Lives Lost: Seneca Nation mourns 91 year old, 2 daughters

By Joaqlin Estus

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.

Norma Kennedy worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs for many years, became one of the first credentialed Native American alcohol counsellors, 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, travelling 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.”

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 “moulder 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.

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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