The First Nationwide COVID-19 Memorial to Lives Lost is Part of The Inauguration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris
By Ann Gilbert
Billings, Montana — The International Romani Union was among a select few organizations that were featured in the opening ceremony for the inauguration of 46th President of the United States, Joe Biden, and Vice President Kamala Harris.
The National Memorial to Lives Lost to COVID-19 began in Washington D.C. with remarks from President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris. It was the first national memorial held in the US for the 400,000 victims who have so far been lost during the pandemic.
“To heal, we must remember. It’s hard sometimes to remember, but that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation. That’s why we’re here today. Between sundown and dusk, let us shine the lights in the darkness, along the sacred pool of reflection, and remember all whom we lost,” said President-elect Biden as the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool illuminated with 400 amber lights, followed by the Washington Monument.
The stunning scene was replicated across the United States as prominent landmarks were bathed in amber light and church bells rang in a national moment of unity and remembrance. Broadcast nationally by ABC and covered by every major news network, the nationwide memorial was a significant event in the inauguration. Only six locations were featured by ABC, including the Washington National Cathedral, the iconic Empire State Building, and a sacred Indigenous site in Montana.
On the morning of the event, Tom Rodgers, President of the Global indigenous Council (GIC), confirmed that GIC and the International Romani Union in conjunction with the Montana-based Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, and the Pretty Shield Foundation, were participating in the National Memorial to Lives Lost to COVID-19 and had been selected for nationwide focus.
Congressman Cedric Richmond (D-LA), senior adviser to President-elect Joe Biden and the new director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, was instrumental in securing national TV coverage for the Indigenous contribution to the “National Memorial to Lives Lost to COVID-19.”
“Indigenous communities in not only the United States but worldwide have suffered disproportionately from the devastation of COVID-19,” said Rodgers, who is Blackfeet from Montana. “We chose the Sacrifice Cliff site as the spirit and history of the area speaks to the present. It was here during the smallpox epidemic of the late 1850s that 15 Crow warriors who realized they were infected blindfolded their horses and rode off the cliff rather than carry the disease back to their people,” he explained.
A “Beacon of Hope,” an illuminated tipi, with bearers of the International Romani Union and Global Indigenous Council flags beside it, was the striking visual carried coast-to-coast by the TV networks.
Tashi Mathuin, an International Romani Union (IRU) youth ambassador, carried the IRU flag.
“Indigenous people, Black and Hispanic people, marginalized communities here as across the hemispheres have been hit the hardest by COVID-19, losing our loved ones and elders. The cultural impact from the loss of so many of our wisdom keepers is incalculable,” said Mathuin.
Like the Roma, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has heritage from India. “Kamala” means lotus flower in Sanskrit, the mother language of Romani.
“As Roma, I hope our people feel pride when they see Senator Kamala Harris sworn in as Vice President of the United States. Our ancestors are of the same earth, we carry some of the same cultural memories and influences in our DNA. In our traditions, we know the significance of the Devi Kamala. This is more than a name, but the name alone has great meaning,” the IRU youth ambassador continued.
“We gather tonight, a nation in mourning, to pay tribute to the lives we have lost, a grandmother or grandfather who was our whole world, a parent, partner, sibling, or friend who we still cannot accept is no longer here,” began Vice President-elect Harris before the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool was lit up. “For many months, we have grieved by ourselves. Tonight, we grieve and begin healing together,” she consoled. “My abiding hope, my abiding prayer, is that we emerge from this ordeal with a new wisdom, to cherish simple moments, to imagine new possibilities, and to open our hearts just a little bit more to one another,” concluded the Vice President-elect.
Tashi Mathuin agrees with that sentiment.
“On January 6, we saw symbols of hate in the US Capitol. I never imagined I’d witness the Confederate flag, Nazi inspired flags, and ‘Camp Auschwitz’ slogans in the chambers of US democracy. In August 1944, over 4,300 of our Roma people were murdered in one night in Auschwitz. Now, 4,000 Americans are losing their lives to COVID-19 daily. This is a moment for healing. Heartbreak is universal and this virus does not discriminate. This memorial and remembrance represents the new dawn we know is coming. Let’s see that sunrise together,” urged Mathuin.
Mathuin was born in Billings, Montana. Approximately one-million Roma from several tribes reside in the US. Amnesty International and the United Nations have drawn attention to human rights violations suffered by the Roma in Europe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Upon the invitation of Francisco Cali Tzay, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, IRU delegate and executive director of the Global Indigenous Council, Rain Lovell (Bear Stands Last), submitted a report cataloging some of the abuses inflicted on the Roma.
“The inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris represents the beginning of a new national journey. However, in the midst of a pandemic – when so many Americans are grieving the loss of family, friends, and neighbors – it is important that we honor those who have died, reflect on what has been one of the more challenging periods in this nation’s history, and renew our commitment to coming together to unite our country, end the pandemic, and rebuild our nation,” said Presidential Inaugural Committee Communications Director Pili Tobar.