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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


April 17, 2004 - Issue 111


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Revitalizing Native Languages

by Jaime Park /Grant Writer / National Society for American Indian Elderly
Dancing 'til Dawn by Marianne Millar

Dancing 'til Dawn by Marianne MillarToday 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 Americorps*VISTA.

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 with.

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 For more information on serving as an Americorps*VISTA volunteer, visit

Jaimie Park is the grant writer for National Society for American Indian Elderly. She is currently working with the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa in Michigan.

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