Thursday, April 5, 2012

The True Meaning of an Elder

May and Skip Sam with multi-generations of their family  

I've thought many times, for many years, about the way the term Elder is used by the First Nations here in British Columbia, and I wish, quite frankly, that we had an equivalent concept, history, and application in the non-native population. I wanted to learn more about how Elders themselves understand the term, so I interviewed five Coastal Elders recently, and it was moving to hear them talk about the roles they play in their communities, and their hopes for the children and the future. In fact, when I called May Sam, (pictured above with some of her large family), to set up a time to come to see her and her husband Skip, May immediately suggested I come at 3:30, so I could be there after school and would see them within the family setting that includes great-grandchildren and all the generations of their family. 

Scott Sam
May and Skip's son Scott, a "young Elder", or "Elder-in-training", as he puts it, talked to me about the two uses of the term elder in his culture. It can be simply a term to describe all the older people ("We'll invite the elders"), but it can also be the carefully applied title describing those people who have accumulated great wisdom and who are consulted as a respected advisor on family or community matters. This is the use I wanted to hear more about. May and Skip are often called on to help a family in crisis, to pass on their teachings of the Coast Salish to the younger generation (May does this often with university students too) or to pray with a family facing illness or death. Scott is often called too as a witness at important moments or family events.

Alberta and Dan Billy and me (Star) at the Quadra Island United Church

My longtime friends Alberta and  Dan Billy are Elders of the We-Wai-Kai band of the Kwagiulth nation on Quadra Island and they told me about how they were chosen, even as children, to be taught the ways of their people, so they could pass on these teachings to the next generations. Dan has been a band councillor now for more than 40 years, working on Treaty negotiations most recently, and Alberta worked for years to bring about the apology from the United Church for the abuses of residential schools,  while she was also an active member of the Quadra Island United Church herself. I think that's one of the things I admire most about Alberta: her ability to bridge cultures as she works for the betterment of all of us. She's now involved with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but also with workshops and ceremonies that help the non-native culture understand the wisdom and history of BC's First Nations.

May Sam with her great-grandson, reading  Yetsa's Sweater, 

I'm always so impressed with how important it is to the Elders to pass on the teachings to the younger people and especially to the children. May Sam is an accomplished knitter of Cowichan sweaters and was the "model" for the wonderful children's book Yetsa's Sweater, which, as a matter of fact, I'm giving to MY granddaughter as a birthday gift this year. It's time for us to spend more time learning from each other, building bridges, and celebrating the rich heritage of all the peoples of British Columbia. We are so lucky to live here, and to have the Elders to learn from.

Posted by Picasa

No comments:

Post a Comment