PORTLAND, Ore. - "Don't be Paiute" jokes aside, folks at the Warm Springs
Senior Center appreciate Wilson Wewa. It isn't unusual to see the
48-year-old Paiute and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs member pad
through the dining hall on a regular work day in beaded moccasins. With his
long black braids hanging down over a Western shirt and his gold-rimmed
glasses in place, he's often asked to draw on his paralegal background to
Wewa is the master of ceremonies for the center's renowned Senior Day. He
is practiced in getting dignified elder men into size 4X long Johns, and
then convincing groups of elder women to stuff the winter underwear with as
many balloons as they can and pop them with darning needles sharp enough to
get the men's attention.
"It can be pretty hilarious," Wewa said. "I try to look for the quiet women
to pop the balloons. Everyone walks away laughing and having fun - not to
mention the door prizes. And we wrap up the day with a big salmon feast
that we cook over an open fire on sticks. Our Senior Day here at Warm
Springs is unrivaled in the Northwest, and we feed anywhere from 1,000 to
1,200 people in the longhouse. We're very proud of that."
Between family duties and schooling, Wewa has invested a collective 20
years in the center. The building sits on the eastern side of the Cascade
Mountains in the Pacific Northwest's rain shadow, where a bright sun and
bold turquoise sky mark most days. All that warmth and light seems to
infuse Wewa's work.
"I'm part of a multi-disciplinary team that works to keep families whole
and help our elders get the assistance they need," said Wewa. "Our team
includes people in the tribal court system, prosecutor's office, police
department, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Oregon Department of Human
Services, Indian Health Service, social workers, public health nurses [and]
community health representatives, among others.
"Collectively, we review problems that elders encounter. By involving
everyone, elders feel like their concerns are being heard, and especially
that various offices aren't just trying to pass the buck and send problems
they don't want to deal with off to someone else's door."
Wewa earned his paralegal degree in 2000 and has five years under his belt
assisting tribal elders with legal matters. "In a limited way, I help
people fill out their documents correctly so they don't end up shuffling
back and forth.
"I also work closely with the Oregon Department of Human Services on elder
abuse investigations ... It's very difficult to deal with those kinds of
things because elders know that they're going to get shunned if they say
anything and that nonverbal intimidation could be used that would isolate
them from their grandchildren and great grandchildren."
Housing is another area in which Wewa gets involved, working with elders
who are charged with possible eviction from a tribal or HUD home. In cases
where rent money is shunted to things like alcohol, Wewa works with family
and team members on creative solutions designed to enable seniors to live
in the least restrictive environment possible.
The center's operation reflects this type of constructive philosophy.
Instead of five meals a week like most centers, it serves two. "That's what
our elders told us they wanted," Wewa said. "They didn't want to come in
every day to eat, so we just serve family style with everything on platters
and whole pies on the table. People are free to eat as much they want and
then we pack up leftovers for them to take on back home."
Wewa also seeks out creative ways to educate caregivers and elders, and
toward that end helped organize the nine Oregon tribes' first-ever Native
Care Giver Conference that took place in February.
"I belong to the National Family Care Givers Support Group, a new program
that just started three years ago," said Wewa. "When some of us from
different tribes got to talking, we came up with the idea of how nice it
would be to have a meeting just for Natives. So we went to work and got
speakers at no cost.
"Basically we pulled it together in short order and it was a huge success.
People didn't even want to leave when we had our closing session. Here I
said, 'We just closed, what's going on, they're not leaving?' It was
"Funny" seems to be a word never far from Wewa's repertoire. Elders Program
coordinator and member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Angela Ramirez
praised his humor.
"Wilson is very funny and puts everyone at ease when he's talking. He was
our master of ceremonies and since he knows everyone, he could joke around.
When one woman from Warm Springs got a Chinook Winds ball-cap for a door
prize, Wilson looked at the flames on the cap and teased her about being a
hot mama," Ramirez said. "Everyone laughed, and it was a good way to end
the conference after so many intense discussions."
Innovation, a wicked sense of humor, a background in the law and, of
course, Native pride: it's all there in Wewa's work at the senior center
and beyond. Clearly his colleagues think that's a good thing - and the
elders do, too.