Yes, there is elder abuse in Indian Country
by Mary Bowannie
Albuquerque, New Mexico (NFIC)
Kathryn Harrison has seen much in her
78 years as a tribal member and retired
chairperson of the Confederated Tribes
of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon. But
one thing she never thought she would see is the
abuse of elders across Indian Country.
Elders make up and reinforce the cultural
foundation and connection to traditions that
make up a tribal community. So why is Indian
Country hurting those we revere, those we
seek out for knowledge and a connection to
who we are as a people?
The answers are many and complex. Now
a video is available which addresses the issue
of elder abuse in Indian Country. Restoring
the Sacred Circle: Responding to Elder Abuse
in American Indian Communities is a new
training video which debuted at the National
Indian Council on Aging conference in
September in Albuquerque.
Produced by the Oregon Department of
Human Services (ODHS) with additional
funding by the Oregon Department of Justice,
organizers sought advice from the tribes. An
advisory committee included representatives
from the Yakama Nation, Confederated Tribes
of Warm Springs, Confederated Tribes of
Grand Ronde, Trenton Indian Service Area,
Nez Perce Tribe, Quinault Indian Nation,
Klamath Tribes and the National Indian
Council on Aging (NICOA).
The half-hour program was produced and
directed by Choctaw filmmaker Phil Lucas.
Shot primarily on the Yakama Reservation in
central Washington, Lucas filmed and edited
the production in six months between January
and August of this year. Lucas had to research
the subject extensively as he was ignorant
about elder abuse, but committed to help fill a
“I’m involved with issues. When you
enter a cause, you have to do it, not for the
money, not for me. I do what I can – what will
help elevate the spirit and alleviate the pain of
our people,” said Lucas.
Cayuga actor Gary Farmer narrates the
piece and members of the Yakama Nation and
Kathryn Harrison became actors to help drive
home the message – there is elder abuse in
Indian Country. The film dramatizes physical,
emotional and verbal abuse situations and
intercuts between interviews of elder abuse
advocates and law enforcement on what can
be done to combat elder abuse in American
Arlene Onley is the Program Director for
the Yakama Nation Area Agency on Aging.
Onley said it was exciting to be a part of the
production and working with Gary Farmer was
a highlight. However, she said it was tough to
convince tribal members to get involved with
the project due to the subject matter.
Onley reassured them there was a script
for people to act out scenes. She kept at it and
before long people wanted to be a part of the
production. The video will be shown to the
Yakama Nation and the general public on
October 28 and Onley hopes the response
continues to be positive.
“It’s hard to come out into the public on
the issue. Family members don’t want to
report their own family. It takes us a while to
get out of the denial stage to out in public.
The video is just a start,” said Onley.
Dave Baldridge, Cherokee, Executive
Director of NICOA, says technology and talent
has helped level the playing field in getting such
a video produced on a difficult subject.
“Ten years ago we didn’t have very many
accomplished Native American production studios.
The video is the best example of the capability
of Indian Country to produce quality
audio visual material and the willingness to talk
about elder abuse,” said Baldridge.
While there are no hard numbers on the
extent of elder abuse in Indian County,
Baldridge says the video creates an avenue for
people to talk about the issue. At the debut
screening at the NICOA conference in
September, elders from across Indian Country
stood up after the screening and shared their
emotional responses to the video.
Many said the abuse situations dramatized in
the video, they themselves had experienced. All
said the fact that they were being abused by
their own family members was very difficult to
admit and even harder was to seek help.
The need for such a training film was
expressed by Native American elders at the
U.S. Department of Justice Symposium on
Elder Victimization in Washington, D.C., in
October 2000. The caucus identified training
as one of the top 10 needs to help tribes identify
and combat elder abuse in their communities.
The film is intended for tribal social
services workers, police, judges, health workers
and other elder advocates.
Aileen Kaye is the Abuse Prevention
Program Coordinator for ODHS and was key
in connecting the State of Oregon with the
tribes and getting the project off the ground.
Kaye and others hope the video will help
tribes address the difficult issue and become
proactive in the prevention of abuse and protection
of elders in their communities.
“Elder abuse is a complex problem that
requires a coordinated community response
and multiple disciplines working together.
Victims are often isolated and dependent on
their abuser,” said Kaye.
One copy of Restoring the Sacred Circle:
Responding to Elder Abuse in American Indian
Communities will be made available to U.S.
tribes by the ODHS and the National Center on
Aging in Washington, D.C., who will cover
postage costs. Additional copies of the video
can be obtained for $15 from the ODHS. A day
long curriculum on elder abuse is also available
at a nominal cost and was created by the
Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde for an
elder abuse training held in May 2001.
Additionally, a 15 minute video is in the
works entitled, Roll Call: Elder Abuse for
Police Agencies. The video, also hosted by
Gary Farmer, will be available later this year.
NICOA will send out one copy of the video to
tribal law enforcement entities across Indian
Country with additional copies available
through the ODHS office.
FMI: Oregon Department of Human
Services, (503) 945-6399.