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Honoring the Spirit of Carol Anne Heart

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"Waste' Wayankapi Win" (When People See You They See Something Good) was the Lakota name given to Carol Anne Heart. At the young age of 61 she left this world as a better place than when she entered it.

She looked very small lying there in her casket at the Mother Butler Center in Rapid City, SD. On the wall behind the casket was a large screen where pictures from a slide show flashed. The pictures were of Carol and many of the people she had met and worked with over the years. One was a photo of her standing between President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalind. Another was of Carol and President William Jefferson Clinton. There were photos of Carol with her daughter Cante, a young lady that was the center of her own heart, and with her mother, brothers and sisters.

Lying there in her casket one could get a glimpse of the pain still etched in her face from the terrible cancer that claimed her life. As the Director for the Indian Health Board, she had fought all of her adult life to get and keep the funds so badly needed to fight the near epidemic diseases of cancer and diabetes that now ravage Indian country. And in the end, the very diseases she fought so hard to stem claimed her life.

It will be 10 years ago in December that Carol Anne was my special guest at the last Christmas party ever held for the staff and management of Indian Country Today newspaper in Rapid City. Tired and burned out, I sold the paper that month to the Oneida Nation of New York State. Many of my longtime employees attending their last Christmas party that night knew that their days at the newspaper were numbered and so the event, although a celebration of friendship, was still a little on the sad side.

I invited Carol Anne to be my special guest that night because of all the hard work she had done over the years for the health of the Indian people. She was one of the those hardworking servants of the people that are seldom given the recognition they deserve and over the years my newspaper had done its best to let our readers know of the work Carol Anne and so many other hardworking Indian people were doing in their behalf.

I wanted this final Christmas celebration to be special. I invited Butch Felix and his country and western band to come up from the Rosebud Reservation to play the old songs many of us grew up with. Carol Anne laughed, danced and was the focal point of that evening's celebration. She told me later that she hadn't had so much fun in a long time.

Carol Anne was in the midst of her perennial struggle to get the funding for the Indian health programs passed. There was a deadlock in Congress this year and President George W. Bush was threatening to veto the entire program.

Although she was fighting for her own life at the time she still was giving every ounce of her remaining energy to get adequate funding for the program that would help save the lives of thousands of Indian people.

She had created a saying that went, "Don't get sick after June." She said it because by June most of the funds allocated to the Indian health programs across America had run out because they were so badly underfunded. New appropriations would not come until the budget was approved for October 1 every year. This meant that the Indian hospitals and health service programs were totally underfunded or without funds entirely for nearly 4 months.

Carol Anne looked tiny in her casket because I remember her as a person bigger than life itself. Her deep throated laughter often echoed down the hallways of her office. And her smile could put anyone, even the most hardhearted Congressman, at ease.

Standing before Congress last week South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD), himself recovering from a near fatal illness, said, "An advocate for health care in Indian country across our nation, Carol Anne set the bar high for all who are dedicated to seeing the promise of health care to the American Indians fulfilled. I am proud to have known her and our state and our tribes are stronger for her work. I will continue my commitment to our shared causes."

Carol Anne will be badly missed by those many people she employed. They were all hardworking Indians learning from the example she set for them. And I will miss her as my friend of so many years, a friend who was always there when I needed her support.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He can be reached at najournalist@msn.com