Honoring Elders &
Learning What They Have To Teach
-by Jerry Buie
I have been around the Dance since 1997 and around Native American Ceremonies since 1996. Throughout my experiences I have had the opportunity to be around many of our native Elders. My partner and I have had the opportunity to live closely with our elders and to listen very intently to their teachings. I know that many of those whom we call Elder were taught by the old people and understand how traditional ways work. Someone like Lanie Thom literally carries with him generations and centuries of knowledge.
In the Dance Community we must work with a blend of cultures and different understandings. We are all participating in a ceremony that is of Native American origin and culture. Attending our Dance is like jumping into stew pot; prepare to simmer for awhile! We have city and country folks. All colors of the Sacred Wheel are present— Red, White, Black, Yellow and Lavender. We have Druids, Faeries, Witches and Priestesses. Truly all tribes are represented around the Tree. We come to it seeking guidance and vision from a native tradition. In this search how do we approach the ones who the people themselves have designated as the Elders who are carrying that tradition?
The Most Sacred Thing
In spending time over the years and observing this co-mingling of cultures, in observing those with good hearts and hands in wanting to grow in this way, I am often struck with how simple we as Dancers think this work is. I think the barrier in this understanding is a cultural one, between the Red tribe in association with others. In our American Culture we assume a book with instruction is all that is needed to know how to fit the slots together. What I know about working with the Elders is they slowly and carefully build on basic knowledge until the student reaches a point of understanding.
To work with medicine is like making a cake: you start with very basic ingredients and slowly bring the ingredients together until you have the desired result. Learning to carry medicine, pour lodge, or carry pipe requires the pupil to slowly build upon core concepts until they grasp the bigger picture (chop wood, carry water). I have observed people entering ceremony, and within a short period of time expect to be “promoted” out of seniority versus their commitments to the Elders and being taught properly. In learning to carry the Sacred Things, you must learn to carry the most Sacred Things, which is the service to our brothers and sisters. With all that has been taught to me this appears to be the core foundation in understanding how to move.
When I approach any ceremony that is not indigenous to my own culture I must do so in respect that what I am participating in is a gift of the people to whom it belongs. I have danced the Naraya many times, yet I do not own this ceremony. I must be observant and sensitive to those from whom these ceremonies originate.
Linear vs Circular
Often we have heard Clyde refer to Linear and Circular thinking. At times the differences in the two appear to complicate our understanding between cultures. Our Native Friends and the Ceremonies that we participate in are not based on Linear Thinking, but rather Circular, using the Medicine Wheel as a guide. Our non-Native way of thinking is that things happen in a graduated, linear process— in fact our culture is designed in this fashion. Some approach the dance from a place of Dancer to Teacher to Elder, in a hierarchical manner. I once heard an individual exclaim he was now an Elder because he had been to a number of dances and he considered this a promotion within the Dance community. In our culture we are encouraged to think this way: we go to Elementary School, Jr. High, High School, we get our Bachelor’s Degree and move on to Graduate Work, at which point we are considered “knowledgeable”. This form of thinking does not work in Native ceremonies. One does not get established as Elder by seniority in reference to dance attendance. In my experience our Native Friends do not look at life in this way.
Life, Death, Birth and Rebirth are all very circular in process despite what our western mind tells us. We are all interconnected with each other. It is through this interconnection that we learn to operate. No place in the sacred hoop of life is more important than another. We are all sacred within the context of the circle and honoring our place is the work to be done, versus seeking promotion or status.
I have had the privilege of going to Sundance. In watching the Sundance, there is no promotion of who is Elder and who is not Elder. I had to have someone familiar with the ceremony point out to me who was leading the ceremony. It is simply known and understood that attempting to BECOME an elder is not the way to become an Elder. Consequently, the Fire keeper understands his place, the Drummer understands his place, and the Dancer knows his place. All places in the ceremony are honored. No one’s place stands above another. All places whether they are held by male of female, Elder or Child is honored and respected.
Seeking Guidance from an Elder
If we really want to embrace this way and these teachings as a way of life, what are we willing to offer to see this happen? I would suggest that there is an appropriate protocol in learning how to carry Medicine and to be taught the Medicine Path in a good and honorable way rather than making assumptions that one is qualified to do this work.
When an individual wishes to learn or to be a student, it is appropriate to approach an Elder with an offering that is respectable and compensatory for the time and energy required to teach you what you are requesting. Traditionally, in the days of old, if I wanted someone to do a piece of Medicine Work for me, or to teach me, I would take them a Buffalo Robe and Tobacco. That Offering was considered to be a respectable and honorable Offering. Today we make some sort of offerings of Tobacco, Red Cloth, Pendleton blanket, cash, food, and other items, or those things that represent our dedication and our intent to walk a Good Path.
When you make an offering, it does not mean you are paying the Elder to be taught, you are asking them to consider your request. It may be that the Elder comes back to you and says no. It may be that the Elder comes back and says come back and talk to me in a year. It may be that the elder anticipates your request and is ready to work with you. It may be that nothing is said. Emma, Clyde’s Auntie, was known for answering questions a year after they were asked. Remember that the Offering is simply a request to be considered and should not be given with the expectation that you will get exactly what you want.
Working With An Elder
In working with our Elders, we are learning a new way of existing, walking and re-considering what we think is real. It is interesting to me how many people request to be taught something new but still hold on to the past, holding on to our own rigidity about what should or shouldn’t be. Although this is a difficult exercise, we need to learn to lay down our old robes, or as Charles Lawrence says, “drop our dry bones,” and be willing to accept with vigor the opportunity to learn and walk in the “being something new.”
Often our lessons come out of left field— when we are carrying water, while we are chopping wood, while we are working and tending to task. Sometimes people become very impatient and they want to push the opportunity to be in the limelight, when the lesson at the time is learning to carry the water and chop the wood. In my experience of ostensibly learning to pour a sweat, I chopped wood and carried water for seven years, wondering when I was going to be taught. What I can promise you is that those seven years were the very foundation and essence of the things I needed to learn.
I want to encourage people to work with their Elders in a good way— to listen carefully with new ears, to not jump to conclusions or to dismiss long-winded sermons, but to be open to the possibility that the people that we have made offerings to have more to offer us than what we might imagine. If we sit, listen and learn to incorporate these things into our lives, we will learn to walk in a more balanced way. That does not mean our Elders are perfect or that they are looking for perfection from you. We know that they struggle with their own challenges. The quality of a good student is the ability to be flexible like the willow, to be teachable.
Please consider these words as we learn to honor our Elders. There is more to honoring than handing them Tobacco and Red Cloth with a few bucks. In honoring them we sit attentively, we listen, and we learn to take what they give us into our hearts and into our minds to walk a wider path.