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