Are Natives losing touch with our elders? This holiday season, be sure to not just listen, but hear their wisdom and take it to heart.

Presence of the Aged: Are We Ignoring Our Native Elders?

Dawn Quigley

It’s been a few months since I’ve seen him. And when I have a chance encounter while my car passes by it reminds me again of the lesson he teaches, though not a word he utters. In a world today with wars, elections, earthquakes, and pestilence, our focus is on the external conflicts, and at times rightly so. Yet, it’s the introspective lesson this elder teaches that this world desperately needs right now.

You see, my teacher, this sage older gent who I’ve never met, walks around our city quite a bit. Is he 70? Or perhaps even 80? It’s usually close to downtown that I notice him. Maybe you’ve seen him, too? With a bent over stance and brightly-colored vest he carefully, cautiously takes each step. Steps which we take for granted, or not at all. You may see joggers pass him and bikers weave around his aging frame. Yet, he’s out there in the sweltering heat of summer and again during the gusty gales of winter. In our Native culture we used to revere our elders. But do we still?

Most of us are running around, barely spending any time outside of our own selves, much less outside our cars. Our new cars visiting new store openings and racing back to our new modern homes to read up on the newest celebrity. Are new-fangled things all we have become? Is this all we admire? Is this our mode of education?

We value diamonds, but all that glitters is not gold. Isn’t it the extreme pressure of Earth’s tight hold that turns coal into diamonds? So it is with the rarities of the oceans. Pearls only evolve after taking an irritation in life and coating it with the balm of time. Could it be, too, this elder, who walks the town has been polished with the pressures of life—from the clutches of boarding schools and war, to the emotional grip of a lost loved one? He has passed from the darkness of youth into the refined light of age. But do we see his inner jewel? His inner pearls of wisdom hanging from a casing some might discard? Look past the outer crust to the inner core—it’s this new sense of self we should uphold. It’s this we must lay the foundation of our own education.

Don’t we also admire classic cars? We took more pride in a job well done back then. The GTO, to the Model T, to the Mustang, fill classic car shows while we peer in at souped-up engines. There’s something about a classic we appreciate—much like art, fine wine, and literary legends. That’s what we hold dear. Yet, what defines a classic? To be a classic is to have passed the ravages of time to emerge with age and polish. Classics are different, rare, like my town’s walking scholar, along with those Baby Boomers and depression children who have traversed through perils, like our generation saw on 9/11.

September 11th was a horrid day, yet our country has emerged wiser. This senior citizen’s careful treads through town makes me think we have it all wrong when we uphold the products when we should advocate a new reverence for our Native elders—our true classics.

Careening down the highway of life during the annual holidays remember: when you sit around the table admiring the newly purchased décor alongside your Auntie’s antique china and Grandma’s vintage stemware look up to see the true family heirlooms in the seats next to you. Rise in the presence of the aged; show respect for our elders. They walk among us, whether around the town or woven throughout our days. Listen to them; hear what they have to say. Someday, you will be the elder at the table. What teachings and virtues will you be most grateful that you passed on? Start a new tradition by honoring the old this year.

I will likely never meet my silver-haired elder, but he has taught me more than any textbook. I will always be grateful to this elder, for his walks remind me of what truly matters in life—to remember our Native tradition of honoring our elders.

Dawn Quigley is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, North Dakota. She is an assistant professor in the Education Department at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota. Dawn enjoys reading, writing, gardening and spending time with her husband and two children.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page