When our elders are abused, we all lose
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 need.

“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 Indian communities.

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.

Copyright © 2002 News From Indian Country,
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