A non-profit organization called Rainbow of Ribbons recently hosted a pow wow in honor of women who have survived cancer and domestic violence in Auburn, Washginton.
“We are living heroes not victims,” said “C” WarriorWoman Smith (a Wai Wai Indian from Kitty, British Guyana) founder of Rainbow of Ribbons. “I want women who have been to hell and back to have a special day.” Her legal name is C.B. Smith but she changed it to C when she was discharged from the military. WarriorWoman said she was homeless and had no support when she came home and wanted a new identity.
In 2008 Smith stumbled across a pow wow in Arizona that was honoring breast cancer survivors. Smith wondered why the same kind of thing wasn’t happening in Washington.
“If we want things to change, as native people, we need to get off our duffs and do something about it,” said Smith.
And that is exactly what Smith did. She began brainstorming on how to pull this off in her home state.
One day, while she was at Applebee’s watching a Seattle Seahawks’ game, she thought of the idea to honor women survivors of all kinds of cancer. That way no one would be left out.
She called her grandmother, Sandra Beaudry, Cherokee, and told her about the pow wow idea.
“All she said to me was ‘Take care of it,’ and hung up the phone,” Smith said.
Beaudry gave Smith her American Indian name, “WarriorWoman” because of her life and service in the military. Smith was in the Air Force for three years. She was stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Wash., and was discharged in 1986.
Her father is African American and her mother is a Wai Wai Indian from Kitty, British Guyana. Smith and her brother were raised in an African American culture but today she is the best of both worlds-American Indian and African American.
“I’m not a wannabe Indian; I am not a card carrier,” she said.
In 2009, after being laid off because of the recession, Smith drove to different American Indian reservations like the Yakima, Muckleshoot and Suquamish to let people know about the pow wow.
“I went all over the place as much as I could since I was living off of unemployment,” Smith said.
In March 2009, Smith drove to Olympia, Wash., filled out the necessary paperwork, and made Rainbow of Ribbons an official non-profit organization.
In May 2010, Rainbow of Ribbons held their first pow wow and honored women survivors of cancer. The pow wow was held at the Green River College Gymnasium in Auburn, Wash.
On May 13-14 the second Rainbow of Ribbons Pow Wow was held at the Green River College Gymnasium in Auburn, Wash. This year the organization honored women survivors of breast cancer and domestic violence.
They had five vendors, and drumming groups from Auburn, Wash., to Olympia, Wash. In the evening Rainbow of Ribbons had a free feast for everyone who attended the pow wow.
Smith said the organization chose to focus on breast cancer and domestic violence because these are two issues that are not usually talked about or addressed in the American Indian communities.
“For Native American women they are really in high need of early detection,” said Elisa Del Rosario, grants program manager for Susan G. Komen for the Cure. “Native women have the highest rate of invasive breast cancer.” Susan G. Komen for the Cure awarded Rainbow of Ribbons with a $1,000 grant to help pay for part of the pow wow cost and to have Assured Imaging provide a mobile mammography truck at the pow wow.
In the 16 counties in Western Washington, the age-adjusted incidence rate of invasive breast cancer is highest among American Indian/Alaska Native women (141.1/100,000) followed by non-Hispanic White women (137.2/100,000) and Black women (122.7/100,000) according to the 2011 Community Profile Report done by Puget Sound affiliate of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
American Indian/Alaska Native women are also more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer than women of other ethnicities, said Del Rosario. This causes American Indian/Alaska Native women to have the worse survival rate.
“They (American Indian/Alaska Native women) have about 81.7 percent survival rate for those who survive breast cancer after five years,” said Del Rosario. “Being diagnosed at the latest stages shows that Native women are not getting screened.”
Del Rosario said preventative health practices aren’t always done in native community. She also believes that there are a lot of trust issues and people don’t want to go to the hospital or clinic to get screened.
“If they won’t come to the health services then we need to think of creative ways to bring the health services to them,” Del Rosario said.
The mammogram screening was free to participants over 40 years old.
Sheryl Allen, 47, had a mammogram screening at the pow wow. She said she decided to get the screening because she lost two aunts to breast cancer.
“It is really important (getting screened) and by having it at the pow wow I think it is convenient,” said Allan, Muckleshoot Tribe from Auburn, Wash.
Allan doesn’t think getting screened was stressed enough to her aunts like it is now. She feels that if you get an exam the doctors can catch it early and that is what partly saved one of her aunts.
“The earlier the screening, the earlier the detection, the better the outcome,” said Victoria Ugartechea, Breast, Cervical and Colon Health Program (BCCHP) Outreach for the Seattle Indian Health Board.
Ugartechea’s job is to go out to pow wows, health fairs and resources fairs to educate people on how important it is to get screened.
Many women in the American Indian community still don’t see getting screened as a priority, Ugartechea added.
But for Margaret Parkinson it was a priority. She was the first person at the pow wow to get screened.
“I needed a test, it has been a long time,” said Parkinson, 69, Inuit. “I rather have a test than have problems that go along with cancer or undetected cancer. I had colon cancer and I don’t need anything else.”
Parkinson thought having the mobile mammogram truck was fantastic. She said it is honoring and helping take care of American Indian women and they need that.
Parkinson owns a company called Native Koffee that makes specially blended coffees. She also sells American Indian teas from the Blackfeet tribe in Montana. She runs the company with her son and she has attended both of the Rainbow of Ribbons pow wows.
“Pow wows honor men all the time and they make women feel welcome,” Parkinson said. “But nobody actually goes out and honors women. And I don’t think it is because they don’t want to, I think it is because nobody thought about it.”
“We received 100 percent positive feedback from the eleven women who were screened,
said Clark Warren, Assured Imaging. “Ten of the eleven women indicated that they would not have received a mammogram in the month of May without this opportunity.”
The 2011 Rainbow of Ribbons Pow Wow Head Woman Dancer, Charla White Eagle, 35 , of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe from Kirkland, Wash, a domestic violence survivor.
“I was quiet and embarrassed about it,” White Eagle said. “I didn’t want anybody to know but finally I saw a sign that said ‘are you in a domestic violence relationship? If so call this number.’ I called the number and got help.”
By having the pow wow, White Eagle hopes it showed others who might be in a relationship with domestic violence or fighting breast cancer that there is others who can relate and help.
Next year, the 2012 Rainbow of Ribbons Pow Wow will honor women veterans past and present. It will also be the organizations last pow wow. Smith said the pow wows are not an annual event, instead they want to focus on goals.
The organization’s long term goal is to help veteran women go to college by offering book vouchers. The short term goal is promote the organization further by attending events like other pow wows, concerts and lectures.
“I’d like to see it grow and stand on it is own,” said Smith. “I am just the seed and I want others to eventually take over the organization.”