What can we learn from Indigenous elders?
Every time we drive across the Midwest, I am struck by how many adolescents and so few elders I see. I’m talking about trees of course. People call these huddles of adolescents “forests,” but from what scientists are uncovering and what Indigenous people know, these are not forests (Beresford-Kroeger, 2010; Luoma, 1999; Wohlleben, 2016). That would be like calling the children in an orphanage a family. We can do that metaphorically, but we know that is not a reality.
Why are elders so important? In forests, the elder trees (“mother trees”) keep the younger trees nourished, taking from their own stores to keep the young growing (Beresford-Kroeger, 2010; Luoma, 1999; Wohlleben, 2016). They send more mycorrhizal networks through their roots to family members but also keep non-family members nourished, decreasing their own growth to share with the community. That’s an elder!
Where are humanity’s wise elders? They used to be in every community.
In American First Nation communities, individuals are raised with vast community support to develop their unique gifts. With greater experience and maturation, the elders take their role as guides for the younger (though every age group is a guide for the younger). Elders tell encouraging cultural stories, providing guidance in learning life skills.
Each person has a gift that can serve a community of equals. In these traditional societies, individuals are guided by their dreams and visions on a unique path. An internal guidance system, a moral compass, develops within each member of an Indigenous society. Because these systems are guided also by the natural landscape and laws of nature, the moral worldview is similar among Indigenous adults around the world (Four Arrows & Narvaez, 2016).
In the Indigenous worldview, well articulated in North American tribes, the world is understood to be a great Mystery, with physical reality only a superficial expression of the greater spiritual sphere. Humans were the last to be created and the most dependent creatures. Though humans are believed to be innately good, they are vulnerable to making mistakes and need the guidance of elder beings like plants and animals, who were created first. So the rest of nature is full of elders!
Among humans, each individual is assumed to have a spiritual center that the individual (with community support) is responsible to cultivate. Facing tests of one’s capacities alone are undertaken as a measure of one’s spiritual development.
But individuals can be misled by human frailties like “fear and sloth, selfishness and impulsiveness, jealousy, inconstancy, conceit, irreverence, lust, and temper” (Johnston, 2005, p. xiii, in Ross, 2005). Traditionally, those who lose their way into one or more of the frailties are counseled back onto the spiritual path by elders and are expected to purify their hearts in order to again get in tune with the Great Mystery through individual dreams and visions as well as cultural practices of stories and ritual. The self-esteem and self-confidence of the individual are maintained despite the occasional failure because the community has faith that the individual is inherently good and there are procedures to restore balance (Ross, 2005).
The elders are a key part of the circle of life in these communities. The elders are patient and kind caregivers to children. They tell children the stories that provide the history of the people, that show the way to live well and the dangers of human frailties. They fuel the imagination toward cooperation with all members of the local landscape, human and other-than-human. Elders are not afraid of mystery, of dying, of living fully. They are tuned into the living nature of the world and not fearful of losing themselves in it.
Stephen Jenkinson, in his book, Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble, points out that although there are more old people now, there are fewer elders than ever before. Aging has been robbed of elderhood.
Jenkinson’s book is a call to those who are aging to help restore elderhood, to foster an “elderhood-in-training.” Instead of being afraid of being old and doing everything to mitigate the looks and feel of aging, he suggests that we allow wisdom to grow again in the midst of our collapsing civilization. He calls the old to a pilgrimage where they/we can “grow sturdy and sorrowed from the labours of a deep and disheveling contemplation of what has become of age in our time.”
Elders understand and convey to others the woven-togetherness we are and suggesting to the young that the “road that was fashioned for you in the Time Before, by those you will not meet, to give you a way of going down against your plans and good sense, to give you a way down and into the Mysteries of this life, the Mysteries granted you that you would not choose for yourself, the Mysteries that would yet make of you a human worthy of those coming after” (p. 387)
Elders embrace mystery and ambiguity, encourage trust and sense of connection to the past and future. They help us surrender to mystery as we make ourselves and are made by our relations. They help us find our way on the road set before us.
What steps can we take to take up elderhood, for an elderhood-in-training? That is the next topic.
Beresford-Kroeger, D. (2010). The global forest. New York: Viking.
Four Arrows, & Narvaez, D. (2016). Reclaiming our indigenous worldview: A more authentic baseline for social/ecological justice work in education. In N. McCrary & W. Ross (Eds.), Working for social justice inside and outside the classroom (pp. 93-112). In series, Social justice across contexts in education (S.J. Miller & L.D. Burns, Eds.). NY: Peter Lang.
Jenkinson, S. (2018). Come of age: The case for elderhood in a time of trouble. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Johnston, B. (2005). Foreword. In R. Ross, Dancing with a ghost: Exploring aboriginal reality (pp. ix-xix). Toronto: Penguin Canada.
Luoma, J.R. (1999). The hidden forest. New York: Henry Holt.
Ross, R. (2005). Dancing with a ghost: Exploring aboriginal reality. Toronto: Penguin Canada.
Wohlleben, P. (2016). The hidden life of trees: What they feel, how they communicate (J. Billinghurst, transl.). Vancouver: Greystone Books.