Breaking the Silence: Confronting the Problem of Elder Abuse


By Toya Stewart Downey, June 11, 2015

Though it’s been an issue that has been around for longer than anyone knows, only in recent years has the topic of Elder abuse been openly discussed and addressed across Indian Country.

In March the Mille Lacs Band held a conference on Elder abuse, “Cultural Awareness is Prevention,” that was followed in April by the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe’s (MCT) “Indigenous Elder Abuse Awareness Conference.”

“We believe the more it’s talked about and openly addressed, the easier it is for Elders to speak up and talk about things they are going through,” said Joanne Mulbah, the MCT’s manager for the supplemental nutrition assistance program.

“Elders write to us and tell us that now, because of these kinds of conferences and conversations, they know how to get help and how to talk about it,” Joanne added.

This year, the fourth year the MCT has offered a conference on Elder abuse, had the biggest turnout so far. More than 340 attended from across the state and from Arizona, Oklahoma and South Dakota. The Mille Lacs Band was a major sponsor of the conference.

“Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin and other Mille Lacs leaders have been very supportive of the event, “ Joanne said.

When the Band offered its Elder abuse conference, the goal was to bring awareness to people and create a safe forum for discussing some of the solutions, said Cindi Douglas, the Band’s Elder Abuse Program Coordinator.

“Elder abuse is different than sexual or domestic abuse,” said Cindi. “It can be financial abuse, neglect, abandonment, or it can be self-neglect.

“Elder abuse is where domestic violence was 30 years ago. People barely recognize or talk about it, let alone ask for or find help,” said Cindi, adding that the Mille Lacs Band is only one of two tribes that have an Elder abuse program.

To help create awareness and to encourage conversations about it, Cindi frequently makes presentations, attends Elder meetings, and offers training to the police.

In July, August and September, the Band’s program will host Elder fishing trips at Eddy’s Resort in an effort to get to know Elders better and begin conversations about abuse.

Elder abuse is not exclusive to Native Americans, but it seems to strike a different chord because of the cultural teachings of the Ojibwe that say Elders are to be respected and honored.

“The Ojibwe culture teaches people that they are supposed to take care of their family,” said Cindi. “For many in the younger generation, there’s a lack of respect for Elders and the culture.”

Joanne shares a similar perspective.

The common theme that comes out during her conversations and during the conferences is that strengthening the culture is critical.

“Children need to hear this and the professionals who work with Elders need to hear this,” she said, adding that the Mille Lacs Band sponsored the MCT conference’s keynote speaker, who focused on the importance of language and culture.

The loss of culture is a critical piece of the problem, said Sam Moose, Mille Lacs Band Commissioner of Health and Human Services.

“The negative impact of historical trauma and loss of culture are contributing factors to abuse in Indian Country, which unfortunately does not exclude Elders,” Sam said.

“Additionally, the strong tribal values of the community and family, along with the mistrust of mainstream systems, become very real factors for Elders when they report abuse or seek protection,” he added.

“These factors make addressing the issue in Indian Country very difficult with current law and will require a tribal solution that includes codes and tribal statutes.”

If anyone has witnessed or suspects abuse of an Elder, many resources are available. The Band has a Family Violence Prevention Program, including a crisis line and shelter, along with community advocates and family services. For help 24/7 call the crisis line at 866-867-4006. For more information about the Band’s program call Cindi Douglas at 218-768-3311.