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North Dakota: PBS documentary follows Sioux woman's struggle

March 4, 2013

Grand Forks Herald - March 03, 2013
By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald

Robin Poorbear was among several members of the Spirit Lake Nation who addressed federal officials, sometimes passionately, on Feb. 27, 2013, at a town hall meeting on the reservation about efforts to improve the tribe's child protection services. Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald.

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The Spirit Lake Nation’s continuing efforts to deal with deficiencies in its child protection system is about to get another round of national exposure.

The PBS news program “Frontline” has produced a two-part documentary titled “Kind Hearted Woman” featuring Robin Charboneau, a 32-year-old divorced single mother who lived on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation.

The documentary follows her over three years, according to PBS, as she “struggles to raise her two children, further her education and heal herself from the wounds of sexual abuse she suffered as a child.”

The programs are to air April 1 and 2.

The tribe’s problems, especially allegations of sexual abuse of children and failure of authorities to investigate and prosecute sexual predators, already have received considerable regional and national attention.

The exposure has been promoted, welcomed or at least tolerated by some at Spirit Lake who have been critical of responses so far by tribal government, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and FBI. Other tribal members have lamented the attention, however, arguing that it paints a false picture of conditions and efforts by the tribe to make improvements.

At a “town hall” meeting on the reservation Wednesday, organized by the BIA at the urging of Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., several members of the tribe decried the “negative” focus of the attention. One man asked that news cameras be removed. Organizers declined to do that, saying the meeting had been set up and advertised as an open session.

Charboneau, who also uses the name Robin Poorbear, was among those who spoke at the Wednesday meeting. Along with several others, she challenged Mark Little Owl, hired by the tribe last summer as director of tribal social services.

Helping victims, raising awareness

The PBS documentary was done by filmmaker David Sutherland, who previously produced the documentary portraits “Country Boys” and “The Farmer’s Wife.”

“Kind Hearted Woman” opens with Charboneau walking home on the reservation after a 20-day stay at a rehabilitation center.

“Now I’m sober,” she says, “and I’m really, really scared I’m going to start drinking again.”

According to PBS, the two-part program will follow Charboneau through a custody battle with her ex-husband over her two children, her efforts to obtain a college degree and her hopes of becoming a social worker.

“When Robin’s daughter reveals that her father has sexually abused her, echoing Robin’s own childhood abuse, it ignites both emotional turmoil and a dramatic criminal trial in federal court,” according to PBS.

(Anthony Charboneau was convicted in U.S. District Court in Fargo in 2009 of sexual abuse and abusive sexual contact of minors, according to court records. He was sentenced to almost four years in prison. He appealed the conviction, but his appeal was rejected in January by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.)

Robin had lost custody of her children to the tribe, “a move Robin believes is the result of her ex-husband’s connections to tribal leaders,” according to PBS, but when her ex-husband is convicted she regains custody and moves to International Falls, Minn.

There, Robin works as a sexual-abuse educator, her daughter organizes a fundraiser for victims of domestic abuse, and the family participates in a walk to raise awareness.

“A march like this could never happen on the Spirit Lake Reservation,” Robin says in the documentary, according to PBS, “because there, we just don’t talk about abuse.”

A spokesman for the tribe said Friday that tribal officials were not aware of the documentary.

A spokeswoman for PBS said the company has reported on the ongoing child protection issue at Spirit Lake, including a report on Wednesday’s meeting, and that attempts have been made to speak with tribal officials but were unsuccessful.

The documentary is separate from that reporting, the spokeswoman said. “This doesn’t fall under Frontline’s typical investigative work,” she said. It is rather a portrait, “one woman’s journey.”

For more on the documentary, visit



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