What does it mean to be an Elder?

I was having a conversation with some friends recently and we were talking about how our Native American neighbors demonstrate such respect for their elders. I experienced this first hand when, years ago, I brought a group of teens from the church where I worked to do service on Minnesota’s Red Lake Reservation. There is a Catholic mission there where Benedictine sisters manage a school. They have a large old convent where we stayed. The pastor and the Sisters had worked together to make our visit meaningful. We did service for the parish and the school and they arranged for speakers to come to educate us about the history of Red Lake and Native American traditions. We toured the reservation including their turtle-shaped school and visited some of the older towns up around the lake where some of the more ancient traditions such as burial rites were still being practiced. The highlight was a dinner put on especially for us by the women which included fish fresh out of Red Lake and Indian Bread.  It was a warm, joyous occasion.

Over our time there, it was common for our speakers/meal planners to show up a bit later than we expected. I found this disconcerting and a bit disrespectful. But Father Bill, who clearly loved the Red Lake people, informed me that they operated on Indian time. “For the Native people,” he said, “The most important person in the world is the one you are talking to right now. It is not polite to rush a person when they are having a conversation with you.  So while we white people are all worried about being disrespectful by being late, they feel it is disrespectful to cut someone off who may need to be listened to.” This is where the term “Indian time” comes from and I understand that it is typical indigenous trait.

The tribe knew we were eager to learn and to serve and the social director of the nursing home invited us to come and spend some time with their Elders. Each of the teens was given a book with questions to ask and they were to interview the Elders and write the answers in the books. These books were to be given to the families of the patients after they pass on. Later, back at the convent, the teens talked about their experience over pizza.

The respect the Native people show for the Elders didn’t escape their notice. The social director spoke to them at length at how the Native people look to their Elders to be keepers of their heritage and to gain wisdom. Unlike what they had experienced back home where kids tended to rebel against guidance from older people, the Native people accepted this guidance and demonstrated respect and gratitude.

Anyone who  has ever attended a Minnesota Pow Wow knows that there is a special place set aside for the elders in the grandstands and honoring them is always an important part of the opening ceremony.

The friends I was having this conversation with were elders themselves. Most were in the 60’s or 70’s. We talked about what it means to be an elder in our own culture where elders are not necessarily honored. The term “elderly” connotes dependence and loss. We wondered: Do we have something important to share with younger generations and, if so, how do we go about sharing it? One thing we all agreed about is that we have to be sure to spend time with younger people rather than always hanging around older people.

Many of us were grandparents and several stories were shared about meaningful conversations with grandchildren. We talked about the importance of good listening and resisting the temptation to preach. “We need to encourage them,” one person said. “When my grandson shares some radical idea, instead of arguing with him, I tell him what a deep thinker he is.” Another suggested that we need to be cautious, though. If a young person is harboring ideas that are wrong, we should tell them the truth. “We can be respectful, though,” she said. “I say something like, ‘I used to believe the same thing, but I later learned that that doesn’t work.'”

Another person suggested that when they are talking about something harmful, we shouldn’t hold back the truth just because we want to be nice to them. We want them to know that we love them enough to tell them the truth about harms that could happen to them.”

It was an important discussion for Elders to be having. While many of us wish our young people would want to listen and learn from us, we need to consider how we approach them. Take advantage of teachable moments and always speak with respect and love.

6 thoughts on “What does it mean to be an Elder?”

  1. I used to hear ‘respect your elders’ quite a lot when I was growing up. It assumes you’re supposed to listen to your elders and treat them with deference, often mistaken for respect. Respect is earned based on evidence of being someone worth respecting. I agree with Charles Nelson; you respect people who treat you with respect and show they deserve it. Deference is giving more politeness and listening to the demands of others. They are not the same thing, but often treated similarly.

    I believe this works with respecting elders. We’re expected to defer to the ideas of elders, to weigh their ideals and beliefs more heavily than we might normally do with people in our age group. This is based on the idea that elders have more life experience than younger people. My parents also taught us to respect those in authority. It’s not until I became an adult that I learned how respect is earned. Some behaviors of elders don’t deserve respect.

    1. Absolutely. What I think is intriguing about the Native Americans is that they expect their elders to be wise. I am guessing that puts a bit of a pressure on a person who is aging to get their act together if they haven’t done so already.

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