By Mike Kinney
Recently, I received a powerful spiritual anti-cancer Turtle medicine bag medallion and rope necklace from Chief Gordon Plain Bull Jr., a member of the Assiniboine and Sioux Reservation located near Fort Peck, Montana. He is the great grandson of Chief Plenty Coups and the great-great nephew of Sitting Bull, the famous defender of native lands against settlers during the 1800s.
Chief Plain Bull’s gift was particularly powerful to me, as it was emblematic of the immense kindness and generosity of the communities in which I live and work, which includes fellow Native Americans and my neighbors here in Richmond.
Aside from reporting stories about people, places and events in the Richmond Standard, I have been a Native news journalist for some 45 years here in Richmond, writing for publications such as Native Hoop and Native News Online. Today, as I celebrate my first-year anniversary as a cancer survivor, I’m taking a break from reporting on the issues of the communities I cover in order to tell my story of recovery. The reason is that my journey in the past year shines a light on the powerful bonds within the Richmond and Native communities. I am forever grateful to write about them, and to be part of them.
In November of 2021, I was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer on my left lung. I had been a career cigarette smoker for 40 years. I gave it up finally in 2014. Naturally, the diagnosis had me fearing death.
On March 13, 2022, I underwent robotic surgery to remove the cancer at the John Muir Hospital campus in Concord. The surgery team removed a quarter of my left lung. It was successful, and I remained at the hospital in recovery for seven days.
But the journey was far from over. Upon returning home, I was required to use an oxygen concentrator until my lungs healed, stripping me of the activities I most loved, from riding my mountain bike to taking long hikes at Wildcat Canyon. I feared being a burden on others, but was limited in what I could do physically.
Moreover, my doctor informed me of my need to undergo chemotherapy and immunotherapy. I would have a monthly infusion from IV bags. While I was fortunate to suffer no pain or side-effects from these therapies, hair loss from the chemotherapy meant I lost my Native ponytail, which was crushing to me.
And I was angry at myself. For 40 years, I chose to smoke cigarettes. I had no one to blame but myself for my condition, and that was difficult to handle and it drove me into depression. I felt alone, but due to the support from members of the Richmond and Native communities, I wouldn’t be alone.
Countless neighbors and Natives rallied to my side. My close friend, the well-known Richmond community activist Antwon Cloird, went out of his way to drive me to out-of-town medical appointments. Cloird also offered powerful words of encouragement. Rather than considering this condition as the beginning of the end of my life, Cloird pointed out this was in fact my “second chance at creating a first-class life.”
There was also the kindness of Rev. Dr. Ofa Haunga from St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Richmond, who along with the church community ensured I had fresh cooked food and prayers during my recovery. My good friend Georgette Bynum, a veteran registered nurse, acted as my medical coach, providing invaluable advice.
Richmond resident Don Gosney of “Radio Free Richmond,” along with Tyler Swartz, my nephew Ben, Denise Gianni and Richmond resident and photographer Ellen Gailing, all helped me shop for groceries and attend medical appointments. Michelle Milam, a Richmond resident who serves as the city’s Crime Prevention Manager, offered prayers and also numerous drops of bottled water to my home to keep me hydrated.
Local Richmond residents John Ziesehenne, owner of M.A. Hays Insurance and Robert Rogers, district coordinator for County Supervisor John Gioia, were also powerful sources of support and encouragement.
Meanwhile, Native people and tribal communities across the nation conducted prayers on my behalf.
Carolyn Martell, a well-known Ojibway tribal artist and photographer in Denver, Colo. conducted numerous sacred ceremonies to support a successful surgery and recovery. Meanwhile, Pomo tribal elder and leader Connie Reitman instructed me on important spiritual aspects of recovery as my being a Cherokee tribal person.
There are many more examples of generosity, too many to list here. Perhaps the cherry on top was receiving the spiritual anti-cancer Turtle medicine bag medallion from Chief Plain Bull. He is a master of beading Native jewelry that comes to him in visions.
“All of my work comes from the Creator,” he told me. “I sit in Prayer for an hour or more before I start. Once the vision is given to me, I begin the work. Sometimes I start with the medallion and sometimes the rope is first. I always ask the person who’s receiving the special gift what their favorite color is. Then I start their Protector. When I get close to sewing up the medallion, I put the medicine in it. I have been instructed by the Creator to use seven herbal medicines to put in the medallion.”
The many examples of healing power, from advice from loved ones on positive thinking, to powerful spiritual guidance and medicines, served to dissipate my depression and launch a life of recovery and spiritual journey. I realized being Cherokee was important to my
recovery. I returned to reconnecting with my culture, language, history and most importantly our spiritual and belief value system. Meanwhile, I was reminded why I live and love Richmond.
Recently, my doctor informed me that I am now free of cancer. I believe fully that in addition to the incredible care of medical staff, the incredible care and support from my communities are responsible for this positive outcome.
Thank you, wholeheartedly, to my fellow Native Americans and to the people of Richmond. I love you. You have enriched my story. Now, my mission is to double-down on enriching yours.
See you at the press conference.