In Kind-Hearted Woman, Robin Poor Bear negotiates motherhood, sobriety and justice. (Courtesy PBS)

The Spirit to Speak Out: Documentary Features Oglala Sioux Woman's Heartbreak and Redemption Through Custody Battles, Abuse

Anne Minard

To say that Robin Poor Bear, Oglala Sioux, struggled with the decision to allow a documentary film crew to make a movie about her life is an understatement. It’s no accident, for instance, that she got sober at the same time that filming began in 2007.

“I went downhill making that decision,” she said. “I went through about three or four months of just drinking, and anger and negative feelings. Finally one night I prayed. I ended up having a dream that someone in the house had died and everyone knew how this person had died, but no one was saying anything. Right before the police left I opened my mouth and I said, ‘I know what happened.’ ”

Poor Bear knew then that she was angry with everyone in her life who hadn’t spoken out about the abuse she had suffered.

“I knew then that I was mad at everybody for not protecting me as a kid,” she said. “And I knew that I had to do this film and speak out.”

Filmmaker David Sutherland and his crew followed Poor Bear, who was then known by her married name Robin Charboneau, through three years of her life. The result, a nearly five-hour documentary, Kind-Hearted Woman, was shown on PBS April 1 and 2 as a joint production of Frontline and Independent Lens.

The film spans her early 30s, a time when Poor Bear was struggling to overcome the early loss of her alcoholic mother and an abusive first marriage while raising her two children—Anthony, now 14, and Darian, 17. Poor Bear was also still haunted by the abuse that she suffered starting at the age of 3 at the hands of her foster family.

“I was abused by a man I called grandpa, his son (I called dad), the brothers of the man I called dad (which would be uncles) and others,” she told ICTMN.

Robin Poor Bear fights to keep and protect her kids Anthony, 14, and Darian, 17. (Kimmer Olesak, Courtesy PBS/WXXI, Rochester, New York)

The small family somehow got used to the presence of the camera; the tape kept rolling through many tearful talks and family arguments. Darian even revealed to her mother, on camera, that she had been abused by her own father—Poor Bear’s first husband—which led to a federal investigation, indictment and imprisonment that unfolds over the course of the documentary. A custody battle in tribal court on the Spirit Lake Reservation is also featured, including a six-month period when Poor Bear’s children ended up in foster care.

And Kind-Hearted Woman traces Poor Bear’s ill-fated second marriage from beginning almost to its end. The small family picked up and moved many times—from the reservation to Fargo, North Dakota, to International Falls, Minnesota, to Canada and back again, in response to each curveball.

“I had no idea what was to come during the filming process,” Poor Bear reflected. “I had no idea that my daughter was going to come out about the abuse, and I had no idea that Spirit Lake Social Services was going to take my kids away for the film. My adoptive family hasn’t spoken with me for years. That’s fine, because they carry that shame. I don’t carry it any more.”

It was Poor Bear’s local victim service program director, Linda Thompson, who introduced her to Sutherland, who was looking for a good documentary subject. Poor Bear made herself available, with reservations.

“I was terrified that entire week before he came to the Spirit Lake Reservation,” she said, “because there were only two other people who knew parts of my story at the time. One was my therapist and the other was a person who called me ‘sister.’ David was the third.”

Despite her reservations, Poor Bear came to realize she was doing the film to give other abuse victims a glimmer of connection and hope.

“If there was one woman out there, I had to do it,” she said. “When you’re in that situation, you feel so alone.”

Not that her road back has been easy. Poor Bear had hoped to return to school for psychology and social work so she could learn how to help abuse victims, especially on the reservation. However, her ex-husband’s sexual molestation trial and the custody battle interfered. She started classes but abandoned them when she felt her children needed her.

Though Poor Bear’s academic plans got tabled, she found her way. The film shows her working as a hotel maid for a time, then landing the first of several social services jobs—monitoring supervised visits for dysfunctional families at a victims’ advocacy organization in International Falls.

Her responsibilities grew until she had a nervous breakdown, related to her personal struggles, after which her social services supervisor lost confidence in her and let her go. But she quickly found work with a similar organization. And within days of the brief psychiatric hospital stay, she was exposing her past in a new way: as a speaker in front of victims, victims’ advocates, and whoever else would listen.

“I was torn and ripped to pieces by people I called dad, uncles,” she told that first rapt audience, as captured in the film.

By now, speaking out about abuse has become Poor Bear’s primary occupation. And even as Kind-Hearted Woman chronicles her path in its early stages, it continues to push her along her way. Since its release, Poor Bear’s has calendar filled with speaking engagements for several months.

“Some people are booking into next year,” she said. “It can’t get any better.”

Personally, she said, the film “helped me grow. It helped me listen to my spirit. My spirit came alive. It made me a better mom. Women and children have been reaching out from all over, talking about their issues, some for the first time. Not just women and children but men also. I’m just so blessed in so many ways that I can’t even count.”

Poor Bear says she has received responses from abuse victims all over the world. But perhaps the most meaningful support has come when she has visited her own reservation.

“I walk around on the reservation. The elders will say, ‘I need to give you a hug.’ And they’ll say, ‘That’s a good thing you did. I’m proud of you.’ ”

Poor Bear says she recognizes that abuse happens all over, not just on her own reservation. But reservations often add another layer of obstacles to healing, she says.

“We just don’t have the amount of resources,” she explained. “We’re low on housing. We’re low on law enforcement. Some of our judicial systems need to be revamped. The sexual abuse and domestic violence that happens on a reservation are bad, but it’s even worse when the systems that are sworn to protect families and children don’t do that.”

Happily, Poor Bear’s own children are doing just fine, in part because of the documentary itself. “It was healing in so many ways,” she said. “After my kids watched the film.… I never dreamed that my kids could become closer than they already were. [Sutherland] gave them each other’s perspective.… You talk about a blessing. I’m so grateful.”

Soon the children will join their mother on a trip to Laramie, Wyoming, where they both hope to attend college. Anthony is interested in an automotive program at WyoTech, and Darian wants to go to the University of Wyoming.

“She wants to do everything,” her mother says proudly, “modeling, singing. She wants to be a vet. She wants to be an advocate.”

Both kids have even developed public presentations of their own. Darian’s focuses on the signs of childhood abuse; Anthony’s details his own struggle with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “It’s really great,” Poor Bear said. “He ends it with, ‘Thank you for paying attention.’ ”

And Poor Bear is now spreading her message in new ways. On Mother’s Day she will break ground on a long-term, nonprofit treatment center for women and children who suffer from abuse and/or chemical dependency. Her wish for the center’s clients is the same one she has for the audiences at her talks: a sense of hope.

“Keep going forward,” she urges victims of abuse. “Don’t ever let whatever happened to you in your past stop you from building a better life for yourself.”

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Rozetta Mowery, Author and Advocate's picture
Rozetta Mowery,...
Submitted by Rozetta Mowery,... on
I applaud you Poor Bear for your strength and courage! Keep moving forward and never look back! You and your children are survivors! Continue sharing your story and helping others!

Teri 's picture
Submitted by Teri on
This docudrama was amazing, My heart literally cried screamed laughed and in the end did the Happy dance for a courageous woman and her children

Elaine M. Phillips's picture
Elaine M. Phillips
Submitted by Elaine M. Phillips on
This is an awesome story of an incredibly brave woman--shining light on a path of surviving and thriving for others to see by. Thank you!

Yolanda Elliott's picture
Yolanda Elliott
Submitted by Yolanda Elliott on
Thank you for sharing your story. Your strength inspires me.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
great job,... though remember it takes forgiving yourself as well, and you don't normally remember how until you've forgiven them! may god bless you and yours in all that you partake in,... peace be with you!

Mar/Tan Pomo/Wappo Nations's picture
Mar/Tan Pomo/Wa...
Submitted by Mar/Tan Pomo/Wa... on
THe Path to this Life events has been done to all tribal peoples in this country... To use alcohol and drugs for the emotional pain is the worst choice anyone can ever select for their ansers. To do what this woman has done is to open your eyes and know and finally say it is time to uncover my past and let it go so I can emotionally move forwards and get those rooms ready for my children that I am never going to give up on...EVER!...This comes to you when you come to terms with you're own emotions to take over how your LIFE is going to feel the rest of your Life...YOu run your emotions...they don't run your days here in LIFE.... Much Respect and Blessings I send your way sister..... Mar/Tan

aiahninchi ohoyo's picture
aiahninchi ohoyo
Submitted by aiahninchi ohoyo on
halito i found this story on pbs by accident web surfing one is amazing...the story of a true survivor...wish more of our women's stories could be told

jeanie 's picture
Submitted by jeanie on
Hello fellow survivor. Your film was inspiring and holds the keys to the doors of abuse that have long been closed to healing. Your voice is heard. I pray for your success with the treatment center. I am now healing from abuse that occurred 36 years ago. I thank God for the grant that has made it possible for me to get a life. Understanding, hope, and treatment are the keys.

stephen franklin jr's picture
stephen franklin jr
Submitted by stephen franklin jr on
hi my names stephen and i am enrolled in a california federally recongnized tribe,today i went to a health clinic called snahc,sacramento native american health clinic,well the director was the chairman of ione miwok who embezzeled money from that tribe,i needed to get funds to have my teeth worked on i was told that in order to have work done i had to sign a form indicating i am a drug addict or has history,why would a soverign citizen be lied to about funds that allready exist that i would have to lie about being a narco user or history,because it is not federally mandated and is a lie as well as a form of entrapment they even,have people from my own tribe assisting them in their lies and entrapment

tw's picture
Submitted by tw on
Poor Bear -- you saved yourself! More power to you. Stay sober, enjoy life :-)

Angie Blackwell's picture
Angie Blackwell
Submitted by Angie Blackwell on
I sure wish that I could find a way to reach Robin. If you happen to see this or you know how to get the information to her, please share my email address: blackwell.angie (@)

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
Thank you for being so brave and helping to break the stigma and code of silence on mental illness and sexual assault. I really look up to you for speaking out, especially as you also work and raise your family. You are a very strong person, thank you for sharing your story and helping to lift others up.

Pebbles Trippet's picture
Pebbles Trippet
Submitted by Pebbles Trippet on
This is a wonderful story. Poor Bear has shown how rich she is in spirit. It's not what happens to us, it's how we deal with what happens to us, that shows who we are. When you are beaten down but rise again, that is the real you...

Jean Cook's picture
Jean Cook
Submitted by Jean Cook on
I watched both segments literally glued to my tv screen. Divorce, custody, confronting abusers, those are things that freeze so many of us in fear that we don't dare do the things the this courageous woman did and shared with us so that others can see the way to go and do it for themselves and their children as well. Kudos to Sutherland, Poor Bear and those two brave children. Thank you so much!!

Deraha's picture
Submitted by Deraha on
I saw Kind- Hearted Woman when it came on.I am glad to hear she is still on on her lifes road. I wondered about her and the children.

Shelley's picture
Submitted by Shelley on
Amazing story! I have been looking for information on Robin, in order to possibly book her for a Domestic Violence Conference in British Columbia. If anyone can forward me any information that would be greatly appreciated! Lim Limpt