A QUIET BUT IMPORTANT LIFE
The Hopi tribe has lived in the region of northern Arizona for thousands of years, and the land on which Flagstaff sits, including the San Francisco Peaks, or Nuva'tukya'ovi in Hopi, is considered sacred.
For Eunice Nicks, a member of the Hopi tribe and mother of five girls, home was split between two distinct places and cultures growing up in the 1940s and ‘50s: Flagstaff proper, where she lived with her mother, and Moenkopi, where Nicks was born. Like many portions of the Hopi Reservation, Moenkopi was redrawn due to forced relocations and reservation borders put in place by Europeans in the 19th century. The Hopi tribe later ratified a constitution that allowed them to be a sovereign nation surrounded by the Navajo Nation in 1936, just a year after Nicks was born.
Nicks is one of a handful of women in Resilience who, though they may not be in the public eye, have contributed to Flagstaff, its community and surroundings in vital ways.
“We were looking for women who weren’t famous necessarily but who had lived important lives, even if they were quieter lives,” Sacha Siskonen said.
Siskonen works as the museum education coordinator for the Arizona Historical Society, splitting her time between Riordan Mansion and the Pioneer Museum. She was one of the mentors who helped facilitate the Resilience exhibit, drafting the panels that carry information about each participant and aiding students in their interviews of the subjects.
Siskonen and NAU graduate Avi Penner interviewed Nicks. The three met at Burritos Fiesta, where they chatted for several hours.
“[Nicks] was lively and funny and really great to talk to, but she also has a real serious side and has lived through a lot,” Siskonen said.
There are several trying events that tested Nicks’ resilience over the years. Two of her daughters had cancer and she cared for them until their deaths. Nicks went through two divorces and raised her five children as a single mother, the same way her mom had done for Nicks and her siblings.
Her panel in the exhibit highlights “…a commitment to caring for her family and community in Flagstaff and Moenkopi.”
Though Nicks often felt a divide between her traditional home and Flagstaff, she continues to visit Moenkopi for ceremonies and weddings. Her grandparents insisted Nicks’ mother bring her kids back often so they could learn and retain Hopi cultural traditions.
For several years and as recently as last year, Nicks worked for Flagstaff Unified School District as a bus aide for students with special needs. She’s a grandmother figure for several of the students and many call her “Grandma Nicks.”
The bus aide position is one of several jobs Nicks has had over the years, but as she found herself in different roles and professions, two constants remained: food and heritage. Nicks still enjoys making food for her family and friends. And, according to her panel, she makes sure to keep extra in her pantry for those who might need it.
“Food and feeding people was definitely a big part of what she was talking about with the ideas the Hopi have about community and family. When people come to the house you always offer them something to eat, that’s something that many cultures share and so we thought that too would really resonate,” Siskonen said. “We saw this generosity and thinking about others and helping others.”
In 1954, Nicks became the first Hopi student to attend Flagstaff High School through the 12th grade. Nicks' grandson plans to build her a home in Moenkopi, and, according to Siskonen, she still works as a bus aide, even as she approaches her mid-80s.
“We want everyone who sees the exhibit to know that history isn't only the big events and major players. History is being made every day in our schools, religious organizations and homes by regular people living their lives, working, helping each other, caring for children and building supportive communities. That's what both [Nicks'] and [Tso Cox’s] stories teach us,” Siskonen wrote in an email.
IN THE NAME OF ZAADII
When people call Rachel Tso Cox resilient—which they have throughout her life, often—the documentary filmmaker and mother of three demurs, not out of politeness but because she doesn’t feel it’s quite the right word.
She eventually divulges the story of a trying childhood, being lost in South Dakota’s Wind Cave for 38 hours at age 18, prompting the largest search and rescue in the United States at the time, but the conversation primarily revolves around her youngest child.
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At a coffee shop not far from the Best Buy parking lot where her 3-year-old son, Zaaditozhon “Zaadii” Tso was killed by a distracted driver in 2015, Tso Cox launched into her life: her deep and constant grief and the simultaneous love she and her community have for Zaadii, who she said was a beam of light, sharing and fierceness clad in a batman cape.
“Losing my son, there was really no option. I had two other children. I had to live through it. I don’t know if it’s resilience or just a deep need for love and purpose and finding the ways that bring me love and purpose and joy after Zaadii,” Tso Cox said. “I’m not strong in the way people use it sometimes, but what I am is someone who has room to be vulnerable and to be miserably sad and to be happy and silly in a community that holds me and loves me. I no longer believe the universe holds me, but I believe this community holds me and that I hold them.”
Tso Cox is one of 21 women and non-binary people featured in Resilience: Women in Flagstaff’s Past and Present. On her panel is a life-size photo of Zaadii in his batman costume and cape, which he insisted upon wearing day and night, beneath a photo of Tso Cox. The latter was taken by photographer Eric O’Connell at the same Best Buy for the purposes of the exhibit. It was the first time she’d been back since losing Zaadii, and her nose, Tso Cox said, had to be touched up later in Photoshop because it was so red from crying.
On Feb. 22, 2015, Tso Cox, her middle daughter Bahozhoni and Zaadii were holding hands while crossing the parking lot at Best Buy. She needed a camera for a documentary she was working on. Storm clouds were rolling in like fluffy dark puddles and she wanted to get the shot. The family was in a hurry, but Tso Cox said she very consciously decided to take her children to the proper place to cross the road. As her testimony to Flagstaff Police Department Officers revealed, just moments before they’d reached the other side of the road, a distracted Emily Bean hit the family with her car. Zaadii was dragged underneath the tires, his hand ripped from his mother’s from the force of the vehicle. Tso Cox and Bahozhoni, who was just 8 at the time, sustained serious injuries. When they arrived at the hospital doctors warned Tso Cox her son likely would not make it.
“I didn’t want to believe it,” Tso Cox said. “I could have cut across, but I decided to go to the crosswalk. We were a foot from safety.”
The toddler stayed on life support for nearly two days. He died in the early hours of Feb. 23.
At the Arizona Historical Society Pioneer Museum are several pieces that embody who Zaadii was: a batman cape, Zaadii Foundation stickers and family photographs. “The City Needs Eyes” is the motto printed on the stickers, a clarion call to drive mindfully that Tso Cox and her family started as part of the Zaadii Foundation. The stickers still pepper Flagstaff like little yellow beacons on car bumpers and water bottles.
“It wasn’t that [Bean] was evil, which was what I thought. She was in a position a lot of people find themselves in: distracted,” Tso Cox said. “The idea is that people see the stickers and they remind them to drive mindfully. That a little boy dressed like Batman in his mama’s hand in a crosswalk should not have died.”
Tso Cox flinches and grips the table as a man runs across Highway 89A North just outside the café. It took her weeks to get back behind the wheel. Crossing streets will never be the same, nor will watching others do so, and post-traumatic stress disorder is a constant specter.
Still, something Tso Cox returns to frequently while telling her story is community. Four weeks after her son died she returned to work at NAU, where her place-based storytelling/documentary class had kept up with the syllabus and got up from their seats to hug her.
Tso Cox has another story about strangers helping her one morning as she broke down trying to cross San Francisco Street.
“A mom losing her composure in the middle of downtown, maybe in any other city people are going to shame her, but people held space for me and hugged me,” she remembered.
Part of her long and ongoing healing process was also a Navajo peacemaking ceremony that Tso Cox requested be part of the court proceedings against Bean. Her years spent on the Navajo Nation, beginning in 1992 herding sheep and chopping wood for her future grandmother-in-law Jenny Manybeads, then as a teacher at the STAR School (Service to All Relations, located between Flagstaff and Leupp), gave Tso Cox a glimpse of what the ceremony—a traditional practice that was quashed in the 1800s by Anglo court and justice practices forced upon indigenous communities—looked like. It’s a process in which the victim airs their grief and the perpetrator, who is also eventually given the opportunity to speak, must listen. The ceremony has several steps and is facilitated and overseen by a peacemaker, usually a widely respected member of the community. It is in many ways opposite to what the National American Indian Court Judges Association calls “the western, adversarial court model.” In the 1980s Navajos successfully brought the process back to the courts on the Navajo Nation.
Coconino County Attorney Bill Ring authorized the first peacemaking ceremony to be held in a court in Flagstaff. The ceremonies can last hours or days. Tso Cox’s “potent and productive” ceremony totaled eight hours, with a handful of breaks.
“At one point I thought [the ceremony] wasn’t going to work. I thought I was just another white person thinking I can do better and bring this into the American justice system,” Tso Cox said. “But we kept going and a breakthrough did happen. That point where I felt like I got truth and she became humanized to me. And at the very end, the last step is shaking hands. And she asked if she could hug me, and it was the most intense hug of my life. I could feel her heart beat. At that moment I felt the change. I felt the anger go. I really did forgive her.”
The fifth year since Zaadii’s death is fast approaching, as is his birthday, Nov. 11, a date Tso Cox always marks with a book drive for Sacred Peaks Health Center. The number 11 surrounded Zaadii’s life, born on Nov. 11, 11 days after he was due. Tso Cox was in labor for three hours and 11 minutes and gave birth at 2:11 and was brought to Room 11 at Tuba City Regional. His full name is 11 letters when spelled out. “Mr. Elevendy” was the nickname his mother gave him.
Currently, Tso Cox and her eldest daughter Camille Tso are working on a documentary about the search and rescue in Wind Cave, where Tso Cox almost died nearly 30 years ago. The mother-daughter duo, with backing from producers and sponsors, are in the process of interviewing members on the search and rescue team as well as the National Parks Service, which named the slot Tso Cox was trapped in “Rachel’s Fissure” and has since made it a priority to map hundreds of miles of the cave. It’s the first film she’s made since her son’s death. But it’s the force of his loud belts and intense energy, his picking vegetables at the STAR School garden to give to his family members there that Tso Cox always returns to.
And what stands out in Resilience is that the exhibit tells the story of Zaadii as much as it does that of his mom.
“I’m really honored to be a part of it. I do feel like I’m among women who have helped make Flagstaff an authentically feeling compassionate and justice-oriented community and I’m honored to be a part of that. I don’t know if I deserve to be a part of that, but I know I want to be,” Tso Cox said.