Today many tribes are faced with the possibility of forever losing their
culture, customs and language. It is a plight American Indians have been
struggling with since contact with Europeans. One Native woman is playing
an active role in her community to fight the extinction of her people's
ways and language. That woman is Jennifer Sutherland.
Sutherland, or Red Elk Woman, is a 22-year-old Gros Ventre/Ojibway enrolled
member at the Fort Belkap Reservation in Montana. She is a proud wife and
mother of two children and was also a student at the University of
Montana-Missoula where she was the president of the Kyi-Yo Native American
Student Association. Sutherland attended the University of Montana-Missoula
for three years, majoring in Native American Studies. Fortunately for the
National Society for American Indian Elderly and those elders she is
currently helping, Sutherland took a break from academia to be an
Sutherland is one of the first outreach volunteers in the National Society
for American Indian Elderly's VISTA Reservation Placement Project. NSAIE
was established in 1987 as a 501(c)(3) organization to improve the quality
of life for on-reservation American Indian elders. NSAIE supports a network
of tribally established and administered services to achieve its mission of
improving access to and quality of health care services. Quality of life
improvements for the vulnerable population of elders are provided through
financial support, in the form of small grants, to tribal senior centers
for community health services such as nutrition, transportation,
socialization and in-home care.
NSAIE is staffed entirely by volunteers who have committed their
significant talents toward developing a long-term, sustainable system for
expanding senior services on tribal lands. In October 2000, NSAIE received
the first of several grants from the Corporation for National and Community
Service for Americorps*VISTA volunteers to assist with resource
development. Since October 2000, NSAIE has received 12 Americorps*VISTA
volunteers, who have been placed on various reservations of its member
tribes to work directly with tribal elders, as well as conduct resource
development for the organization. In the past 11 months the VISTAs have
generated over $179,000 in cash and more than $42,000 in donated goods and
services to support the Native American senior centers they are working
As a VISTA, Sutherland is hoping to revive the culture of the Turtle
Mountain Band of Chippewa located in the Trenton Indian Service Area. Her
duties include grant writing, volunteer recruitment, and program
development. Two projects Sutherland is currently working on are the
construction of an assisted living facility in Trenton, as well as a
language immersion camp to be held this summer. It is the revival of the
Mitchif language that Sutherland hopes to accomplish on the TISA. Only a
few elders are fluent in Mitchif and are located on the Turtle Mountain
Reservation. At the week-long language immersion camp Sutherland will also
be teaching beading and dancing, jigging and drum making.
Cultural preservation and revitalization are only a few of Sutherland's
goals to accomplish as a VISTA and as an American Indian. Currently,
Sutherland is working with the University of North Dakota-Grand Forks on
gathering data for a behavioral risk factor survey. The information
gathered from this survey will help set up a program to assist people who
are chronically ill, frail, or disabled maintain their independence, be
able to stay in their homes and communities for as long as possible.
When asked what her motivation was for joining Americorps*VISTA and working
with NSAIE, Sutherland said, "I want to help my people however I can. I
think that's why I'm here today working for our elders. They're the key to
our culture surviving, and have taught me so much. It's only right that I
do what I can to better their lives."
Sutherland also recommends participation in the program to fellow Natives.
Upon completion of one year of service, VISTAs receive an education stipend
of $4,725 to be applied toward tuition or previous student loans.
Sutherland plans on utilizing this education award to complete her degree
in Native American Studies.
To learn more about NSAIE, visit www.nsaie.org. For more information on
serving as an Americorps*VISTA volunteer, visit www.americorps.org.