Over the past two decades, especially in academia, there have been positive changes in attitudes about Indigenous peoples and a growing respect and place for Indigenous elders. There is a resurgence of interest in connecting with those who “hold culture” in the fullness of their years. Indigenous scholars have brought their need for traditional teachings and support systems into the academy as well. This change in attitude may well represent another “coming full circle” experience for humanity. As we mirror the loss and reconstitution of respect for those who have walked (and talked) before us, we can respectfully move together towards embracing the truth and fostering reconciliation within our academic institutions.
I am seeing and feeling growing momentum within the truth and reconciliation movement across Canada. I am also noting the appointment of full-time elders to many faculties and institutions across Canada and am reminded of the time I got to meet and talk with Indigenous anthropologist Bea Medicine (1923-2005) in 1998. She raised the role of elders in education and the need to clarify their input and involvement, while noting that “elders are not ornaments to be taken out and used occasionally.” They are a vibrant and necessary part of the educational and cultural systems, and they need to be treated as such. We need to better integrate them into the educational experiences of all students and normalize and elevate their involvement, so they are listened to. When elders are placed in a separate category from faculty and the rest of the academic community, a connection is broken, and they are displaced from key circles of learning and teaching.
Bea Medicine pointed to the use and abuse of elders by academic definitions and their “assigned” roles as “inappropriate.” She suggested “there was no need to designate or define a connection, that what the academy needs to do is activate, accept, and work with the transitions Indigenous peoples have constantly faced since contact with Europeans.” As an Indigenous scholar, elders have suggested to me that it is imperative Indigenous students take Eurocentric knowledge and balance it with their “Indian Ways” to ensure their survival and relevancy in today’s world.
Elders understand that educators rarely place a clear value on multigenerational input, or the integration of historic lessons and cultural messaging into modern learning. They understand this shift as a multicultural experience, with Indigenous peoples being one of many cultures who lose their children to mainstream interests in society. Students of every age are taught an academic curriculum that encourages individuality and questioning of everything. Elders cannot be approached on the same basis, so there is bound to be confusion as to their purpose.
Students need to see and feel the connection between themselves and elders, and they need liberal access to them to appreciate their many roles in education and culture in general. In urban academic institutions, access to elders is a difficult bridge to build and an even more difficult bridge to cross. Some non-Indigenous students may see elders as obsolete or too old-fashioned to have value in today’s world, and this can create a wide divide between them and Indigenous students. As we invite Indigenous elders into the academy, it is incumbent upon us to create a connection for all students, faculty and administration and ensure elders are perceived as valuable when it comes to learning and positive mental health.
Bea Medicine also spoke to the “mythic and mystic” perspective of elders in Indigenous culture. I would suggest that Indigenous cultures continue to be permeated with a “mythic and mystic” perspective that can get in the way of effectively grasping the true value of these teachers or communicating with them in culturally appropriate ways. In a sense, elders are often too far removed from our own lived experiences to be heard or understood and placed too high/or low to clearly see them as they truly are. We even reminisce about them in ways that can separate them from our present realities. This resurgence of respect and a return of elders to educational circles, also means we must remember to treat the relationship in a responsible manner, respect their humanity, let old perceptions and perspectives fade, and replace them with truth and humility.