On June 27, 1999, Cody Rooney, First Nation Iroquois, was born by cesarean section. He had stopped moving that morning, caused by a blockage of air to his brain. He recovered, resilient from the start, and eventually his mom, Tahewa Brown, was able to bring him home. The first year of his life was pretty much normal. “Cody was alert and happy for the first year,” his grandmom, Anne Vadeboncoeur, told us. Everything seemed okay…for a bit. Then Tahewa and Anne grew concerned that he wasn’t able to sit up at all, even after a year. They brought him to a neurologist. Cody was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
As Cody began to see specialists as he grew older and entered pre-school (he had trouble reaching various parts of the school and required help to get to the upper floors) he also began to have night seizures. Although these are expected to pass, as they had for his mother who had them until her teens, it added to Cody’s frustration. Life was already hard enough.
“His first five years were a struggle of working constantly to help with sitting, crawling, speaking,” Anne told us, ” he knee-walked until a walker was available through his insurance. Standing on his own was precarious at best and still is to this day. Then asthma developed and there were a series of ambulance rides for breathing or seizure-related emergencies. I soon became his personal care attendant.”
As Cody learned how to stand on his own with the walker, he took a lot of bad falls. “Stitches were not unusual,” Anne said, “a front tooth was so severely pushed in it had to be removed.” His speech was slow-going, too. “I occasionally look to his mother to tell me what he’s saying. He has difficulty feeding himself, biting himself when chewing.”
As Cody grew, he went through a series of walkers (which he beat up badly) until he finally mastered one. “He began doing extreme sports with the walker down a hill near his apartment! Though we tried to stop this, we finally allowed him…he is a boy! And he really became good at it,” Anne said. Despite his speech issues, Cody’s intelligence is not diminished. “People were not aware of his intelligence and treated him as though he couldn’t understand. He can actually be most profound.”
As the family pulled together around Cody, one of the constant sources of enjoyment and hope was attending pow wows. “We always went to, and enjoyed, the Dartmouth College Pow-Wow in Hanover, New Hampshire, on Mother’s Day weekend,” Anne said. New England has a rich and varied pow wow circuit, and Cody and his family found that the pow wows brought out the best in all of them.
The thing was, Cody didn’t want to just sit and watch the dances, he wanted to compete.
At a pow wow last year in their home town of Charlemont, Cody cast aside his walker and joined in the dance competition. He fell down often. He picked himself every time. At the Harvard University Powwow, the drum, Mystic River, played Cody an Honor Song. “Because of Cody inspiring me, I hardly use my cane anymore. This seems to be happening all around him as others take his example into their hearts to work through their own pain or issues to dance and feel joy. If Cody can dance every dance, fall, get up again, what is stopping us from doing all that we can?” Anne asked.
Cody got the pow wow dancing fever, and decided he wanted to be out on the pow wow circuit, dancing, competing, inspiring others. “I tried to disuade him, “Anne said, “I would hate to see his hopes dashed. But our friend, Stone Elk asked me, ‘How can you keep an eagle from soaring?’ ”
Cody learned of a Native American service organization called One Spirit, who were raising money for programs to help Indian Country battle teen suicide, poverty, and hunger, so he dedicated himself to raising money for the organization. He wrote a poem called “I Am,” which he sold to raise money for donations for One Spirit (we’ve placed the poem at the bottom of this page.) Cody went on to the Healing Winds New Year’s Pow Wow in Albany, New York, this past year. There, the pow wow director Fidel Moreno was so inspired by Cody’s willingness to dance, fall, and get back up again, he asked him to be head boy dancer at the Healing Winds Powwow in Lanesboro, Massachusetts this upcoming August.
At the Brown University Powwow this past month, in Providence, Rhode Island, Cody competed in his first boy’s traditional. Three boys placed out of the four who competed, with Cody being the one who didn’t place. Anne was worried her grandson would be upset, but he wasn’t, well not about who placed where. He was upset bout how hardly any money was raised for One Spirit.
When we talked with Anne, they were planning hitting the Harvard University Pow Wow again this year, onto Dartmouth in New Hampshire, then to the United Native American Cultural Center Pow Wow in Devens, MA, on May 21 and 22, then to the Indian Plaza Pow Wow in Charlemont, MA, and then…the list is actually to long to publish. It goes on and on through the summer, all throughout New England and as far south as Virginia.
As Cody has become involved in the pow wow circuit, his life has been steadily improving. “He is currently looking at 7th grade middle school in our town next year. He has played Buddy Baseball for the past two years, but, he’ll forgo that this summer due to the conflicts with our pow wow schedule. He’s learning a lot on the road. He has an awesome sense of humor, but is serious about his spirituality and his time in the circle. The road is really helping with his anger and frustration issues. Though children have been cruel to him, he has supporters in all walks of his life, with many aunts and uncles in the Native community. He loves to drum and sing. When my father died, I chose to keep the drum he made. Though it doesn’t have a good tone, Cody practices on it. He dances to my drumming or to YouTube videos. He is really serious,” Anne said.
Cody confided in his grandmom that he wanted to win competitions so he could also donate to another worthy cause; helping support his family on the pow wow circuit. The whole family, grandmom, mom, and son, are on disability benefits. Money is very tight, so Cody wanted to pitch in to help support them. “I know this is giving his life purpose and I would give all that I have to help him with that,” Anne said, “and so it goes as Cody travels the Red Road!”
Travel well, Cody.