Peace
at Last

Moira Redcorn found peace in meditation after years of substance abuse and identity issues. She now brings peace to other Natives as a psychologist with the Kickapoo Nation.

The room isn’t much to speak of. White walls and a concrete floor. Voices echo and an on-and-off rain tapping on the aluminum roof seems connected to her deep breaths.

“Sit comfortably,” she says. “Just be here in the room.”

She looks down at her hands, resting limply on black yoga pants. Slowly, she breathes in and out, her chest rising and falling.

“Allow your thoughts to float away without judgment.”

That’s the hard part.

So she closes her eyes. She sits still, expressionless, a makeup-free olive landscape of skin over high cheekbones.

Suddenly, her eyes open and she straightens her back, looking around her soon-to-be-sold house.
“It takes practice!”

It’s all about breathing – in and out, in and out, in and out.

Raised in Norman, Okla., Dr. Moira RedCorn was the youngest child and only girl of Charles and Jeri RedCorn. But she didn’t fit the mold of the typical baby of the family.

Once, when her mother was getting upset with her, she calmly looked up and said: “Mom, all you have to do is tell me what to do … you don’t have to get mad at me.”

Her mother froze.

Had her 3-year-old daughter just said that?

“She was grown up before she was grown up,” Jeri RedCorn, Caddo, said.

She stands straighter than anyone I know, she sits with more grace than anyone else. Her movements are so fluid, her thoughts are so focused.” Tracy Curtis

Whether attending Dartmouth College, going to massage school, working as a ski instructor, playing roller derby, doing a short stint on the U.S. National rugby team or going to medical school, Moira’s life has been anything but mapped out.

“She’s kind of the opposite of biting off more than she can chew,” said her father, Charles RedCorn, Osage. “She bites off a little and then realizes it’s not enough – so she goes back for more.”

She was first drawn to meditating because of a coworker at Dartmouth.

She pursued massage school to heal others and end her life as a partier extraordinaire.

She decided to go to medical school to take healing to the next level. She hitchhiked … because getting a car was too easy.

And now, she’s a 47-year-old psychiatric physician for the Kickapoo Nation.

There were 30 female American Indian/Alaskan Native psychiatrists in 2010 – Moira was one of them. The likeliness of having a Native, female psychiatrist is 0.07 percent, according to the 2012 edition of the American Medical Association’s “Physical Characteristic Distribution in the U.S.”

Oh, and she’s also a wife, daughter, sister and friend.

It’s all about breathing, in and out.

Moira with cat

Growing up in the male-dominated Osage Nation, Moira often saw reminders of her lesser status as a woman – a status she wouldn’t accept.

Traditionally, Osage dances are for the first sons, but that didn’t make any sense.
Why was she exempt from this honor?

“How does that not give you a complex when you’re the only daughter?”

When she was young the dances were smaller, allowing more people to participate. So Moira proudly danced in a beaded dress her mother made.

But as the years went on, the dances got bigger. Women were told to dance on the perimeter while men danced in the middle, a directive Moira scoffed at.

So she danced outside her designated area, quickly realizing it made the other dancers uncomfortable.
She didn’t care.

Eventually, she found herself in the path of the “whip” man – the leader who kept order during the dance. The two paused, staring the other down, waiting for the other to move. Moira didn’t blink.

After the tense pause, the whip man stepped aside and she continued dancing.

One of the first things Tracy Curtis noticed about her rugby teammate was the way she ran – she was like a machine.

“She was a ferocious runner,” Curtis said.

Moira ran as hard as she could and then stopped, measuring her fitness by how quickly her body recovered. Then she’d do it again, and again, and again.

Curtis noticed Moira was tough on herself, which made her an amazing teammate. But sometimes she was equally hard on her teammates.

“If you didn’t appreciate her and you didn’t know what she was kind of driving for and who she was, then she was a little bit way too intense for the average person,” said Curtis, who now coaches a high school rugby team in Norman, Okla.

Moira asked hard questions, she pushed people to their limits – without being asked – and this made people uncomfortable. Tracy strategically avoided Moira, but she also said she “wanted to be Moira RedCorn when she grew up.” There was just something about this friend of hers that was different.

“She stands straighter than anyone I know. She sits with more grace than anyone else,” Curtis said. “Her movements are so fluid, her thoughts are so focused. I honestly believe she gets it from her mother and from her grandmother. I think there’s a really calm peace there that’s a lot more than just her.”

She remembers being at a team party with lots of drinking, but Moira wouldn’t have anything to do with alcohol.
What Curtis didn’t know was her friend had already been there, done that.

Moira had graduated from Dartmouth, where she worked as an assistant editor for the faculty psychiatrist newsletter, but she had no direction.

The party scene swallowed her up. She was boozing, not caring. Not thinking about her future, her choices or anyone else. Then came the week from hell: her car broke down, boyfriend broke up with her.
Was this all there was?

She started listening. Curtis remembers Moira was adamant about not being around alcohol and working against alcoholism; she respected that.

What Curtis didn’t know was why her friend stopped drinking. A year after the week from hell, Moira and her friends planned a major ski trip on a weekend they knew they’d get a lot of snow. The night before their trip, Moira got hammered and was too hung over to leave the next day.

The snow came and the group of friends got snowed in – at home. They were stuck because of Moira.
That was it.

She wanted more.

On the outside Eliska Been looked fine, but she was on the brink of a psychotic break down. Once, she had it all: the job, the girlfriend, success, money, intelligence. But she got lost. She tried other doctors, but felt pigeonholed in the mental health system in 2011. She wound up in Dr. RedCorn’s office while she was working as a psychiatric physician for Cherokee Nation Health Services.

She demanded Valium and Xanax.

Moira’s answer was simple: No.

“She was the first woman who ever challenged me, who said I was wrong, who stood up to me,” said Been, 46.

She didn’t like it, but she kept coming back. Their sessions were cathartic, angry, loud and heartfelt. Sometimes, they were the only intelligent conversations Been had all week.

“She forced me to address the true issues,” Been said. “I had no identity.”

Gradually, as she let down her guard and opened up, she realized the importance of Moira’s Native heritage. She trusted Moira because she was Native.

Although Been is part Cherokee, she isn’t an enrolled member of the tribe. While her connection to Native people is strong, her connection to Moira is even stronger. Years of wandering about had blurred that connection.

“I needed to come home. There’s something about Oklahoma, and something about the Native American-ness and the spirituality that exists in this land and when you’re someplace else and you’re no longer home and you don’t hear the words of your community speak to you, you get lost.

“When you’re at another facility and another psychiatric facility and they don’t understand that spirit …”

Been paused.

“They’ll shut you down. They’ll say you’re not OK. And for her …”

Her blue-gray eyes shifted to Moira. Her voice wavered. Then a tear.

“She’s always said, ‘You’re OK,’ and she heard me.”

Been is better, but it’s still a struggle, a process.

Dark bags seem permanent around her eyes, but her voice is more confident these days.

“I think there’s very parallel lines of how we’ve experienced life and I think we met at a time where I was open to something and she was at a crossroads in her life and she put me back on track. She shifted me, she shifted my soul and spirit,” Been said.

It’s about breathing, in and out.

In the late ’80s, in Taos, N.M., Moira had two forms of transportation: her legs and her thumb. It wasn’t abnormal for her to hitchhike to work or around the city. But then she decided to go home to Oklahoma for a weekend, to try her luck with longer distances.

So she flagged down a farm truck in Amarillo and was off.

But during their trek the truck started sputtering as it lurched up a big hill.

The driver turned to Moira with a slight grin.

“Are you scared?”

“No.”

The driver reached across the seat toward Moira and clicked over to his second tank of gas. The truck equaled out after a few seconds and began humming normally.

“Oh, I was just kiddin,’” the driver said.

“I know that I would never do that now,” Moira said. “I just wanted to see if I could trust the world; I wanted to see if I would be OK out there.”

She tested the world and tested her limits.

As a young, single girl, Moira wanted to know what it was like to not have a home. She had a job and she could have crashed on a friend’s couch, but didn’t. So she lived in her car.

“The loneliest part of (being homeless) is driving around at dinner time and seeing everyone at home with their family. They’re eating and doing these family things and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, where am I going to park tonight?’”

But Moira didn’t have to be homeless. She knew this. There was safety in this thought and yet she wanted to fully experience this level of suffering and desperation.

“I’m lucky, and I know that,” she said. But this sense of luck, at times, doesn’t seem fair …

It’s about breathing, in and out.

In 2004, when Moira met Bill Nunez, she was 38 and he was 35. Friends set them up.

She was a massage therapist, he was a social worker.

They shared similar worldviews. They were laid back. They knew who they were and what they wanted in life.

Nunez described their relationship as “hanging out” more than “dating.” They rode bikes, talked and spent time together, much like they do now.

Shortly after they got married, Moira decided to go to medical school – she was 40 years old.

“It might seem like a strange connection at first, to go from massage to medical school, but not if you look at Moira’s use of medicine. It’s really holistic and really incorporates the mind and body,” he said.

Without knowing it, Moira’s meditation prepared her to be a massage therapist, which led her to medical school, a path few psychiatrists take. But for Moira it was the right thing to do.

She went to medical school at Oklahoma State University and received the Indian Health Service Scholarship – a scholarship that requires proof of Native heritage.

Another student got the scholarship, but seemed slightly disappointed about a caveat that came with the money.

“You know,” the other student said. “You have to go serve for a year on the reservation …”

Moira stared at her.

“I’m a lifer. I’m not just Indian to get a scholarship.”

Moira and her husband recently moved to a 1,000-square-foot “bunker” in Tahlequah, Okla., looking for a simpler life, looking for clarity and peace in a quieter setting within reach of their families.

Tahlequah has a history of its own. Founded as a capital of the Cherokee Nation in 1838 to welcome Cherokee forced west on the Trail of Tears.

Despite its unpleasant memories, Tahlequah, to Moira, means home. It’s where she can breathe. It’s where she finds peace, nestled among trees. It’s where she likes to meditate.

Sitting in her home office, with a computer at her back, Moira faces the window. She looks into the sun, allowing it to hit the tip of her nose and patches of her cheeks. She rolls back her shoulders, closes her eyes.
Silence. Breathing.

The trees outside the window are mostly bare, only a few burnt orange leaves clinging to their branches.
But Moira’s not looking at the leaves or the sun or anything other than the inside of her eyelids.
Peace. It’s what many of her patients lack.

It’s what she lacked.

Many come to her with stories of domestic violence, anxiety and trauma. She hears chaos and works to quiet it.
“One moment, one breath, one step brings attention to what’s actually happening right now. That’s one little moment that they didn’t have yesterday.”

One moment she didn’t have yesterday.

It’s all about breathing – in and out, in and out, in and out.

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Heather Shotton