In many societies, especially tribal societies, elders are often revered and cherished for their experience and accrued wisdom. While some more industrialized societies have a habit of hiding “seniors” and “the elderly” away, others (including more and more industrialized societies) have traditions of keeping elders nearby to teach and train younger people, to pass on the collected stories, and to share their experience and wisdom in what it is to exist. In my Native American culture, is it overtly expressed in the teachings that I have received most of my life. My mother used to make me stand up for elders during city bus trips. Of course, as a young boy, I found it tiresome and annoying, but after many years, am so glad that my mother taught me this important lesson of respect. The elders of most Native American tribes are honored as leaders in the society–their collective wisdom is essential to the ongoing survival of the nations. The respect towards and honoring of elders is a central value of most–if not all–tribal societies.
So, what then has gone wrong? When did some elders become bullies? A few years ago, during a heated discussion at a meeting of church leadership, an older Native American woman said to a younger leader, “You need to listen to me, I’m your elder.” Now, generally, I would agree: we all need to listen to our elders. In thinking back to that particular conversation, however, the particular “elder” was using her status to discontinue conversation of an issue that was important to everyone around the table. The young woman to whom this was directed demurely backed away and nothing more was said to the satisfaction of the “elder.” The young woman’s response was typical of that of many other Native Americans who back away in order to save face, i.e., to not show disharmony or contradiction. This, too, is a common tradition of at least Dakota people. We would rather not be involved in direct confrontation. If there is not implicit and explicit agreement on something, no action will be taken. This particular “elder” knew that this would be the response, so she was effectively able to shut down the whole conversation.
When did disagreeing with an elder become “disrespectful?” We have confused some things in our understood values. We need to better understand what it is to be an elder in our tribal societies, both on the reservation and in the cities. It is a difficult task to delineate when an individual Dakota adult becomes a Dakota elder. It is definitely something that is not claimed by the person, although later they may simply silently acknowledge it by receiving a prepared plate of food at their table from younger people during a powwow or other community event. I often hear individuals stating that they may be “an elder-in-training.” Elderhood is something that is conferred upon an individual. It is something that is humbly accepted. It is then celebrated over the years when finally the individual begins accepting the gifts, the responsibilities, the accountability and the leadership that has been placed upon them by the community. So, it shocks me to hear individuals say that I need to respect them because they are my elder. That individual has claimed elderhood. Have they earned my respect? Have they shown me by the example of their life that they deserve to be listened to and waited upon? Generally, if I see a physically older person, I show them some deference and respect. However, to hear “I”m your elder” used to cow an individual or group generally informs me that the individual is NOT spiritually mature enough to be an elder. Sometimes, physically older individuals are just old people.
Some elders are younger: they exhibit the traits of an elder but generally would never claim elderhood and might deflect the honor of being called an elder in humorous ways. In Native American societies, humor is often used to keep the attention away from one’s own individual achievements or individuality, in general. In opposition to this, too many “elders” are claiming the spotlight and accepting accolades by their cronies in less than honorable ways. When a medicine man or any grass-root revolutionary begins chaiming the public spotlight to make an appearance, then they have given up any claims to being an elder. Humility is a driving force behind what it means to be an elder. Using the power of tradition to oppress others is not a value to be held in esteem.
As tribal peoples, still trying to hold on to valued traditions, we have reached a time when we need to cling to the greatest and most useful of these traditions and their associated values. However, we need to be aware that these traditions do not always have the expected results within a society in which they were not originally intended. Some have come to use our own traditions and values against us in order to fulfill their own desires and selfish goals. These are usually the same ultra-Indians that I have written of elsewhere. It is time to reclaim our true traditions and values. Being an elder is hard work: it involves giving away yourself to others in order to be filled up by the love of others. It does not involve using your status as elder to enforce your own view of things on others. I give thanks to God for the many elders in my life.