Native Sun News: Rosebud Sioux advocate won't remain silenced
The following story was written and reported by Randall Howell. © Native Sun News.

ST. FRANCIS, SOUTH DAKOTA –– Tillie Black Bear is tired. But, that fatigue will not stop her iconic voice against domestic violence.

It’s a voice from the now-resigned executive director of the White Buffalo Calf Woman Society – a longstanding group with local, national and international standing among women who are victims of sexual and domestic abuse.

“I’ll be consulting some,” said Black Bear, 63, who was co-founder of the society 33 years ago. “It provides time for me for more matters of (domestic violence) discussion this coming year.”

Black Bear, Sicangu, was speaking of the recent unilateral funding shutdown – a funding shutdown that threatens to disrupt advocacy services, including shelter, provided by the society.

“I just don’t have the faith in our tribal leadership anymore,” she said. The society’s shelter is at Mission, where it serves sexual and domestic abuse clients 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“I think they (the shelter staff) are stepping up to the plate,” said Black Bear, who identified two other staffers who have resigned – Connie Brushbreaker and Marco Marshall. Brushbreaker has 12 years in domestic violence work and Marshall has five years, according to Black Bear.

Born at St. Francis, Black Bear is a graduate of St. Francis High School – Class of 1965 – and spent her first two years after high school attending the College of St. Mary’s in Omaha, Neb.

Nonetheless, the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council’s July 16 action, which effectively froze funding to the non-profit, is seen by critics as an unwarranted RST effort to skim society program funding from an organization that has operated autonomously from the outset.

“The overall trail for this administration is rough,” said Black Bear, who was born to Dorothy Mousseaux and James Black Bear. Her mother is from Spring Creek. Her biological father is from Kyle. Her stepfather is Francis Crane.

“The record of this administration isn’t very good,” said Back Bear, who first came to work in St. Francis as a counselor. Black Bear also has a master’s degree in counseling from the University of South Dakota. “It isn’t very good, particularly in working with women in leadership positions, such as executive directors,” said Black Bear, who explained that the most recent funding freezes “seems to be part of a three-year cycle and we’re in the first year of it.”

Black Bear, considered a woman’s warrior by those who know her, has battled chronic fatigue syndrome for most of her adult life. At one point in her career, the society’s co-founder took five years of leave to “deal with my health problems,” which included being “pumped up on steroids.”

Calling the society a “non-profit, grassroots organization,” Black Bear said it operates with a board of directors. She served as executive director from 1987 to 1991, and returned to that position in 1996 for a total of 14 years.

With sexual and domestic violence rocketing through Indian country at a rate that surveys indicate is as much as10 times that for non-Indian women, Black Bear said her experiences would indicate that the frequency is “even higher” than is common knowledge.

Black Bear said that alcohol is at the root of most sexual and domestic violence issues. “Alcohol and drugs are the greatest factor, the largest factor,” she said. “It’s a disease, but we don’t treat it as a disease. The disease is not going to stop. All of my eight sibling’s deaths were related to alcohol.”

Those deaths ranged from liver diseases to heart attacks from heavy drinking, she said.

The third child of 11 with eight of her siblings born at home, Black Bear said only three remain alive today – Violet Crow Good Voice, Sam Crane and herself. All are at St. Francis.

She said that, while it does add significant operational expenses, the society welcomes men who are willing to commit to the Duluth Model, which requires a two-hour session each week.

“We work with men who have been taken to court and given mandatory men’s domestic violence education classes – a 26-week program,” said Black Bear, whose society staff numbers from 15 to 21 members, depending on the funding available.

“Nonetheless, the majority of our clients are women,” she said, noting that most of the males are perpetrators, not victims. “It’s a very unbalanced situation. Men use that to manipulate their spouse. They gain knowledge and the threat is always there that they (the men) would beat them (spouses).”

Black Bear, who has spoken against sexual assault and domestic violence at world-stage conferences, said that one of the major problems with men seeking help through the society is that “they won’t back off.”

“The men who come to us, they deny any physical assault and they do a lot of blaming. They hold everyone accountable but themselves,” said Black Bear, who also said that sometimes “the courts order us to take the case.”

Diagnosed with systemic lupus in 1978, Black Bear said the doctor told her to have no more children and to work on developing a stress-free life. She was 32 years old and a laboratory workup showed that her “liver was not good” and doctors discovered that she was suffering from auto-immune hepatitis. She went on steroids.

As if chronic fatigue syndrome, auto-immune hepatitis and a deteriorating liver were not enough, Black Bear was diagnosed with diabetes in 1994.

“They pumped me up with steroids and I gained about 30 pounds,” said Black Bear, who acknowledged that she is helping work one of her daughters through chemical dependency issues. “By 2000, the doctors were working with me to get off the steroids. I had high blood pressure and they couldn’t bring it down.” Black Bear lost the use of her kidneys in 2002 and went on dialysis. In January 2005, she received a kidney transplant. Daughter Violet was the kidney donor.

But, the medical problems mounted. Black Bear had two heart attacks – one in 2003 and the second in 2004.

With lupus still “attacking every organ in my body, I also was having hard time breathing,” said Black Bear, who continued her campaign against sexual and domestic violence. “They said my lungs were shrinking and that I was having some kind of problem with my esophagus.”

She said she didn’t want to die, so she “sat down to figure out how I’m going to live.” That steered her toward her own traditional spiritual development, including sweats and ceremonies.

“I fell about three years ago and broke my hip,” she said. “Now I can’t really walk or run or anything.” But with those “health reasons” assisting her in her decision to resign, Black Bear still speaks out. “A lot of people don’t like us because we advocate for women – the victim, and a lot of men are offended because I’ve made statements that this administration is anti-women,” said Black Bear, who said the funding freeze reportedly prompted by a couple of clients who, after staying at the shelter, took issue with the society.

“It’s not a good idea,” said Black Bear, speaking to the tribal council’s demand for a monthly and an annual report from the organization. The funding freeze is expected to remain in place until the council has conducted an investigation of the complaints filed with the tribe.

If the funding freeze is an effort to force the society into an agency or department of tribal government, “they would pull our charter every week,” lamented Black Bear, who said she would be doing some training and consulting and sleeping.

“I’m going to kick back for awhile,” she said. “I’m sleeping in until 10 a.m. every day. In addition, I’m taking naps in the afternoon. I haven’t been anywhere. I’m just catching up on rest.”

Pledging to “work more on my spirituality,” Black Bear said: “I’m 63 years old. It’s time to figure out what I’m going to do next.”

Contact Randall Howell

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Domestic violence shelter on Rosebud Reservation loses leaders (8/17)
Rosebud Sioux Tribe maintains funds for domestic violence shelter (8/4)
Rosebud Sioux Tribe revokes funds for domestic violence shelter (7/22)