Miigwech to our Elders

Thanks to Elders of Turtle Island: Shirley Horton-Kampa and Agnes Grover, of the Rainy River First Nations. Photo: Robert Animikii Horton

This is a sincere and humble message of appreciation and acknowledgement to the Elders who have made a difference in my life as teachers, counsellors and mentors.

To all those who have brought their strong and resilient voices forward in the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

And, respectfully, this piece is dedicated to ALL our Elders across Turtle Island.

This is for all the Elders who we told how much they were appreciated; and all the Elders who we didn't remind, or who we don't remind enough.

This is for all the Elders who bundled up, watching young people with sticks and skates from their community or their local Friendship Centre, play Friday night instead of hearing about it on the "Rez Telegraph" the following morning, so that when the kids asked, "Did you see my goal?" or "Did you see my save?" they could reply, "Of course. I wouldn't have missed it for the world."

And mean it.

Also, this is for the Elders who couldn't make it; but kept them all in their thoughts.

This is for all the Elders who burned sage this morning.

Laced sweet grass last night.

Who will dry tobacco or pick cedar tomorrow.

For the Elders who sit at desks, stand at podiums, or who will put together the drum they keep tomorrow -- at a conference, school, or centre of a community. Who watch APTN when the evening closes, North of 60 in the mornings over coffee, or who wait for the Leafs to play tonight. And those who cannot.

This is for all our Elders who fled the residential schools, those who did not attend, and for all our Elders, strong and resilient survivors, who made it through and held onto their language and teachings, or who did not, to all those who returned home to reconnect; those that keep our memories alive and who kept our lineages just as strong and resilient as they are.

This is for the Elders who share with us younger people what it means to be new mothers and fathers. And the Elders who do not tell us, but show us the values by how they live each day.

For all the Elders of the communities that struggle, the communities who flourish, and the Elders in the city, keeping touch and being there for the younger generations living afar.

For the city-Elders receiving voicemails and newsletters from their community, for the community Elders receiving colourful postcards and phone calls from family living in the big city, and our Elders who don't, but truly deserve them.

For all the Elders who run carpools to the workplace or conference, who can brighten anyone's day with a passing smile behind many joyful years of laugh-lines, and those who are asked to sew or repair regalia before the big weekend. And all the Elders who choose not to.

What makes an Elder?

Is it patience?

Compassion? Understanding? Holding our culture, languages, traditions, and knowledge of who we really are in their hands: hands that offer such to those that joined the world after them? The ability to serve as the true strength and foundations of our communities? As the greatest cooks of fry bread and soup? The greatest teachers, counsellors, dreamers, all at the same time?

Or is it heart?

Is it the joy you feel when you watch your grandson or granddaughter disappear down the street, walking to the school bus alone for the very first time; or is it when you feel the same for another child who considers you, an elder they respect and trust, their grandmother or grandfather too?

Is it the pride that you feel when a teenager stands up and proudly proclaims their clan, their language, or their traditional name? Or the concern when they choose not to; interwoven with a satisfaction that they understand free will -- as "they will appreciate it someday."

Is it that which reminds us by example what it means to be Anishinaabe, or Cree, or Odawa, or Sto:lo or Cowichan or Dakota? Reminding us -- by example -- that truth, bravery, love, respect, humility, wisdom, and honesty are more than just words.

Is living by example? Walking every word of your talk? Or walking without talk; just example?

I think so.

So this is for all our Elders who sit down with our children, console our leaders, teach our young men to walk with dignity and how to care for their newborn child, to show our young women how to be strong in spirit, but also how to shoot a three-pointer. And for all the Elders who want to but still look for the right way to approach us young people.

This is for telling us about Nanaboozhoo, singing songs in the language, and reading us "The Mishomis Book" twice a night for a year before we went to sleep as children. And then telling us, singing to us, reading it to us again. "Just one more time."

This is for all our Elders who show us that words can move the world, that silence can speak volumes. Who laugh from the spirit when you joke around in the language while playing cards or cribbage, or when it seems like you can change the course of a river or slow time to a crawl when we hear you speaking our language at ceremony.

This is for all our Elders who raised strong families, for Elders who have stayed up until three in the morning caring for their grandchild or great-grandchild with a milk bottle and songs because their parents didn't feel as ready as they should have been to care for the little one just yet. For our Elders without children who serve as a dignified and strong example for us younger people with grandmas and grandpas living far, or grandmas and grandpas living close but still a world away.

For all our Elders who know their own children are at home with their spouses and children, but still turn with a smile and a hug when another young person calls them "Kokum."

This is for all our Elders who sometimes shake their heads at us young people when we dye our hair green, get facial piercings, blast metal or rap from our car stereo systems while cruising the reserve roads, but still invite us inside to catch up with us on life over bannock, fry bread, coffee, pop or tea regardless.

This is for all our Elders who attend the pow-wows, at times with arthritis, but who still lace up their regalia and dance to remind the younger ones how it's done, rocking the pow-wow grounds. Elders who watch from fold-out chairs in the shade. The Elders who live afar, but still keep us who attend, or those who dance and those who don't, and those that carry the flags and staffs up front; in their sincere thoughts.

This is for all our Elders who keep us connected to our pasts and our histories, who keep us dreaming and imagining our legacies and futures, but always keep us grounded in living for today.

This is for all our Elders who not only open our meetings, ceremonies, gatherings, or feasts with a prayer, not only often play the role of leader, comedian, conflict resolver, and the one who pull us back on track; but also for when you offered that young person a ride home from the gymnasium when it got a little chilly afterwards that night after volleyball.

This is for our Elders who remember to put out spirit dishes and tobacco on the resting places of those who they grew up with; who put tobacco ties and teddy bears down for those much, much younger that have moved on to the next world before they, and those who remind us to continue to do this in our day.

This is for our Elders who congratulate us on our successes (sometimes with a silent nod and a smile) and Elders who choose not to, our Elders who reassure us that we would "get it right next time" when we stumble, our Elders who knew the right words to say when we younger generations go through hard times, and those who know younger people who have gone astray -- who can't find the words yet to reach them, but keep them in their prayers every day.

This is for all our Elders who have watched, up close or at a distance, young ones growing up; who wish them well when they leave to start college, take a new job, or get married; still reminding us about when we were young. Also for the Elders who, with a smile and an embrace, say "Boozhoo Cityboy!" or "Boozhoo Citygirl!" when we, who were raised in the cities or suburbs, return to our communities; reminding us where our roots remain strong and that we remain welcome.

This is for our Elders who speak up and Elders those who silently watch our follies, but sharing their voice when we need it most. Elders who remind us of our true names, true histories and roots, and the true names of the lands we are to cherish.

This is for young Elders, old Elders, Elders who we have learned to let go of; but still hold in our hearts.

This is for working Elders and stay-at-home Elders. Elders waking to another elder each morning; and Elders waking alone. Two-Spirit Elders. Elders living on our communities, Elders in the suburbs, Elders living in the cities, Elders without homes of their own, and Elders on the streets. Elders who are lodge keepers, drum keepers, and pipe carriers. Midewiwin Elders and sun dancers. Hunters and medicine people. Storytellers and councillors.

Teachers and speakers. Traditional, spiritual, believers, non-believers, or taking it one humble day at a time.

Thank you all for who you are, what you do, and for being in our lives. The world would be missing so much for us younger people if you were not part of it; in our lives, in our days, on our journeys (and in our memories for those that have traveled on). You do make and have made this world a more dignified, spirited, and enjoyable place for all of us.

You are appreciated!

Please pass this sentiment along to all the Elders in your life or to anyone one whom you love who has been lucky enough to have had an Elder bring that laughter, guidance, advice, the teachings, insight, the rights words at the right time, and a light where it has been needed; into their lives.

Our Elders truly make our home, home.

And home is what catches us when we fall -- and we all fall, sometimes.

Robert Animikii Horton, "Bebaamweyaazh", an Anishinaabe member of Rainy River First Nations of Manitou Rapids and from the Marten Clan, has built a reputation as a progressive and outspoken activist, contrarian writer, and respected orator on an international scale, speaking on topics such as community organizing, political/social/economic justice, and youth empowerment. He is a sociologist, social and political activist, and spoken-word poet.

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