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By Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative, reporter

On December 17, Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer finished up a busy year at the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake since her election as grand chief. The next day, she got in a car with her wife and stepson to make the long drive to Atlanta to visit family for the holidays.

She had not seen her three oldest stepchildren or grandchildren in two years.

“We were planning it for months,” said Sky-Deer. At the time, there was no state of emergency in Kahnawake. There was - and is - no local travel restriction. There were pressing family matters, and she didn’t consider it a vacation.

In Virginia, she and her wife began to notice headaches and nasal congestion. Since they were on their way to visit family, they decided to be cautious and stop in North Carolina for a COVID test.

Sky-Deer’s wife tested positive. That was on December 19.

Two days later, the same day a state of emergency was declared in Kahnawake, Sky-Deer’s symptoms were full-blown.

By that time, with Omicron walloping the continent, it was hard to get a test. Sky-Deer had to wait a couple of days to get one, but it didn’t make a big difference. She knew she would test positive.

“I had it pretty rough, to be honest,” she said. “It’s been three weeks, and I still don’t feel 100 per cent. The headaches were unbearable. The coughing, the chest pain.”

Sky-Deer isolated for 10 days at her stepdaughter’s house; her stepdaughter and stepdaughter’s children were also dealing with the virus. Sky-Deer said it was disheartening for them to all go through it at the same time.

“There was absolutely nothing to do but stay home and watch Netflix 10 days. Stay in the room. Don’t go anywhere,” she said.

“Obviously I wasn’t able to spend Christmas with my family the way I would have intended.”

Along with the unrelenting physical symptoms, Sky-Deer found there was a mental component to contracting the virus.

“It was my first time having COVID, and to be honest, it was almost like an embarrassment or a shame, like you did something wrong,” she said. “I didn’t even want to tell people.”

She was also not in the mood to discuss it given how sick she was feeling. But she knew she had to let her contacts know what was going on, especially given the likelihood that she was exposed in Kahnawake rather than the US.

Then there’s the fear.

“Is my immune system going to be able to fight it off? Am I going to be OK? You start thinking all these things,” she said. As the symptoms dragged on, she thought of the “long-haulers” whose lives become seriously impaired by the virus.

Sky-Deer arrived back in Kahnawake on January 5, days before she was scheduled to return to work. She had originally been planning a golf trip from January 3-10, but she cancelled it. She said she could not enjoy herself knowing what was going on back home, and she was still suffering from symptoms such as fatigue and a cough.

She finally returned to work on Monday, but it wasn’t easy to adjust.

Like many in the community, Sky-Deer came down with COVID-19 despite taking precautions. She has not yet been boosted, but she is double-vaccinated.

“I’m very much, what I’ll say, pro-choice,” she said. “It’s people’s bodies, their choice. But I know what I’ve been through in the last three weeks, and I worry and I wonder what it would have been like had I not been vaccinated.”

She said it’s important for people not to downplay the variant.

“If you’re a lucky one to get over it, good for you, but let’s be cognizant of not filling up the hospitals by throwing caution to the wind and saying ‘I don’t need to follow anything, I don’t care,’” she said.

Sky-Deer wants to see the community stay vigilant as residents make personal assessments about their risk tolerance and their impact on others.

“I know it’s been frustrating. It’s so hard for people. I see the lashing out and the lateral violence, and I know it’s a tertiary symptom of the pandemic, but we know at the end why we do what we do,” she said.

“Our elders and our vulnerable population are supposed to be revered in our culture. They’re our knowledge keepers, they’re our language keepers, and they’re very important to us, so that’s why we do what we do, and I hope that the community will keep it up.”

Sky-Deer shared her story with THE EASTERN DOOR to let community members know that anybody can get the virus, even people in leadership.

“Let’s count our blessings and knock on wood,” she said. “We’re prepared now in terms of knowing that this is what could happen, and let’s all just govern ourselves accordingly the best that we can.”

She emphasized the burden on Kahnawake’s systems if too many people are sick at the same time.

“We have to be prepared for anything in this pandemic,” she said. “Our best asset is our people know how to pull together in times of crisis.”

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