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
"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
"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