It was pounded in our head that our way of life was useless and should be forgotten and abandoned. It is only by going underground that native spirituality survived the onslaught of government sanctioned genocide and assimilation policies.
One of other ways it survived was that ceremonies and other teachings were handed down through the native language and practised. Nothing was written for fear of discovery by the church or government official. One older gentleman once told me that they used to practise the ceremonies in the early 1940s and 1950s by erecting a sweat lodge or camp site deep in the woods so that the minister, priest or Indian agent could not find them. Today is a different story. We are no longer silent. We walk proud as indigenous nations as we take up the drum, songs, dances and ceremonies.The spirit of the many First Nations has been awakened from a century and a half of slumber and is welcoming the teachings of the elders and the ceremonies. This is happening through personal healing and wellness programs. Special events are started with a ceremony such as smudge. This is a process of purifying the mind and spirit with tobacco or sage. Native powwows are becoming a regular events in dozens of First Nations every weekend during the spring and summer. Continued After Advertisement Below Advertisement In establishing an identity as an Anishnaabe, children and adults are seeking traditional names. Getting married by native custom is becoming a trend; funerals are being conducted in the way they were done prior to the arrival of Europeans. In addition, there are elders conferences in major cities throughout the year and talking circles are happening in First Nation communities. As an extension of pride, some communities are going back to their old names. For example, Cape Croker, the birth place of my grandparents and mother, is called Neyaashiinigmiing (pronounced neeyosheeng- g' meeng). I am glad to see in my generation, some of our elders and seniors taking their rightful place in our communities as moral leaders. Assimilation and forgotten lessons did not happen overnight, nor will the revitalization of culture and language happen at the snap of a finger. In the mean time, we need the knowledge and wisdom of the elders so we can pass it onto our children and their children's children, if they choose to learn about it. With respect to who is recognized as an elder, it should be understood that this distinction and honour is not simply a matter of chronological age or gender, but other qualities such as the following. He or she cannot be judgmental. It is necessary to have the respect of the community. The ability and comfort in working with children and youth is a critical factor. Being a role model in voice and action leads to credibility as a leader. Walking the talk of the Seven Grandfather Teachings or philosophy, namely, respect, humility, wisdom, courage, unconditional love, truth and honesty gives distinction. Above all else, he or must be free of drug and alcohol abuse. While fluency in the language would be an asset, it is not an absolute necessity. Those were only some characteristics of what constitutes a traditional native elder. About 25 years ago, I asked an elder, "How does someone become an elder?" I was still in my infancy of discovering my culture then. He replied, "Real elders do not have to tell anyone who they are. They are recognized and accepted by the community." As a Christian and a follower of the traditional way of life, I have the highest regard and respect for both. Neither is above or below the other. The lessons I learn from the "book" and the elders go hand in hand. Ernie Sandy is a member of the United Church, and the Elders Council at the Canadian Native Centre in Toronto as a Traditional Teacher. Article ID# 1214429