by John Aldrich
What is the purpose of the Adopt-A-Native-Elder Program? Why does it exist? What sets it apart from other humanitarian organizations that exist to help the Navajo and other Native American tribes?
The Program got its start in the 1980's during the turbulent years of the Hopi-Navajo land dispute which ultimately resulted in 10,000 Navajos being relocated from their traditional homelands. During those times there were many Elders facing severe hardships and deprivations. When Linda Myers became aware of this desperate situation it was food more than anything else that these people needed for their survival. With the assistance of Grace Smith Yellowhammer, Linda began to help.
As Linda's solo trips to the reservation with food and clothing gradually evolved over the years into the complex logistical endeavor of today's food runs, food has remained the core focus of how the Program assists the Elders. But in addition to the challenges of survival there were also challenges to the traditional lifestyle of the Elders, including dislocation and the ever-increasing influences of Anglo culture.
Linda's commitment from the outset was to provide what assistance she could for the basic survival of the Elders as well as to honor and respect their traditional culture and lifestyle. These are among of the principal values that differentiate ANE from other humanitarian organizations. We wish to honor and respect the Elders as they are and have no agenda to try to change them in any way. These are resilient people, and as long as they have their basic needs of food, heat, and shelter met, they will survive as they have for hundreds of years.
These core needs are met through the delivery of food through the food runs, and, particularly in winter time, the distribution of food certificates and checks for firewood. Food certificates are a particularly effective way of aiding families in the winter since they are simple to deliver and provide Elders with a resource to acquire whatever they might need at the moment.
Despite the urge to want to try to help in any way possible, the reality is that our Program has limited resources, and thus, we continue to remain committed to the core mission. We can't become substitutes for the role of the family in caring for their Elders; we can't become their healthcare system; we can't provide the resources that are more appropriately derived from the Navajo Nation and Chapter Houses.
Another important way that we support traditional Elders is by facilitating a market for their weavings. For many weavers this has been their sole means of supporting their families. Through the annual rug show at Deer Valley, smaller shows and markets, as well as online rug sales via our web site, ANE is able to offer a significant amount of income to our Elders who are weavers. This, in turn, provides them with additional resources for food, shelter, and transportation.
The Program assists Elders and their families to maintain a traditional way of life in other ways as well. ANE, through the Ceremony Fund, provides funds to help families that need help with traditional healing ceremonies. We also help families who need financial support for funeral expenses when one of our Elders passes away.
Our mission statement refers to "mending the broken circle" of our relationship with Native Americans and the Land. This is another unique aspect of our Program. It is important to educate ourselves about Native American culture as well as bring the cultures in contact with one another. This happens extensively through the food runs and the annual rug show.
What does the Program mean to the Elders whom we serve? Linda receives many letters expressing the gratitude of the Elders and their families. For many, the assistance we provide, especially through the winter months, makes survival possible.
What we do for the Elders is based on the principal of the Native American Giveaway. We give our best and give it freely with no expectation of return. The Elders feel gratitude for these gifts, often expressing it through their shy smiles. Some give small gifts such as necklaces and jewelry in return. Many are too poor to be able to make such a gift. Their gift is to touch our hands and our hearts and to offer their prayers. That is enough.