March 5th, 2018

“So, what exactly is an elder?”

That was my question to Big Pete. Pete came on the Longest Walk from his home on the Pit River tribal reservation in northern California, near Mount Shasta. Pete is an imposing man. Everything about him is big, including his heart.

Big Pete sat down across from me at the kitchen counter. He pondered my question for a moment, and then he said,

“A person isn’t an elder in the tribe just because he or she is old. It’s not just because of age.”

I asked, “So, what are the qualifications?”

Pete looked straight at me and replied, “An elder is somebody who you respect instantly just because of who they are and how they act. Wounded Knee is an elder. Your Buddhist friend over there is an elder.”

My Buddhist friend, Senji, is a Japanese monk, and, yes, he definitely is an elder. Senji has a quiet dignity and presence that is very attractive. He doesn’t say much (until you get to know him, and he gets to know you). Senji is a good listener and he is quietly observant. He knows how to pay attention.

Wounded Knee, on the other hand, loves to talk. He is brash and funny…and wise. The man is seventy-six years old. He doesn’t need to impress anyone, and he makes no effort to do so. He uses his experience and knowledge to help others. Most men of his age would be satisfied to sit at home, but not Wounded Knee. He wants to walk with the younger folk, even if he can only shuffle along for a short time before he gets tired. Wounded Knee knows things. He has an integrity that few people ever achieve.

Native Americans honor their elders. Elders always eat first. They are always treated with deference and respect. Likewise, true elders treat the young with respect and give them encouragement. Respect is a two-way street. The young folks can see that the elders are wise, and the elders are smart enough to know that the young are the future, the only future there is.

In some ways, this situation is alien to me. I live in the white American culture that embraces a malignant form of individualism, where mutual respect is seen as a quaint relic of the past. I have often heard old people (and not so old people) in our society bitch about the young: “I wasn’t like these kids back in my day!” The young return the favor by mocking or ignoring the old, some secretly hoping for more laws allowing for euthanasia. I can’t really blame young people; some of the folks senior to them have grown old, but not at all wise.

I think that for the Native Americans one factor involved in becoming an elder is simply survival. The Indians have endured genocide. They have dealt with epidemics, like scarlet fever. They currently struggle with alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence. The fact that somebody in a tribe even lives long enough to become old means that they have done something right. However, being an elder means that they also have the capacity to pass down their wisdom to the next generations. They have to care about the young. They have to bless those who follow them.

I am trying to think of the men and women who have served as elders to me.

Nobody comes to mind, except for my grandmother.



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