Greetings from Washington, DC!
The Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network (CAAN) is co-hosting the International Indigenous Working Group on HIV and AIDS Pre-conference which is being held at the Four Points Sheraton, Washington, DC from July 20-21, 2012. An event held every two years prior to the International AIDS Conferences, it brings Indigenous Peoples from many different countries around the world to discuss and share wise practices amongst each other, governments and key stakeholders on addressing HIV and AIDS issues.
The Pre-Conference started with Opening Ceremonies by the host nation, and from the tribes of the United States. The event was opened following the cultural protocols of the host nations, powerful prayers and blessings. The event began with the Procession and Posting of Colors, Flag and Honor Songs, sung by James John Simermeyer (Navajo/Coharie). Blessings from the Four Directions were provided by the Indigenous Nations representing the four directions coming from four corners of the United States; Sharon Day (Bois forte Band of the Ojibwe, East), Melvin Harrison (Navajo/Dine Nation, South), Ashliana Hawelu (Native Hawaiian, West), Selina Moose, (Inpuiat, North).
The leadership panel represented by Canada’s Ken Clement, Co-Chair of the International Indigenous Working Group on HIV and AIDS, thanked the IIWGHA members for their hard work: Clive Aspin- Australia, Paulina Aguilar Bol- Guatemala, Michael Costello- Australia, Denise Lambert- Canada, Williams Morales Madariaga- Chile, Marama Pala- New Zealand, Alexander White Tail Feather- United States. The working group’s Mission Statement is “to create an international voice and structure that links Indigenous peoples with their Indigenous leadership, varying levels of governments, AIDS service organizations, cooperatives, and others in a global collective action to lower the disproportionate impact of HIV and AIDS experienced by Indigenous peoples.”
Indigenous Leaders Living with HIV presented and shared their powerful stories and challenges of living with HIV and AIDS. They spoke of facing discrimination, stigma and ignorance which is still prevalent for people living with HIV and AIDS in many of their communities.
An Australian woman spoke of the challenges living with HIV and AIDS for the last 22 years and when she told her family of contracting HIV she “lost her family”. She spoke of hope, love for her children and spoke of pride in becoming a grandmother within the past twelve months. She thanked her children. “I never thought that I would ever be able to see these milestones, of becoming a grandmother and I thank my children,” she shared. She is currently the only woman in Australia willing to share her story.
William spoke of the vulnerabilities and challenges of living with HIV and AIDS, in his home country, Chile. “My fight is that the Government of Chile recognizes the disease that is happening. We need the knowledge and prevention and how we can ‘address’ HIV and AIDS in our language. We still fight against homophobia and racism, and it is important to include that in our organizations. Discrimination is not ours, it comes from the outside. For those who engage in activism in Chile we are labelled as terrorist. I am still harassed for nothing and they want to keep us prisoners.” It clearly showed that as Indigenous peoples there are many similarities but there are also many differences.
Another leader shared, “I couldn’t forgive my boyfriend who transmitted HIV to me, he never told me he was positive and for over a year I was very angry at him. Until I had a dream, in my dream I was walking along this road and I thought I should go and visit him, in my dream I was looking at his chart and I saw that he was using alcohol. I told him, you cannot use alcohol with a weakened immune system. I also told him that in the next life none of this will matter. When I woke up I had forgiven him.”
“Do not let AIDS prevent you from living your life”, was what my doctor told me. “I have four children today.”
And then she spoke of many tragedies in her life, how she lost her father at a young age through a violent death, and then again, how she lost her brother through another violent death by someone who took his life by shooting him in the forehead. Another tragedy struck her once again when she lost her 18-year-old daughter through yet another violent death, recently, “the same day I had lost my father many years earlier, August 13” by her daughter’s boyfriend stabbing her. And she is not only living with HIV and AIDS, but she is also living with Parkinson’s disease. Then she suffered depression.
“I really resent you two,” she said, “If I didn’t have you two in my life, I would stop taking my meds” she told her husband one day. But, through it all, her strength, resilience and forgiveness for those who wronged her clearly spoke of how she overcame her many challenges. She shared her story in such a forthright, engaging manner that truly inspired and touched those that heard her speak.
They all spoke their truth in such a powerful way that inspired and brought tears to the delegates. They spoke of their struggles of overcoming depression, anger, discrimination from their families and friends, hope and forgiveness. Hope for the future, hope for happiness and forgiveness.
Thus started the Indigenous Pre-Conference.