A lot of people want to know when someone becomes an Elder (capital “E”).
During my involvement as a reviewer in two Native Studies textbooks being introduced into Ontario high schools this coming fall, editors were regularly calling to ask if certain First Nations citizens should be referred to as Elders.
I suggested that a good test would be to call these individuals and ask how they wanted to be described. Anyone who replied “Elder”, I said, wasn’t one.
Every First Nations person who achieves senior citizen status can rightfully be described as an elder, as in “elderly”, but the magic number seems to vary, depending on the circumstance. A friend was just in my office inviting me to join a “seniors” billiards league with him, for which the qualifying age is 50.
That seems a tad young. I didn’t sit in front of a computer until I was 50. Come to think of it, I didn’t even start to grow up until I was that age.
Good luck to celebrities like Brittany Spears who produce their autobiographies when they’ve reached the ripe old age of 17 or 18, but, comparatively speaking, they’re still in life’s diaper years.
It seems that a better way to define such an important term as Elder is to provide examples of people who seem to fill the bill. For me, the first prerequisite of an Elder is that they be someone from whom we can learn important things about how to live a good life.
Three names immediately come to mind, all of them having passed into the Spirit World in the past few months.
I met Ernie Benedict at First Nations Technical Institute on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory east of Belleville. We were developing the first Aboriginal-specific post-secondary program in journalism , and Ernie was asked to be an advisor for our media faculty.
The first time he visited the campus, I was speaking with him outside the FNTI building on a beautiful, sunny, late spring day. I happened to glance over Ernie’s shoulder and saw a huge snapping turtle trudging up the steep driveway incline behind him. That image will stay with me forever.
Elders in FNTI programs did more than open and close meetings, a practice that Anishinabek Elder Gordon Waindubence might include in his wry definition of “drive-by spirituality”. We relied on Ernie’s experience and accumulated wisdom about journalism – he began writing, editing and printing his first newspaper in Akwesasne on a high school Gestetner. (Younger readers can Google Gestetner.)
During one class he talked about how mainstream media so often treat Native Americans as if we are invisible. He offered the example of a young Inuit boy who ran for miles to notify authorities after stumbling across the 1935 wreckage of the plane in which American humourist Will Rogers died.
“Not one story mentioned the name of that Native boy,” Ernie told us, a lesson I have recalled on many occasions since.
Few teachers can command attention in the way Merle Assance-Beedie did when touching on her residential school experiences for participants in cross-cultural workshops. You could hear the proverbial pin drop when she described how her idyllic childhood years with loving parents abruptly switched to the trauma of internment at four residential schools.
Merle never had to elaborate on the cruelties she endured; the impact they had on her for decades told in her voice, and brought to tears many who heard her speak. The fact that she paid a visit to one aging clergyman who had been particularly abusive to her spoke volumes about Merle’s unshakeable conviction that kindness and compassion are better solutions than hate and revenge.
Hundreds of teachers, social workers, police officers and government employees have participated in cross-cultural workshops we call “The Missing Chapter: what you didn’t learn about aboriginal peoples in school”, a title contributed by Merle.
When I once hesitatingly told David Gehue that I was surprised by some of the, shall we say, “colourful’ language he sometimes used, he snorted “I’m not a holy man.”
What you saw was definitely what you got with the lumbering Mi’Kmaq healer, who had been tutored by some of the most respected traditional teachers on Turtle Island.
Blind from an early age following a scuffle with his brother, David was groomed by the old people in Indian Brook who believed that the little boy born with pure white hair was destined to do important things.
Like many true Elders, he had to experience life’s bumps before accepting sacred responsibilities, in David’s case the duty of carrying the Shake Tent ceremony. He helped scores of people – Native and non-Native – deal with all manner of pain and sickness, with results that often baffled practitioners of Western medicine.
He told those who sought his help that he could only relay things about their condition that the Spirits showed him; that ultimately, each of us has to do what is required to heal ourselves.
David’s death followed by a month that of his brother with whom he had the childhood scuffle that caused his blindness.
May their spirits be in a better place, and shine in the night sky with all the other stars.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anmishinabek News.