By Ellen Wulfhorst
WOLF POINT, Montana (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Delberta Seminole Eagleman is raising six grandchildren by herself, their own mothers lost to drugs and violence on Montana's Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
When the softly-spoken 67-year-old member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe looks around, she says, she sees grandmothers holding the battered community together.
"They are the foundation, they are the ones there for the families," she said. "Without the grandmothers, there wouldn't be that stability for the grandchildren."
Grandparents have long raised grandchildren in Native American communities, helping when parents leave the reservation to find work or passing on traditional culture to the new generation.
Ancestors of the Assiniboine and Sioux Indians who live on Fort Peck in northern Montana, and the Northern Cheyenne in southeastern Montana, once roamed America's northern plains hunting immense herds of bison.
The tribes were moved onto reservations in the late 19th century after decades of war with the U.S. government, a series of devastating epidemics traced to contact with white settlers and the near extermination of the bison.
Native Americans today have a higher rate of grandparent caregiving than any other group in the nation, according to U.S. Census data.
The vast majority of those are grandmothers, according to research by the North American Indian Center of Boston (NAICOB).
Grandmothers are stepping in as caregivers under dire circumstances - to keep their grandchildren out of foster care when their parents are drug abusers or in prison, said Joanne Dunn, executive director of NAICOB, a training and education center.
"It's not so much in the traditional sense as it is an urgency to save your family," she said.
Abuse of crystal methamphetamine, a powerful, addictive stimulant, has reached grave proportions among young adults on Indian reservations, according to authorities.
The fallout contributes to cases of violence and child neglect, experts say. Four out of five Indian families involved in child welfare programs are believed to have issues with drugs or alcohol abuse, another longtime plague of native communities, according to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).
Native American grandmothers live in the wake of the so-called boarding school era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries when more than 100,000 Indian children were taken from their homes and families to be assimilated into white culture.
The children suffered rampant sexual and physical abuse and were exploited as free labor, and many died from mistreatment and disease, according to Amnesty International.
In fear of losing grandchildren to foster care these days, grandmothers often keep their family troubles secret, Dunn said.
"They care for them themselves. They don't report it to anybody. They don't even ask for help or welfare or anything because they don't want anyone to know.
"And they are in so much pain," she added.
She recounted a wrenching telephone conversation with a Native American grandmother caring for a young grandson and granddaughter.
"She said she cries herself to sleep at night because she didn't know where their parents were. She had no idea," Dunn said.
'NEVER CAME BACK'
Eagleman, who lives in the tiny town of Wolf Point, tells a similar story of two of her adult daughters.
One is in prison for a violent crime, while the other is a drug user who "left one day and never came back," she said.
"Their kids stay with me," said the grandmother, who makes beaded jewelry to bring in money. "They know there's safety and protection."
In her care are 4-year-old Shawnee, two 7-year-old girls and three boys, the eldest 18 years old.
Eagleman said she wants to organize grandmothers on Fort Peck to stand up and fight the scourges that have left young children parentless.
She helped rally grandmothers when she lived on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, in the town of Lame Deer, Montana, about 250 miles (400 km)to the south, before moving to Wolf Point last year.
Wearing traditional beadwork and scarves covering their heads and shoulders the way their ancestors did, the grandmothers marched twice through town to support one another and raise awareness of drug abuse and violence on the reservation, she said.
"We decided we're not going to take that. We're going to stand up," she said.
At one gathering, in 2012, the women recited ancient prayers, sang sacred songs and held ceremonies inside sweat lodges, dome huts built to hold steam, at night, she said.
Grandmothers need to learn to show tough love toward their children and use tribal courts to order them into rehabilitation programs, Eagleman said.
Margaret Behan, a grandmother in Lame Deer, is a former member of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, an alliance that promotes ancestral prayer and healing to address environmental issues, violence and poverty.
The Council helped to organize the 2012 gathering in Lame Deer.
"On the reservation, ... the norm is grandmothers are raising grandchildren," Behan said. "They should not be."
(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)