I am a 57-year-old Dakota man, and I suppose I am considered an elder, at least in Indian Country. Lately, I have noticed that I am asked to say the prayer before meetings begin more frequently -- an honor usually reserved for the elderly. So, I guess I am an elder.
During a conversation with an acquaintance a few years back, he asked me what was really important to me. After thinking about it for a while, I answered him something to the effect of, "I would like to be known as a person who has acquired a considerable amount of knowledge and wisdom in my fifty-some years here on this earth. I would like to be known as a person who treats everyone fairly. I would like to be known as a person who has the courage and honesty to stand by my principles. I would like to be known as a person people could come to for advice when they wanted or needed it..." I was thinking about the elders I had known as a child when I answered his question.
He appeared surprised and asked, "What about having an important high profile job or getting elected to the tribal council?"
I replied, "Yes, I would certainly like to have a high paying important job and/or get elected to the tribal council; but if you are in one of those positions, you have to confront someone nose-to-nose every now and then. I've been there and done that, and although I am still capable of doing that, I think that type of behavior is best left to people who are younger than me."
His question reminded me of a similar conversation I had with my advisor when I was in my doctoral program at UND. I was around 45 years of age when I entered into my doctoral program. One day I jokingly told my advisor when I got my doctorate, I was going to kick back and take it easy. My advisor looked shocked and said, "Erich, in our world (non-Indian), we are barely getting started at 50.
Another time, I was explaining to a non-Indian why a war-chief gave up his position at a "young" age" and assumed the role of an advisor. "A war chief is supposed to do everything that the warriors following him do," I said. "How do you think a man who is over 30 is going to match up with young men who are in their late teens and early twenties? Not very well, especially in hand-to-hand combat," I said. I went on to say, "if they lived long enough, they turned their responsibility over to someone younger than them."
I also attended a workshop at which an older person was explaining the stages of life we Dakota's go through. He made a lot of sense. One of the more profound concepts I got out of his teaching was this: "You can't turn the clock back. Once you've passed from one stage to the next, you are there because it is natural for you to be there." My point in regards to this blog is, "if you are an elder, than you behave like an elder."
Anyway, back to the point of this blog; as I was saying, the elders I knew as a child are so different than some of the elders I know today. As a child I was taught, mainly by example, that elders were dignified, were patient, were honest, and were fair.
Today, most of the elderly I know are also this way, but what about the one or two that don't follow our ways? I am thinking about one elder in particular. This elder uses fouls language at basketball games, lies about the hours worked, lies about other people, is obnoxious and rude in public, etc.
Here's my answer; treat them as you would any other elder. For example, a few times I caught my grown children and their friends making fun of this elder, so I reminded them, "_________ is an elder to you, and you should not be saying those bad things about _____."
Once, one of them replied, "but Dad, ________ lies so much..."
"It doesn't make a difference," I interrupted him, "________ is still an elder, so don't make fun of _______."
Because they respect me, they listened to me. But what about the many other young men and women out there who do not have a parent to admonish them when they make fun of an elder who is not behaving like an elder?