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Aboriginal Elder

What They Do

Insider Info

An elder is a community's historian, storyteller and advisor. Elders have knowledge related to everything from band history to traditional medicine.

"Providing continuity, that's where the elders provide the greatest service," says Joseph Dupris at Humboldt University. He is a Lakota Indian.

"Providing that comfort zone, that knowledge that you know something about the past, not everything, but you know something. Part of the problem with that is that so many things are happening that most of the people only have part of the story. So you have to have enough of the elder base in order to have a fuller base."

In some cases, they play a significant role in deciding the future of the native community they represent.

"When we have the signing of the treaties, they were the last people to have a look, on our side," says Perry Roberts. He works with the Portage la Prairie Friendship Center. "They would make sure that everything they needed was included.

"They would have the final say as to what goes on. And the chiefs that did sign it would respect their requests. If an elder sees something he doesn't like, and he did bring it to the chief, what the chief will do is turn it over to his tribe.

"And they would all talk about it, and the elder would point out what he doesn't like or what he does like. Everyone would have equal say about what they think about it, and it would come to a consensus, and the elder would bring it back to the chief."

Programs within different communities have been set up to include elders in other areas of the decision-making process.

In Nunavut, Canada's newest territory, Joanasi Sarpinak is a chairperson on the community justice committee in Igloolik. The committee has received $50,000 from the Justice Department to help organize several rehabilitation and crime prevention initiatives.

Inuit elders work with adults to reform young offenders. Elders accompany young offenders out on the land and teach them traditional skills and knowledge.

"The elders we have here do the traditional counseling," Sarpinak says. "They do counseling the way they used to live. We don't use some of those things anymore, but sometimes it helps a lot when they do the counseling."

Elders have a strong role to play when it comes to developing good relationships between different members of the tribe, or a good relationship with one's self.

"They try to take the anger away from the offender," Sarpinak says. "Sometimes the offender is angry at something if the offender's parents were dealing with alcohol or gambling."

The decisions of elders within a community can have powerful effects.

"We try to have them understand if our elders, like our ancestors, did not work very hard, we would not survive," says Sarpinak. "Right now, we would be nothing if our elders did not work very hard for us."

Women elders, according to Roberts, have a different role in aboriginal society. Roberts is a member of the Cree Nation.

"You can go to a woman for advice, but you can't really ask a woman about ceremonies because women have their own ceremonies. Women are water carriers and men are fire keepers," he says.

"A woman usually is not allowed into a sweat lodge because she has her own purification powers when she has her moon time, her monthly time. So she doesn't need to go into a sweat because she has the ability to cleanse herself, whereas a man has to have a fire keeper and a sweat lodge and purify himself that way."

At a Glance

Give guidance to your people

  • Elders play an important role in aboriginal justice
  • The decisions elders make can determine the course of a man's life or the life of the tribe
  • There is no set path for becoming an elder


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