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Elders Aid Efforts To Retain Culture

Donna Pinay, Cultural Centre

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      DECEMBER 1973      v03 n12 p11  
Sarain Stump artwork
[Sarain Stump '73]

The Cultural Centre has held many workshops in the past few years so that Elders of different cultural backgrounds from various parts of the province could attend and relate stories and narrations of the past and present. They tell of their observations of culture then and now.

The Centre feels that since so much of our Indian culture and tradition is held within the heads or hearts of our Elders, we should make every effort to record it now before it is too late.

Traditionally, old people were not forgotten as they sometimes are nowadays. Everyone in the Indian Society had a place. Elders, because of their experience, held an honoured and respected position within the community. They were teachers of life, and young people listened and learned from them. Elders would also instruct the young in the performance of the necessary tasks of life.

One method of teaching was through stories and legends. The tale of legendary characters such as Wesakaychak (Cree), Crowhead and Spreadwings (Chipewyan), Inktome (Assiniboine and Sioux) and Nanabush (Saulteaux) as fascinating. In each and every legend there is some truth, moral or lesson to be learned.

The religious customs of a tribe were performed by the Elders. A young man, in his search for identity through vision quests, would go to an Elder to have his vision or dream interpreted. A baby would receive his or her name from the Elders. Medicine men were often Elders and all people consulted the Elders when advice was needed.

This education system, informal as life itself, was successful because every individual worked for the livelihood of the tribe.

Today with the upheaval of our way of life, we sometimes neglect or overlook our old people and the contributions they can make to our betterment.

Culture is a way of life as interpreted by different people. It is a meaningful expression
of gratitude that one is alive in a wonderful living world. I think this is the keynote in the
Indian way of life which might well be and could have been a pillar of strength for Indian
people today.

Had there not been the conditioning of the Indian people to come to despise their own
culture, their way of life that had existed for centuries, the Indian today could very well
have bad a band in moulding and shaping a wonderful contributing Indian nation. But since
we have not been allowed to really express ourselves in religion, art, dance and song, we
have only been as walking dead.

In order to restore life in our people we must return to our own way of life. Our own way of
respect to our creator, the father of all "Kisamunto". Perhaps in this way we would once again
be able to be proud of who we are and why we are.

Smith Atimoyoo

Sometimes the old people feel this. They know what was life "way back then" and it must disturb them to see the Indian people in the situations they are now. Before it is too late, efforts must be made to preserve the knowledge and wisdom of the Elders and efforts must also be made to return the respect and honour that they deserve.

Workshops usually begin with the pipe ceremony. This ageless ceremony is performed with a dignity and reverence that is difficult to describe. As the pipe is passed from man to man in a clockwise direction, one can feel the serenity and the realization that this sacred ritual has been performed by our people since their beginning.

Smith Atimoyoo, Director of the Centre, speaks to the Elders and welcomes them to the workshop. This is typical of his welcoming remarks:

"To our Elders, many of our customs are lost, we are trying hard to revive these customs, only by talking with our Elders can we accomplish this. We see our children day after' day and wonder what will happen to them if we do not do anything. I am not very knowledgeable of Indian ways ... by sitting and listening to my Elders talk, I feel I will learn something from them. We are very happy to have Elders attend our workshops in Saskatoon. The stories we tape are kept and looked after. We respect the people who come and offer their help by these discussions. Many people consider their Elders as a nuisance. They are here for a purpose. Let us listen to them..."

And with this, the Elders proceed to talk and listen to each other. They speak in their Native tongues and the topics are varied. I would like to quote some phrases spoken at various workshops in the past.

"When the white man took our children to their boarding schools, they forbid them to speak their Native tongues, and taught them about their own language and religion. He (the white man) is partly to blame for our loss of culture. We have white men coming into the reserves to practice their teachings. Why do we let this happen? If we work together we can revive our customs. When I go home, I will call a meeting with the elderly men and will discuss this further." (Tom Peigan)

"I do not have much to say. I do not like to speak before my Elders. My parents are firm believers of their Indian beliefs. We Indians have been given our own way of life and beliefs, this is how I was brought up. We are trying hard for our children to keep our Native tongue." (Dan Bird)

"It is a wonderful idea to help our people, our children regain the benefits and customs of our grandfathers. We, the Elders, must approach our young people and tell them how to seek this information, only through them can our customs revive." (Dan Pelletier)

These all express the hope that someday soon all young people of Indian ancestry will regain and be proud of their cultural heritage.

All stories and talks are recorded by the staff. These tapes are translated into English and written out. Copies of both the tapes (in English and the Native tongue) and the written material will eventually be available to those who are interested.