June 15, 2001
Native American Press / Ojibwe News

Woman and five children expelled from Eagle’s Nest Shelter
--she had filed human rights complaint, alleges “retaliation”

by Clara NiiSka

On May 18, 2001, the St. Paul Department of Human Rights filed a charge of discrimination against Women of Nations, the board of directors for the Eagle’s Nest shelter in St. Paul.  The complainant was Carmelita Otter Robe, a Native American woman who was a resident at the battered women’s shelter.  Her sworn affidavit includes the statement, “I have been subject to harassment on the basis of my race/ancestry by other residents at the shelter.  Several residents of the shelter have made disparaging remarks about Native American tradition to my children … and have called the Native American culture ‘stupid’ and the medicine ‘shit’.”  She stated that she had reported these and other incidents to the shelter management “on several situations and the situation still has not been corrected.”

Two weeks later, Carmelita Otter Robe and her five children were summarily evicted from the battered women’s shelter.  In a May 29 memorandum signed by Pamela Zeller, Interim Executive Director, Women of Nations – Eagles Nest Shelter, “Carmelita Otter Robe & family” are directed to “vacate the premises immediately; a staff member has already packed all of your belongings.”  According to documents obtained by Press/ON, Carmelita “stood on the corner of 7th and Leech with my daughter … silently for about five minutes.  My daughter asks me, ‘mom, where are we going?’  I said to [her], ‘don’t worry, as long as we are free of this abusive man [the interim director of the shelter].  I then realized that I didn’t even have bus fare.  I went across 7th to this gas station and called [a friend].  I said, ‘Jaime [Longria, the interim director] just told me to leave and I don’t know of anyone else to call.  I don’t have any money to get on the bus.  Can you come and give me a ride?’  [The friend] said, ‘Stay there and I will be right over.’”

An informed source with more than a decade of shelter management experience, who asked to remain anonymous, told Press/ON, “If they needed to immediately eliminate one person from another, whatever the accusation, they should have found a safe-home or a motel,” someplace else for Carmelita to go.  The source was appalled that a battered women’s shelter would ever evict a resident and her children onto the street.

After being evicted, Carmelita filed a second complaint with the Human Rights Department, which included an affidavit stating, “I believe that reprisal for my discrimination complaint was a factor in Respondent asking me to leave the shelter.”

“A lot of turmoil” at Eagle’s Nest

  Documents and statements indicate that there were serious problems at the Eagle’s Nest shelter during April and May, when Carmelita was a resident there.  Verbal abuse and conflict, occasionally erupting into physical violence, festered among residents.  There was racial tension between African-American residents and Native American residents, and Press/ON has heard allegations that some of the residents were abusing drugs, including crack cocaine, at the shelter.

Both the “fire marshals and the health department were called” about conditions at the shelter.  There was also, according to the interim director, “a pattern of harassment from some unidentified individual.”

The Board of Directors of Women of All Nations, including Clyde Bellecourt, hired Jaime Longria and Pamela Zeller of Fellow Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in resolving problems in nonprofit agencies.  Longria, now Interim Executive Director of the Eagle’s Nest Shelter, has extensive experience in retail management.

Longria’s ethnicity is deeply rooted in Hispanic Texas, he told Press/ON, adding that Hispanic-Americans are “half Indian.” He says that he is an “associate” of Clyde Bellecourt and Frances Fairbanks.  In addition to managing the women’s shelter, he has a consulting contract with Heart of the Earth Survival School. 

Longria acknowledged that there have been problems at the shelter, but blamed others for many of those problems: “an employee actively encouraging” the filing of complaints, actions of “disgruntled employees,” some of whom have since left  … there “has been a lot of turmoil caused by an individual who liked to make trouble.”

Press/ON’s informed source understood conflict in a battered women’s shelter differently than Longria apparently does.  She noted that shelter residents have often been through extremely traumatic experiences, and that “scapegoating” is a frequent reaction to the emotional intensity and stress which are inevitable in a battered women’s shelter.  “Who do you pick on but another victim,” she said, it’s a part of the patterns of victimization to “pick on the most vulnerable.”  “People should assume that there will be conflict” in a battered women’s shelter, she said, and shelters must “have a set of processes from the get-go, processes and resources to deal with it.”  She also noted that “conflict resolution” is not the same as a “grievance procedure,” and that it is the responsibility of a shelter’s Board of Directors to ensure that both processes are clearly available to residents and staff.

The source was concerned about Women of All Nations’ hiring a man as director of a women’s shelter.  “Why would they put a man in charge?  If they want to hire consultants to help resolve the shelter’s problems, she said, “that is not a bad thing.  They need to define their needs and determine if they can meet those needs.  But—to hire a man as a director …”

Longria explained to Press/ON that he wants to restructure the management of Eagle’s Nest Shelter so that it was an “organization that is well-run … an operation running smoothly, that has no disruption in what the mission is, so that it can to continue to qualify for funding.”  A part of his goal is to organize Eagle’s Nest Shelter programs to “get a woman launched into the rest of her life”—and out of the shelter in thirty days.  Residents are provided with a “housing list,” resource-person contacts, and a “program,” including staff overseeing residents’ search for housing: “did you call today, did you follow up?”  Longria has implemented a program of activities for the children, and “forces the kids to go to school” in the belief that “activities for the kids are a comfort.”  He has also re-established cultural programming.  Recent cultural activities for residents at the shelter included a feast; a pow-wow is planned in August.

Longria commented that when he “toured the facility” during his first day on the job: “four women and three children were in the fetal position in the dormitories … it broke my heart.”  Now, he said, the residents are more active.  He told Press/ON that “our perception is that the shelter is a village … individuals have to understand that the village has to come first, not the individual.”

Longria shares with Carmelita the understanding that a battered women’s shelter should be “a safe environment, with no interpersonal harassment,” and expressed concern about the declining economy and federal agencies’ increasing reluctance to fund battered women’s programs.  Longria also told Press/ON that we were welcome to visit the shelter, interview staff at random, and participate in the cultural programs.  Shortly before press time, two women from the shelter delivered a packet of papers to Press/ON’s offices, about their pow-wow planned for August.

“This is my game, and I win”

Carmelita Otter Robe’s statements include descriptions of three specific instances in which Jaime Longria “approached” her after her initial complaint was filed with the Human Rights Department.  He was “hostile, instead of taking steps to resolve” the problems.  Documents chronicle Longria’s reported actions: “… Jaime came into the room, … was a witness.  He was cussing” and then said, “‘This is all a game, this is my game and I win.  You have gone around me one too many times.’  He was less than a foot from my face.  I got scared, and said, ‘Look at yourself’.”  Carmelita tried to leave: she “went to the door, but he blocked the door, would not let me go by. … I tried to get a conflict resolution, but” shelter staff told her she “did not need” one.  Longria also reportedly threatened Carmelita: “Do you know who you are going up against—a very powerful man, Clyde Bellecourt. … They will laugh you out of court.  The people that are helping you are setting themselves up.”

Press/ON asked Longria about what he had reportedly said.  He responded that the Board of Directors had been intimidated by the “management,” and “that if you want to engage in a gossip war, you will lose.”  Under new shelter policies, he explained, “No employee will have the ability to intimidate the executive by going to the Board … It’s not a smart thing to do—we take direct action.”  He acknowledged that he had referred to a “game”—“it is a game, and we play hardball.”  Fellow Solutions, Longria told Press/ON, is “cleaning up the organization for the new executive director, and will tolerate no opposition …  I play by the rules, I follow policy and procedure, so anyone who opposes me eventually loses.”

When asked about a “former resident” who had filed a human rights complaint, Longria named Carmelita as a “troublemaker.”  In response to Press/ON’s questions about the Eagle’s Nest Shelter evicting Carmelita onto the street, Longria said that he had witnesses who would testify that she had initiated violence by making a “lunge” at another resident, that certain of her complaints represented a “paranoid point of view.” Carmelita, he said, “became involved in the interaction between” Longria and his employees: she was a “metiché” [busybody], a “curbside lawyer,” an “individual who took it upon herself to act as an ‘amateur advocate’.”

Rather than “evicting” Carmelita, Longria described the incident: “she bolted from the building.  Eventually we delivered her property to her locale.”

A few minutes after Press/ON completed our initial interview with Longria, he telephoned the office and asked about our documents and sources (Press/ON responded that not revealing the identity of sources who ask to remain anonymous is among journalists’ canons.)  Longria asked if we had a Human Rights complaint filed on the 18th, because the second complaint referred to the document filed on May 18.  “I do not have the complaint filed on the 18th,” Longria said, “it was not served on me.”  He added with a chuckle, “If I do not have that document, I could not have taken action” in retaliation.  Press/ON notes when Longria responded to our initial questions about the human rights complaints, he used phrases which were exactly the same as those in the May 18th complaint, including his denial that there was “silent harassment” between residents at the shelter.

“These non-profits … let the abuse happen”

Carmelita expressed her concern about what was happening at the Eagle’s Nest shelter differently.  She was trained as a volunteer advocate, and understood it as her responsibility to stand up for residents who were being picked on and abused, especially “vulnerable elders” at the shelter with their grandchildren.

“These non-profits let the abuse happen.  Nothing is done, and it continues to happen.”  Then, the responsibility “falls on the staff.”  She is concerned about what has happened to the original goals of Women of Nations, and stresses that the shelter should be “a place that has no tolerance for abuse.  It is really hurtful when they start to abuse the Native American elderly women.”

“People need to open their eyes.  This is not to judge anyone, nor to try to bring anyone down, but it is a voice to the non-profit organizations: this can not be happening. … These organizations need to ‘take ownership’,” to address the problems.

“It’s too bad the tribes don’t just give them money”

Press/ON’s informed source commented that even in the best-run shelter, “it’s stressful to get a civil rights complaint.”  A certain amount of the racial conflict which reportedly festered at Eagle’s Nest Shelter between African-American and Native American women was, the source said, “inevitable under the circumstances,” and, she emphasized, the shelter “has to have grievance procedures intact.”

The source added, “It’s too bad that the tribes do not just give them gambling money”—fund battered women’s shelters from casino profits.  The source has years of experience trying to resolve racial tensions in battered women’s shelters.  The women at the shelter, she commented, “have to deal with so many things at a time” when they are residents at the shelter, that it is extremely difficult to be “dealing with that level of racism.”