Through the Eyes of Elders

Aug 15th, 2012 | By | Category: 24-1: Communicating Yesterday's Stories Today, Web Exclusive
By Mary B. Robinson

Elders are the most valuable resource in most Native American communities. Elders hold an irreplaceable window to the past, each with their own one-of-a-kind perspective. There is no better way to learn about the history of a Native community than to speak with someone who was there and lived through it. Once an elder dies, their perspective and all of their information is gone with them, unless they pass it on to the next generations to keep alive. We should all spend more time appreciating and learning from the elders around us; their knowledge and information is more precious than anything that can be bought or sold. The stories that elders have to tell are priceless gifts to be cherished.

Recently there was a 3-part storytelling workshop at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Community College and the section where the elders spoke was by far the most interesting. I have to admit, I thought the elders might be the most boring part of the series. Sadly, I am afraid this is a sentiment shared by many of the young people of the community today. When the elders spoke, I found myself entranced in the stories they were telling. They had great imagery and detail in their descriptions, despite limited public speaking experience. While I was listening, I felt a host of things: excitement, laughter, sadness, and shame. I was ashamed of myself for not realizing the extreme value of these people sooner.

One of the men who spoke, Vernon Martin, had a long list of the nicknames of many of his childhood playmates. He remembered so many of them and each had a funny story. Some of the names he shared are still being used today. Each of the other elders nodded and smiled as he recited the list of names, and they all recalled fondly their days as children. Nicknames were and still are an important part of Native American culture, though there seems to be a shift away from this level of childhood simplicity. Nicknames signify a sense of belonging and community that was very commonplace in the past, yet today it appears to be dwindling with more and more nicknames being gang-related or having negative connotations.

The Elders showed me that storytelling is a cultural phenomenon which seems to be genetically hard-wired into Ojibwe people. Each of the speakers was interesting and eloquent, better than many “professional” speakers I have listened to. Kitty Anne (Martin) King was another speaker in the group who spoke about her grandfather and his nickname. It was a word in Ojibwe that Kitty could no longer remember how to say; it meant the hind quarters of a deer (before they had been cut up into meat). The name came from when he hunted and he would tie the deer’s feet together and carry it home with the feet across his forehead. He was known throughout the community since he would stop to share pieces of the meat with friends along the way.

Thinking about the old man carrying the deer on his forehead through the snow is such a great piece of imagery. I couldn’t help but think about how different life must have been then. It was much more common for people to share with each other and stop by unannounced to visit, often bringing gifts of food with them. Does anyone do things like that anymore? I have been in several houses where the elders were the ones doing the visiting. There are some who just spend the day going house to house, and it’s probably their main source of social interaction. I wonder how many are sitting alone wishing someone would stop by just to chat. There is so much knowledge just waiting to be shared.

In the past, people would visit each other (and often lived with their extended families) in much more closely placed communities. People sat together, especially in the winter time, and shared stories. One of the women speaking in the workshop said “no one stops to talk anymore, all the young people have their phones and their computers and no one even says hello to me when I walk by.” This struck me as being very sad, and I know I am guilty of it. Is it possible that we are all so busy we don’t have time to say hello anymore? Could this be the reason so many people feel disconnected and lack a sense of belonging? There is evidence that wanting a sense of belonging is one of the main reasons people join gangs.

Sharing and listening to stories can begin the healing process. All of the stories made a big impact on me, and I am sure I am not the only one. It was a privilege to be able to listen and learn so much. The Ojibwe language was not a written language until the last century; it was an oral tradition. It is more important than ever that this tradition be kept alive, especially since the language is now in danger of becoming extinct in America. The spoken language was at the very center of Ojibwe culture and still can be. The language can still be revived, and along with it will come the culture and the history. Stories serve so many purposes: they help maintain social order, they teach lessons, they bring people together. There are lessons to be learned in almost every story, even when a lesson hasn’t been intentionally planted. Almost everyone has some kind of an interesting story to tell, even if they don’t know it. My grandfather used to tell me that I could learn a lot if I would just listen, and now I know he was right.

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