders to minimize people coming onto the territory, Papaj said.

And the tribe called every day when the women were sick, “asking how they were, what we needed, if there is anything that they could do,” Ludwick said.

“When my mom had her funeral service on [June] 19th, the community reached out and said, ‘How about we do a procession through town and a parade?’ And they've never done anything like that before for anyone,” she said.

“Everybody was lining up on the streets to pay their respects to my mom, but really it was for our whole family. You know, they did it for us, all of them. It just, it was a lot to take in, but it also, it made our hearts happy.”

Armstrong noted Norma, Diane and Cindy were beloved and well-respected members of the community “whose passion and spirit made our nation stronger and our lives better.”

“Their passing has left an unmistakable emptiness in our Seneca community,” he said.

As hard as it is to talk about the deaths of their loved ones, the family wants to get the word out about the seriousness of contracting 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,” she said. “We don't know where the virus came from, and it did affect our family.”

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a longtime Alaska journalist.

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