Partner Q&A: Caring for Elders of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe

For 30 years, PWNA has partnered with hundreds of tribal communities in the Southwest and Northern Plains to support programs and initiatives that address the needs of individual communities.

This month, we’re spotlighting longtime program partner Roberta Bigback, who coordinates the Northern Cheyenne Elderly Program on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Lame Deer, Montana. Roberta shares how working with PWNA has helped her program provide continual care for the Elders in her community.

PWNA: What is the primary focus of your program?

Roberta B:  The Northern Cheyenne Elderly Program strives to ensure that the Elders in our tribe are cared for every day. We do this by feeding them, providing activities that promote well-being and simply spending time with them.

PWNA: How did you first hear about PWNA and how long have you been a partner?

Roberta B: I’ve been with the elderly program since 2002 and PWNA has been a part of our journey since then. Next year will mark 20 years.

PWNA: How has PWNA supported your program over the years?

Roberta B: PWNA has positively contributed to our seniors in many ways. Through our partnership, PWNA delivers supplies to us on a regular basis, such as incentives that keep our Elders engaged during activities and everyday basics that some cannot afford on their own.

We also receive emergency boxes that help prepare our Elders in case of seasonal emergencies. In Montana, we are often at risk for snowstorms and power outages that can lead to frozen pipes, empty pantries and flooding. PWNA’s winter boxes are filled with nonperishable food, water, batteries, blankets, candles and personal hygiene items. We also benefit from PWNA’s standard food service. Our program runs on a limited budget and these monthly food deliveries help us prepare nutritious hot meals for the Elders.

PWNA: Has PWNA supported your community in establishing or enhancing projects that can lead to long-term solutions (e.g., community gardens, nutrition training, emergency preparedness, leadership training, etc.)?

Roberta B: I’ve been a part of PWNA’s efforts to support leaders within Native communities from the very beginning. For example, I had the pleasure of participating in the first Four Directions Development Program (4D) cohort in the Northern Plains. This program taught me so much about myself and how to be a better supervisor. The follow-up meetings are great as well because they show how invested PWNA is in our success.

PWNA: What do you want others to know about your partnership with PWNA?

Roberta B: Our partnership has been an essential part of the elderly program’s success. The ongoing support that is given in terms of food, household and hygiene supplies is much needed and appreciated. It helps us fulfill our mission and provide an atmosphere that ensures a better quality of life for the Northern Cheyenne people. Thank you, PWNA, for all you do and all we do together for our aging Native citizens.

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Caring for the Elders With a Healthy Breakfast

What does the term ‘Elder’ mean to you? For many, an Elder is a parent, a teacher, a grandparent, a friend or even a mentor. Elders often play a special role in caring for someone, and, as they get older those roles are often reversed; those who were cared for become the caregivers.

In Native American cultures, Elders are honored as the keepers of language, heritage and bloodlines. On reservations, it’s common for families to live together with their Elders or at least live close to one another so they can care for and support each other. Unfortunately, there aren’t always enough resources for every family member in the household – one in four Indigenous people in the U.S. experience food insecurity (compared to one in nine Americans overall).

In an effort to ensure Elders are not without food, Breakfast-in-a-Bag is a service that PWNA offers to eligible Elders on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. As part of the program, Rosebud Elders are given breakfast foods for a balanced meal each morning, thanks to a partnership with AllStop, a local grocery store on the reservation.

Elders can either pick up their breakfast groceries or request to have them delivered to their home so that those who are without transportation and live remotely are not left without. The store also pairs Elders with a store employee – one who likes to visit and talk to the Elders while they shop –  to take them around the store to choose their breakfast items.

“We want them to feel rewarded; they deserve it and they’ve earned their way,” said Wes, the store owner. “For all the things they’ve done for people throughout their whole life, now someone is doing something special for them.”

Food insecurity is only one of the many challenges Native American Elders face. Depending on the community, other challenges include a lack of basic utilities in the home, such as running water and electricity. With the help of generous donors and Tribal partners, we’re able to support more than 600 pickups of fruits, vegetables, eggs and meat for Elders.  

We hope to continue providing Elders with healthy meals to fuel their days and hope you’ll join us in caring for those who helped sustain their communities and preserve their Native traditions.

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Native American culture is hardly monolithic. Its rich and diverse heritage is spread across 154 different languages in nine different states. But there are still a number of problems tribal communities share. PWNA’s Mark Ford discusses the importance of serving rural Native American tribes.

Fostering Healthy Communities And Inspiring New Leaders

PWNA supports a holistic range of programs that energize and support American Indians. One of these is the Native American Food Sovereignty Initiative. Mark explains that Native Americans face the highest rate of diabetes and heart disease in the U.S., which is why it’s important to train people in preparing healthy meals using ancestral foods and Indigenous recipes. 

PWNA also offers various grassroots leadership and higher education programs so that more people can speak up about local and regional issues and better represent the voices of those in their tribal communities.

Not all of the programs focus on long-term development; PWNA offers programs focused on ‘immediate needs’ as well. These focus on bringing food, bottled water, school supplies, personal hygiene products and more into rural tribal communities.

Listen to the whole interview to find out about the risk Native tribes face from natural disasters and to learn how you can become more #NativeAware. PWNA also welcomes donations to benefit the tribes. is an organization aimed at solving the world’s most dire problem — global climate change. Their mission is to take money from an otherwise harmful and greedy industry and move it towards a positive and good cause (solving global climate change).

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PWNA CEO Addresses Haskell’s Graduating Classes of 2020 and 2021

Recently, PWNA president & CEO Joshua Arce had the opportunity to speak with graduates of Haskell Indian Nations University as part of an unofficial graduation ceremony for the classes of 2020 and 2021. The ceremony took place on Friday, May 7 at Sacred Ground Haskell in Lawrence, Kansas.

Arce, a Kansas native and citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, was the honorary keynote speaker of this unique graduate recognition program. It was organized by Sacred Ground Haskell, an outreach of Lutheran Indian Ministries and local community center situated across the street from Haskell. While the university canceled its official graduation ceremonies for 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, the community-led graduation ceremony was attended by approximately 50 students and many others who tuned in virtually.

As a graduate and prior employee of Haskell for nearly 12 years before joining PWNA in 2020, Arce shared how meaningful their achievement is for each student, as well as their families and loved ones who will be positively impacted by it.  

“Your accomplishments come after a commitment was made, degree requirements were met, and goals were achieved,” said Arce. “Be mindful of how your decisions today – both academic and social – will influence the future that you cannot see.”

As part of the keynote address, Arce recognized the faculty members and instructors at Haskell and encouraged a much-deserved round of applause for their work and perseverance. He also acknowledged the challenges of the past year and the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the community at large, and for many at home.

Most importantly, Arce reminded graduates of the importance of working hard to achieve what’s in your heart. He shared how his life experiences up to this point led him to where he is today with PWNA, leading a nonprofit organization that is committed to championing hope for Native Americans living in remote, geographically isolated and impoverished reservation communities.

On behalf of all of us at PWNA, we congratulate the graduating classes of 2020 and 2021 across Indian Country and the U.S.

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Recognizing Indigenous Veterans on Memorial Day

Memorial Day 2021 is on May 31 and we pay homage to the veterans who have served our country. This year, we’re also celebrating the opening of the new National Native American Veterans Memorial at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C.

Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day and was first celebrated in 1868 to observe and honor fallen soldiers of the Civil War – including more than 20,000 Native Americans who served. Memorial Day evolved in 1971 to recognize all soldiers, past or present, not just those who had fallen.

Historically, more Native Americans have served in the U.S. military than any minority group, and their most key supporters are their communities back home. However, many people are unaware of the exceptional contributions of American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native veterans over the past two centuries.

Some may ask, “Why serve a country that has slighted our people?” Many Native Americans will contend that the land is still ours and while we are fraught with many ongoing social complications, the need for defending our country, our land, and our peoples prevails. Nearly 19% of Native Americans have served in the armed forces since 9/11 alone.

Last November, NMAI opened the doors to its National Native American Veterans Memorial to commemorate the service and the sacrifice of Native veterans and their families. The memorial, located on the National Mall in D.C., features a stainless-steel circle balanced on a carved stone drum that incorporates water for sacred ceremonies, benches for gathering/reflection and lances where visitors can tie cloths for prayers and healing. NMAI also launched a virtual exhibition that you can access online.

Many of PWNA’s partners on Northern Plains and Southwest reservations are serving 15 or more veterans, along with other residents, through their senior centers, food banks, health centers and other Tribal programs. This assistance cares for all our brethren and honors the sacrifices of our veterans.

Today is an opportunity to pay tribute to those who have served or fallen to defend our freedom.

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Native News Pick of the Month: President Biden’s ‘Thrifty Food Plan’ and what it means for Native Families

This month, PWNA vice president of programs Rafael Tapia Jr. offers his thoughts on our May ‘Native News Pick of the Month’: Biden Quietly Preparing for Food Stamp Increase Without Congress via Bloomberg


Earlier this year, President Biden shared his American Rescue Plan, which included $12 billion in additional support for major food assistance programs, along with the American Families Plan that will expand access to free school lunch and summertime cash benefits for families with children. These actions are geared at supporting some of America’s most impoverished communities – and Native Americans should not be left behind.

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, 23% of Native American families were impacted by food insecurity. Tribal communities face high rates of impoverishment and are at greater risk for diabetes, obesity and other nutrition-related illnesses. One of our priorities at PWNA is to aid the communities we serve in developing sustainable nutrition initiatives, such as access to fresh food and preparing healthier meals.

President Biden’s ‘Thrifty Food Plan’ would support a long-term increase in food aid for millions of Americans that goes beyond the COVID-19 relief package. Steps like these are critical when you consider the lasting impact the pandemic will have long after it is “over.” And while Indian Country has made great strides in rolling out the vaccine, the need for critical resources like food and water is just as high as it was before the pandemic.

For many Americans, lining up outside of food banks to await groceries was a jarring, if not traumatic, first. Last December, one in seven homes were food insecure and this past January, nearly 42 million Americans were receiving food stamps. President Biden shared in his first Congressional speech, “I didn’t ever think I’d see that in America.” Yet, there is one America that most Americans never see – Native America. 

Food insecurity disproportionately impacts communities of color, especially children, Elders and people with disabilities. Contrary to misconceptions about government aid, many people in remote reservation communities are barely scraping by and often choose between food and other essentials like school supplies or gas. We work year-round to replenish our warehouses and deliver food to these communities so that families don’t have to worry about their next meal.

What’s more, the lack of healthy food that is locally available in these food deserts perpetuates a dangerous cycle of health inequity. Even as Native Americans are combatting nutrition-related diseases, they often lack access to adequate health care. We’re working with Tribal partners to deliver nutrition training and support community projects that champion Food Sovereignty to introduce more nutritional food options. Currently, the Department of Agriculture is also re-evaluating programs to ensure they are supporting nutrition security – and not just food insecurity.

While COVID-19 devastated our nation, it seems to have pushed us in the direction of long-overdue change as well. We hope these conversations on poverty, food security and racial equity continue happening on a national scale so that others can begin to understand what Indigenous people have long known is the reality of life on the reservations.

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Partner Q&A: Caring for Elders of the Tohono O’odham Nation

PWNA was founded 30 years ago with a mission to champion a brighter future for Native Americans. Since then, we’ve partnered with dozens of tribal programs in the Southwest and Northern Plains to support the individual needs of their communities.

We recently caught up with Mike Benavidez who coordinates the Pisinemo District Elderly Program on the Tohono O’odham Nation. Mike shared more about their tribe’s senior services and how PWNA helps with caring for the Elders.

PWNA: What is the primary focus of your program?

Mike B:  The mission of the Pisinemo Elderly Program is to develop and administer quality programs that support Elders in their efforts to remain healthy, active and independent members of the community. Our overall aim is to promote and enrich the general welfare of seniors, persons with disabilities, families and caregivers.

PWNA: How did you first hear about PWNA and how long have you been a partner?

Mike B: I first heard about PWNA in October of 2011 when I started working at the Pisinemo Elderly Center as a driver. I remember Cassandra Herrera from PWNA coming out of our coordinator’s office with a look of dismay and asked what was wrong. I learned she was trying to enroll the center in PWNA’s Healthy Living service and the coordinator had turned her down. Then she explained what PWNA had to offer. I was amazed and told her I would speak with the coordinator and maybe I could help. Shortly after, I submitted the paperwork for our first request and began to distribute the Healthy Living supplies to Elders in our center. That was 10 years ago. Today, I serve as the coordinator of the Pisinemo District Elderly Program and we are still happily partnered with PWNA.

PWNA: How has PWNA supported your program over the years?

Mike B: PWNA has positively contributed to our senior program in many ways over the past 10 years. The personal care products we receive through Healthy Living help save Elders’ money on purchasing these items themselves, which is critical considering many of them have limited incomes.

We also participate in PWNA’s food services. Their Southwest Reservation Aid (SWRA) Standard Food service helps us ensure Elders get nutritious, hot meals. Prior to the pandemic, we served meals in a congregate setting, but since COVID-19, we’ve been delivering homebound meals on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. We have also participated in PWNA’s emergency food distributions, getting a food box to every Elder over the age of 55 in the Pisinemo District (100 boxes last year). This past Thanksgiving, each of our Elders received a turkey and all the sides from PWNA. I am so thankful PWNA made that possible and I know the Pisinemo Elders are too.

In addition, we were granted support through PWNA’s winter fuel service, which helped the Elders pay electric bills for a month, and the weatherization service that assisted six Elders with winter readiness home repairs that likely would have cost thousands of dollars. Thanks to our partnership, we have also been able to distribute Christmas stockings, winter jackets, wool blankets and countless other emergency items. We cannot stop counting the blessings that PWNA has brought to the Pisinemo District.

PWNA: What do you want others to know about your partnership with PWNA?

Mike B: Our partnership has helped us be successful and create lasting relationships with the Elders. Everyone from PWNA is friendly, especially Rick Miller, Denise Suchy, Cassandra Herrera, Andrew Yellow Bird and Laura Schad. I am also thankful for the Pisinemo District administrators Chairman Stanley Cruz and Vice-Chairwoman Jessica Juan. But most of all, I’m thankful to the Pisinemo District Elderly Program Staff Diane Lorentine (cook), Eugene Cruz (driver), Denise Garcia-Wood (homemaker), Benardo Robles (Elderly assistant worker) and Arianna Antonio (Elderly assistant worker) for working diligently during the pandemic and supporting the efforts of PWNA and the Pisinemo District Elderly Program.

Thank you, PWNA, for all you do for our aging Native citizens. It does not go unnoticed – I see it in the smiles of the Elders every day.

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Making The American Dream A Reality for Native Students

Many people see a college education as the path to achieving the ‘American dream’ – unfortunately, having the motivation and the academic intelligence to attend college is often not enough. The average cost of a college education in the U.S. is upward of $25,000 a year and seems insurmountable for many hopeful students.

Obtaining a college education is even more of a challenge for Native Americans, who hold the lowest bachelor’s degree attainment level of any racial group, 15% according to the U.S. Census Bureau and through no fault of their own.  Even after they are accepted for college admission, many Native students cannot afford the cost of tuition and wind up declining the acceptance letter. And for those who do find the means to pay for the cost of college, they still face the added challenges of culture shock, academic expectations, lack of access to digital resources and ongoing financial strains.

Although daunting, PWNA’s American Indian Education Fund (AIEF) program works to combat these challenges by supporting education at every stage, from fostering educational engagement at a young age to eliminating barriers down the road. AIEF’s work is driven by helping Native students get to college and walk across the stage on graduation day, with a degree in hand and an opportunity for a brighter future.  

AIEF supports college students through scholarship awards as well as mentorship and encouragement, giving students far away from home a trusted source they can rely on to help them navigate college. We’re proud to say that 90-95% of AIEF scholarship recipients complete their first year of college, considerably higher than the national average.  

We received hundreds of scholarship applications in 2021 and hope to award as many students as possible with the funds they need for their American dream. Earning a degree is a significant milestone for many Americans but holds even greater meaning within Native families that have spent generations being all but invisible to the wider public.

Though every AIEF scholar emerges a new leader, changemaker and supporter who can inspire others in their Tribal communities to follow suit and pursue their own dreams, we can only support their vital potential for positive change with the support of our donors and Tribal partners.

We hope you’ll donate to help Native students through PWNA and our AIEF program this year.

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World Fair Trade Day: Remember Native Americans

World Fair Trade Day (WFTD) is recognized on the second Saturday in May, which this year it will be on May 8.  First recognized in 1989, but with roots dating back to the 1940s, WFTD celebrates sustainable production and the rights of workers who fight for it.

You may be asking, what is fair trade? The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) defines it as a “trading partnership based on dialogue, transparency, and respect.” Most importantly, fair trade is based on a people-and planet-first mentality fighting against poverty, climate change, gender inequality and other injustices arising out of unfair trade practices. WFTO member organizations are a global community actively changing the model of trading and raising awareness for trade issues that may be unfamiliar to the average person.

The 2021 fair trade theme is “Build Back Fairer” and rallies around the impact COVID-19 had on our trade system. If anything, the pandemic showed what we can achieve when we work together toward a common goal, such as flattening the curve. We can take the lessons learned from these efforts and apply them to other issues such as social inequity and climate change.

Fair trade is critical to Native American businesses too. In fact, a special challenge impacting fair trade for Native Americans is “cultural appropriation.” One example is the creation and sale of “Native- inspired” jewelry, artwork, clothing and other textiles marketed and sold by non-Native vendors. The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 prohibits sellers from misrepresenting or even implying that a product is Native-made or associated with a particular tribe if it is not. For some tribes, such as Navajo, the tribal name may not be used, as in “Navajo-inspired.” A true Indian artisan is an enrolled member of a tribe or certified by the tribe as an Indian artisan.

Fair trade gives many small, disadvantaged designers, producers and vendors a better chance at sustainable livelihoods – and this includes Native-owned businesses. Joining in this year’s theme to build back fair can help raise awareness and combat the social injustices we see in the world today. Use the hashtag #BuildBackFairer to help showcase the local businesses that make your communities better, and if you know a great Native business in your community, be sure to spread the word.

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Native News Pick of the Month: Land Buy-Back, Real Estate Recovery, and the Burning of Blackacre

While reading an article recently in The Guardian about Native communities recovering reservation lands through real estate purchases, it occurred to me that there is a significant gap in understanding the issue at hand, where it originated and how we can prevent it in the future.

The article reported on several different tribal communities from around the country buying back land that was previously taken from them and given to non-Native landowners.  At the time, there was not a remedy for these illegal reallocations, and now after generations of right-sizing and social equity efforts, some tribes are in a financial position to recover their land by purchasing it back.

The rigorous process of acquiring land from private ownership – which then must go into a federal tribal trust – is complicated, time consuming and highlights an example of the political relationship Native Americans face with the federal government. This is, in my opinion, another example of how laws such as the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) are not based on race but rather deeply rooted in a government-to-government sovereignty relationship that was established by treaties. My tribe has been working to recover Shabbona Lake State Park in Illinois for more than 10 years. As part of the Potawatomi tribe’s migration to Kansas in the 1800’s, a treaty was made with then Chief Shabbona to give the land to the Potawatomi. As with every other treaty, it was not honored, and the state took the land. 

Fast forward to today and our tribe has paid more than $20 million in attorney fees, impact statements and other bureaucratic processes to recover the land. As it stands, the application is still pending with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and the tribe owns just one house on the land to establish a presence. The hope is that these applications will get processed more quickly, and favorably, for the tribes under the leadership of Secretary Deb Haaland.

Similarly, the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations through the U.S. Department of Interior aims to return land ownership to a recognizable status and compensate owners for their piece of land that would otherwise be unusable. The program was established in response to the Cobell settlement of 2009 that provided funding to consolidate fractional land interests across Indian Country.

Neither of these avenues are consistent with the #LandBack movement led by Indigenous people who are advocating for the return of lands wrongfully taken from tribes. And while there is merit to their position, having a landowner unilaterally return land ownership without compensation seems altruistic. Not to mention, communities, municipalities and states cannot afford to lose their tax base associated with lands that were wrongfully taken from tribes, and tribes refuse to accept a payment from the government for that wrongful taking. The bottom line is, tribes want the land back and they would be willing to let the government’s money sit in a bank account rather than accept payment and lose the land forever.

Once tribes recover the land, what happens next? Stacy Leeds, a former Supreme Court Justice for the Cherokee Nation and my college law professor and mentor, wrote about this in a 2001 article for the Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy called “The Burning of Blackacre.” In it, she outlined a hypothetical Native-centric model to property law that would curb the fractionated interest. Of course, until that happens, alternate methods to acquiring land will require a multi-pronged approach, including activism, federal participation and, inevitably, real estate acquisitions.

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