WHAT IS AN ELDER? WHAT DO ELDERS DO?: FIRST NATION ELDERS AS TEACHERS IN CULTURE-BASED URBAN ORGANIZATIONS ¹ - PDF

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WHAT IS AN ELDER? WHAT DO ELDERS DO?: FIRST NATION ELDERS AS TEACHERS IN CULTURE-BASED URBAN ORGANIZATIONS ¹ S.M. Stiegelbauer Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto 252

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WHAT IS AN ELDER? WHAT DO ELDERS DO?: FIRST NATION ELDERS AS TEACHERS IN CULTURE-BASED URBAN ORGANIZATIONS ¹ S.M. Stiegelbauer Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto 252 Bloor Street West Toronto, Ontario Canada, M5S 2R7 Abstract / Résumé This paper discusses the nature and role of First Nation Elders in Toronto urban community organizations. It presents the Elders' own definition of what they do in these organizations, how they came to be called Elders, what they see an Elder to be, and their relationship to the urban community. We see a natural process of aging and personal development where, as individuals grow older and accumulate knowledge and skills, they are respected for what they have learned. They are asked to teach others about culture, tradition, and being a human being based upon their experiences. This teaching is seen as essential to facilitating a strong sense of cultural identity and healing, especially in urban settings. L'article étudie la nature et le rôle des Anciens autochtones dans les organisations de la communauté urbaine de Toronto. L'article définit le rôle des Anciens tels que ceux-ci le conçoivent eux-mêmes, l'origine du terme Ancien et ce que représente le terme, ainsi que les rapports des Anciens avec la communauté urbaine. On constate un processus naturel de vieillissement et de développement personnel où, à mesure que les personnes vieillissent et accumulent des connaissances et des compétences, on les respecte pour ces connaissances. On leur demande de transmettre aux autres leur5 connaissances sur la culture, la tradition et le sens de l'erre humain. Cet enseignement, basé sur leur expérience, est considéré essentiel pour faciliter un fort sentiment d'identité et de guérison culturelles, surtout en zone urbaine. The Canadian Journal of Native Studies XVI, 1 (1996):37-66. 38 S.M. Stiegelbauer I asked a question to my teacher one time about Elders and how old you have to be. I said, how old do you have to be to be an Elder? He said, how old is old? I don't know how old is old. He said somebody had asked him that one time and he told him to go over to another man and ask. He said, you'd better ask him--i'only 75, he's 84. So he went over and asked that 84 year old man and that 84 year old man said, 1 don'tknow, but there's a man up there--he's 88. Ask him, He went over there and asked the 88 year old man and he said, ask that man over there~he's 92. The 92 year old said, I don't know how old is old. That man over there is 97. Ask him. I neverdid find out how old you had to be to be an Elder. We all have a different concept of what an Elder is. You have to listen and not ask any more questions. It takes common senseto make it so that you can understand (Gladys Kidd, Ojibway, Curve Lake). I first met the late Gladys Kidd as a memberof the Board of Directors of the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto. She was then on the Elders' AdvisoryCouncil and travelled into the city from Curve Lake to run women's circles, act as a teacher and counsellor to community members, and participate in Centre planning and activities as a respected Elder. In 1988, the Elders Advisory Council was something new to the Centre and the Centre board, staff, and the community were trying to understand how best to relate to the presenceof Elders. Who are Elders? How do you act around them? What do they have to offer an urban organization? Why are they here? These and other questions were the impetus for a documentation project about the Elders and their involvement with the Centre (Stiegelbauer, 1990). Later it becamea broader studyof their role in different urban Aboriginal organizations (Stiegelbauer and Nahwegahbow, in progress). However, as Gladys Kidd said above, the most important part of understanding is to be involved and to listen. This article, first, is about who the Elders are, what they do and how to listen to them, especially in the context of First Nation cultural and community centres. Secondly, this article is aboutthe role of Elders as teachers of what it meansto be a First Nation person, especially an urban First Nation person. The Elders teach about the vision of life that is contained in First Nation philosophies and handed down in ceremonies and traditional teachings. Living this vision is First Nation culture, something that continues to change and adapt as the world changes. Traditional philosophy itselftalks about how to live a healthy life and be stronger in identity and self as a result of understanding what Native culture means. The strategies that these tradi- What is an Elder? 39 tional teachers employ, both individually and organizationally, offersuggestions to all teachers: they emphasize the importance of being a role model, of tailoring your teaching to the readiness and needs of the individual, and of continuing to learn as a teacher. The information provided here is the result of ongoing conversations with Elders involved with Toronto urban centres. Most of the conversations and interviews were conducted with other Board or community members present. In writing this article, some interpretation is mine, but for the most part, I have tried to let the Elders speak for themselves. ² Elders and First Nation Urban Centres Elders should be role models for everyone else. Elders should be teachers to the grandchildren and all young people because of their wisdom. Elders should be advisors, law-givers, dispensers of justice. Elders should be open to everyone. Elders should be knowledgeable in all aspects of Innu culture. Elders should be teachers for everyone of the past history of Innu people. Elders should be recorders of history, not only orally but to be preserved in print. Elders should be teachers of values important to Innu to be passed on from generation to generation. Elders should be teachers of language and oral history. Elders should be teachers of Innu medicine. We place great importance in our Elders. Their directions for us will guide our lives. Their instructions have been to advise us to fight for ourland. We will do this by keeping up our protests against development (Statement by the Innu delegation from Sheshatshiu Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, April 27, 1989). The role of teaching Elders has becomeincreasingly meaningful in First Nation communities, especially urban communities. Elders are important for their symbolic connection to the past, and for their knowledge of traditional ways, teachings, stories and ceremonies. It is very common for respected Elders to be called upon to help communities with decisions regarding everything from health issues, to community development, to governmental negotiations regarding land use and self-government. In the context of First Nation communities, the term Elder can have many meanings. Most commonly, it simply refers to an older person. It can also mean someone who has been soughtby theirpeersfor spiritual and cultural leadership and who has knowledge of some aspect of tradition. A number of the community organizations in Toronto, such as the Native Canadian 40 S.M. Stiegelbauer Centre and Anishnawbe Health of Toronto--two forerunners in the involvement of Eiders--Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto, First Nations House of the University of Toronto, Council Fire, and many more, have introduced either a resident Elder, a visiting Elders program, or an Elders' Advisory Committee to provide guidance and information to the organization and its community. As an example, at the Native Canadian Centreand AnishnawbeHealth of Toronto, Elders have played an active role in the development of culturally appropriate or culture-based programs and approaches to community interaction. Such a strategy provides the community with contact with tradition, traditional beliefs, ceremonies and experiences, and a philosophy unique to First Nation cultures. Elders are the personification of tradition, whatevertheir specific expertise ortraining. They are symbols of Aboriginal culture not only in their words and actions but in their very being. The Elder business howeveris notwithoutits problems. On a provincial and national scale, Elders have come to represent a First Nation perspective and philosophy. As Beatrice Medicine, a Sioux scholar, states: in caseswhereindian individuals have lost Indian cultural focus...[e]lders have assumed almost mythic and mystic proportions (1983:143). The symbolic aspect of being an Elder is potentially attractive both to those looking for a philosophy to give meaning to their life, and to thoseseeking status and followers. Some individuals interested in this kind of power have set themselves up as Eiders or got in the elder business as one Native Centre Elder put it. Organizations interested in the status of involving themselves with these symbols have included Elders on their Boards or as part of their organization, too often as a figurehead or with a visitor's status. Real involvement with Eiders is something different from the everyday way that organizations, especially thosefunded byotherbureaucracies, operate. As Medicine describes it, the terms my Elders tell me or we involve Elders are frequently heard especially as a rationale for behavior and policy, without specifying what the Elders do Indeed tell or how they are involved, other than as speakers or figureheads. To really learn traditional ways and incorporate them into a non-traditional setting is no smallfeat, as the Native Centre and Anishnawbe Health will testify, not the leastof which is involvement with real Elders in a real way, not for image or personal gain. What is an Elder? What is a Real Elder? 41 We are still looking for teachers, people who still remember, people who still know, people who still held onto it and there's not many around. There are people who know parts of traditions, parts of teachings, some songs, some of the culture, some of the language. There's not very many who are teachers who know the teachings as they were handed down and who know how to put that into your life and practice it as everyday living. So in our need to find that for ourselves and for our children, we are looking for what we call elders. That's what an elder is. He's one who knows the teachings, who knows them sowell that he's able to live by them.and he's lived through all those stages of life and he's held onto them and now he can give people those teachings and not only can he give them those teachings, he can help them to understand them because he's lived it. That's what an elder is (Ojibway Traditional Teacher, Sudbury, Ontario [Stiegelbauer, 1990]). The term Elder can refer to anyone who has reached a certain age and in some cases is used interchangeably with the term senior as in senior citizen. In both cases, the individual has had enough life experience to have something to offer those behind them. In a sense, Elders are experts on life. Theirexact expertise may be dependent on the nature of their experience, but in one way or another it involves some aspect of traditional knowledge and culture, oran interpretation oftheirexperience in traditional terms. What they learned from theirexperience and how they interpret it is as important to being an Elderas the experience itself. It is also important to be able to communicate that learning to others. Whileage is a part of this, it is not the only part. As one Ojibway traditional teacher described it: some people say that it isn't a matterof age, but to a certain extent it is when you have experienced enough of the stages of life that you can look back and reflect on them...some people have been able to do it more completely than others. When you're 35, you're only about halfway, so you can't talk about all of life, not from experience. ³ The aspect of enough experience, and enough learning, includes life experiences and experiences with aspects of traditional culture and knowledge. Learning enough traditional knowledge is usually the result of the influence of an olderperson who acts as a teacher and role model. Being a role model for the path of life is an important part of beingan Elder: You see, the elder, the concept for me is like if you go into a strange land and you don't know the country and you're swamped and there's muskegsand there's bad places to travel 42 S.M. Stiegelbauer and there's good places to travel. So the one's who have been longer are the good guides because they know how to get around the swamps, who know where to go on, and so on. It doesn't matter if there's a trail. They know that country. You know the channel, on the north side of the channel. That was cut by glaciers, the secondto last one and they cut deep. The last one that came down, they cut this way almostdirectly across the other. What they have left is all these whalebacks or humpbacks, and if you're traveling close to the borders of the channel on the far side, then you're always going up and down and around. Always like that. But if you go maybea half mile north, you'rewalking on good land. That's how simple it is. So there are in fact guides who have been there who have each individually lived through their own hell and have found their way and they are in fact guides. So if you are going into a strange land, and God knows,it's strange to so many young people. And they can avoid all that and ensure you a good trip. That's really what it is. It's that simple (OjibwayElder Art Solomon [Stiegelbauer, 1990]). It is not surprising that many of the people recognized as Elders have lived through difficult times, both personally and politically. Some have had problems with the law, with alcohol, with family separation; some have seen such things happen to others. What they have in common is the fact that they learned something from those experiences, that they turned to the traditional culture for understanding, supportand healing, and that they are committed to helping others, especially those of similar background. In traditional terms, an Elder is also a specialist in ceremonies, traditional teachings, language, and heritage as it applies to mind, body and spirit. As each individual is unique in their experience, learning, personality and knowledge of traditional culture, each potentially has something different to offer. Some individuals may be specialists in certain teachings, ceremonies or healing practices, while others have another expertise. Individuals seekingan Eider to talk to consider these factors in approaching an Elder, but often find the decision is a combination of personal attraction and the type of expertise needed for the particular situation. One quality, however, that is common to real Elders is expressed by this statement from a Native Centre Board Member: When you ask an eider for advice about tradition, you are also askingfor a kind of honesty and purity and the best oftradition itself which was the spiritual as well as the everyday. Elders What is an Elder? 43 are practical, they have practical situations to attend to. You can confide in them and just ask for direction and help yourself. Diversity among Elders offers choices to individuals seeking an Elder to talk to or be involved with. Such diversity also represents an area of strength in Elders' Councils, such as that at the Native Centre, in presenting an ability to offer advice in different realms. As an Elder at the Centre described: ...different Council members have different abilities--some to work more directly with helping with developing programs and training that is culture based. That doesn't mean that everybody would be called upon to do those things or would want to (Stiegelbauer, 1990). Despite differences, all of these individuals have a commitment to the traditional culture and an understanding of how it works. This is primarily what they have to offer urban settings. Yet, in the words of ElderArt Solomon, each elder is an individual. Each one is special in theirown way. In the next section I address how Elders come to have particular responsibilities, and later, how they come to be recognized by the community and what that means. Aside fromthe issue of age, a person becomes an Elder in the eyes of the community. That in itself is a process, as one Eldersaid, part of the process of life. Elders, however, are also practical people--people who live and make choices within an everyday life. Being an Elder requires a certain quality of person. It is also informal and something in tune with the cycle of life, with the natural way that things work. Becoming an Elder: A Learning Process 4 I am called a teacher in two ways. One is that I have learned the teachings, I wasn't just sitting around enjoying ceremonies. I was learning them, I was rehearsing them, I was practising them, until the day they asked me to stand up in the lodge and give those teachings. That's when I was recognized. On the otherside I have taught it to my children and raised them by it and lived by it myself so in that sense I am a teacher. I am qualified to teach because I live by the teachings and I raised my family by them. So it's not just that I am good at remembering and I am good at talking, but it's that I practice it and that I have put it into my life and the life of my family. For some Elders, the involvement with the teachings and the traditional life was a part of everyday life and evolved naturally. For others it was a near-sudden change, though they had some experience with the traditional context as younger people. Most describe taking on this role after going through the ups and downs, occasionally extreme, of another life--raising 44 S.M. Stiegelbauer a family, going through difficulties personal and political, or developing a long standing interest through a kind of apprenticeship. Consciousnessto the potential of this role and the ability to use what they learned in exploring it, all seems to come later in life, beginning in their late thirties and forties. The story presented by a female Eiderworking in Toronto, a Mohawkfrom the Akwesasne Reserve, provides an example of this process. This Elder had been strictly brought up as a Catholic and had followed that religion seriously as a young person. In her thirties, she began to attend pow-wows with her children in various parts of the United States. She would put them all in a station wagonand take off to camp out on the outskirts of the dance grounds. At one of these events she had a kind of vision that greatly influenced her in the direction of her life: I was brought up in the old ways and we lived on a farm and I was interested in herbal medicines. My mother neverspoke English and it's just the way I was brought up. I was a Catholic for 37 yearsuntil I had a vision to go back to the real, old ways completely. I had a visitor and I think it was the Great Spirit himself. He was a man. He was a man with a real smooth face and he had three eagle feathers in his hand and he had a beaded jacketon. All the beads and a beaded necklace and his pants were all beaded. And he glittered like a real bright star. He glittered so much that I had to rub my eyes. It was two o'clock in the morning. And it was really moonlit out. The stars were all out and it was in my tent. And I thought it was just somebody. I told him, I said, like I was in bed. I was real comfortable and I took two pillows and I put it together and I cupped my elbow and I laid sideways because I couldn't sleep. Then all of a sudden, I could hear this newspaper crumbling-- wow, what's that noise? Then he stood there. Within my reach and it was real moonlight out. I was in the tent. With the moonlight shining right in the tent. I didn't even need a light. And he glittered and glittered and he spoke my Mohawklanguage to me. He told me to go home. I was away in Oklahoma. I was at an eight day meeting. It was the seventhday of
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