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I asked a question to my teacher one time about Elders and how old you have to be. I said, “how old do you have to be to be an Elder?”
He said, “how old is old? I don’t know how old is old.” He said somebody had asked him that one time and he told him to go over to another man and ask. He said, “you’d better ask h i m – – I ‘ only 75, he’s 84.” So he went over and asked that 84 year old man and that 84 year old man said, “1 d o n ‘ t know, but there’s a man up t h e r e – – h e ‘ s 88. Ask him,” He went over t h e r e and asked the 88 year old man and he said, “ask that man over t h e r e ~ h e ‘ s 92.” The 92 year old said, I don’t know how old is old. That man over t h e r e is 97. Ask him.” I n e v e r did find out how old you had to be to be an Elder. We all have a different concept of what an Elder is. You have
to listen and not ask any more questions. It takes common s e n s e to make it so that you can understand (Gladys Kidd,
Ojibway, Curve Lake).

Elders should be role models for everyone else. Elders should be teachers to the grandchildren and all young people because of their wisdom. Elders should be advisors, law-givers, dispensers of justice. Elders should be open to everyone. Elders should be knowledgeable in all aspects of First Nation’s culture. Elders should be teachers for everyone of the past history. Elders should be recorders of history, not only orally but to be preserved in print. Elders should be teachers of values important to First Nation’s People to be passed on from generation to generation. Elders should be teachers of language and oral history. Elders should be teachers of natural medicine. We place
g r e a t importance in our Elders. Their directions for us will guide our lives.

The term “Elder” can refer to anyone who has reached a certain age and in some cases is used interchangeably with the term “senior” as in
senior citizen. In both cases, the individual has had enough life experience to have something to offer those behind them. In a sense, Elders are “experts on life.” Their exact expertise may be dependent on the nature of their experience, but in one way or another it involves some aspect of traditional knowledge and culture, or an interpretation of their experience in traditional terms. What they learned from their experience and how they interpret it is as important to being an Elder as the experience itself. It is also important to be able to communicate that learning to others. While age is a part of this, it is not the only part. As one Ojibway traditional teacher described it: “some people say that it isn’t a matter of age, but to a certain extent it is when you have experienced enough of the stages of life that you can look back and reflect on them…some people have been able to do it more completely than others. When you’re 35, you’re only about halfway, so you can’t talk about all of life, not from experience.” The aspect of enough experience, and enough learning, includes life experiences and experiences with aspects of traditional culture and knowledge. Learning enough traditional knowledge is usually the result of the influence of an older person who acts as a teacher and role model. Being a role model for the path of life is an important part of being an Elder.

The role of teaching Elders has become increasingly meaningful in First Nation communities, especially u r b a n communities. Elders are important for their symbolic connection to the past, and for their knowledge of traditional w a y s , teachings, stories and ceremonies. It is very common for respected Elders to be called upon to help communities with decisions regarding everything from health issues, to community development, to governmental negotiations regarding land use and self-government. In the context of First Nation communities, the term “Elder” can have many meanings. Most commonly, it simply refers to an older person. It can also mean someone who has been sought by their peers for spiritual and cultural leadership and who has knowledge of some aspect of tradition.

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