The elders

A guest post from Manitonquat, Medicine Story

An old friend and long-time member of our circle here in New England has been collecting a number of elder women in her area and brought them together to make a grandmother circle.  We need the grandmother wisdom, of course, and we need to bring the consciousness of western society to attend to them, and to the elders in general.  Wherever I go I see that is a lost value, when it used to be one of the most important stays of society.  I see elders being ignored, uncared for, and not thought about.  I see them standing in lines, and not at the front of the lines.  An elder would never have to stand in our old cultures.  I see them now being sent away from their homes, put in homes for the elderly and rarely visited.  In the old days they would be given a comfortable seat and brought whatever they need.

Neighborhoods of today are impoverished, losing their elders, their wisdom and their stories.  A people without their elders are not a people. The elders carry stories of their times, the people’s history, and stories are the glue that hold a people together, make them know who they are, see where they have been, ponder where they are going.  Without the stories of the elders we have no history, we are not a people, just a mass of struggling, stressed out individuals.  You have a story – it tells you who you are, what you are learning, what you need to learn.  A community of people must have a story to know who they are, to take pride in their history and humbly see what they must learn.  The sense of a community, the pride of a village or a tribe has largely been lost, and the people are not even aware of their loss.

Wherever I went as a young man traveling about Turtle Island, seeking the elders in every nation, I was always welcomed – and called ‘grandfather’ right away by those I had never met. I was unknown to them, but I was an elder to be cared for and listened to with interest and gratitude.  “Sit here, Grandfather,” they would say. “ Here’s a blanket for your shoulders, Grandfather, here’s a coffee.  Tell us about your people, can you tell us a story from them?”  And that began when I was only 38 years old!

Sadly, times have changed since then.  The old ways are being lost, communities are being scattered, and the elders are not being attended to.  The last of the great elders who taught me so much in my life, Hopi Thomas Banyacya, told me many years ago, a few months before he went on his last journey, that the young people were not paying attention, did not care about the sacred places and what was happening to them, were lost in drugs or fighting – with each other or with the dominators.   Thomas, a man who had inspired so many, who had talked to the world at the United Nations, to a world that did not listen, left us discouraged.  I remembered how glad he had been so long ago when I traveled with him, wanting to know about the old ways, the prophecies, and what I could give the world.

Of course the elders regarded me as a youngster, but they were very grateful that I had come respectfully to learn from them.  And learn I did!  I was amazed to find all the answers I was seeking about what was wrong with people and our world.  And that was from people who had no knowledge of western academics, no knowledge of the history, of the arts and sciences of the other cultures of the world.  Few of them had gone as far as the 5th grade in school, many did not read or write and spoke English as a second language.  At one gathering of Lakota elders to discuss what was happening to the Black Hills, I was welcomed – they had to translate their deliberations in Lakota to me and I was embarrassed that I could not even speak my own language as they did, but I was introduced to them by one who told them, “We must respect this man – his people have had to put up with this for four hundred years.”

The elders asked me what I was seeking, and I said I wanted to know what was wrong with us, why human beings are still hurting each other, going to war, oppressing and abusing people, so greedy and power hungry, and caring nothing for other life or the Earth itself.  They told me that people had forgotten their instructions.  That got my attention – what are our instructions?  To respect all things – everything in the universe – everything is one thing and sacred, and we are a part of that one thing.  Everything is relationship.  To hurt another person, another being, would be like thoughtlessly harming a part of your own body (which people also do, not paying attention to what they eat or drink or breathe).   They said I had been sent there to learn and spread their message to others who did not come and would not listen to them.  They told me only to go where I was invited – they had enough of missionaries.  But they said to tell the people this was not ‘Indian’ knowledge, it was ‘human being’ knowledge, knowledge of how people could become and stay human, by caring for each other and for all the creatures and all the Earth.

The cultures of today – from a long and unconscious history – have actually reversed the old values.  When I was taught them by elders now long gone, it was generally accepted in the native communities that both the children and the elders should be honored, respected, and considered first among all the people.  Today adults do not treat children like people – more like pets that don’t understand our ways, that need to be taught, to be housebroken, disciplined, before they are allowed in our homes and our company, and think that old people have outlived their usefulness, don’t understand the world of today – so send them away.

And how important to our lives, to the lives of our families, our communities, to our future and the future of all life, are the lives, the bodies, the minds and hearts of the little children, the young people, and the elders!  But the cultures of today disrespect children and elders, put them in institutions that do not love or listen to them or care or think it important how they feel or what they think.

Children and elders have different perspectives than adults.  Adults think because children have not learned the stuff we know that their thinking is not worth listening to.  That is sad and it is stupid.  Children notice injustice right away and they protest – “That’s not fair!”  Then we try to explain why the injustice exists which we have seemed to just accept, and that’s not good enough for them.  They want to do something about it.  They know the world should not be that way, and if we know it too, why don’t we fix it?   They can spot a phony reaction to them from strangers right way that we don’t even notice.  They have held on to their immediate joy in and connection to nature, to animals and all things that grow.  They show us things we have not seen in our rush to get somewhere else than where we are.  We put them into schools that grade and degrade them to the point of humiliation and we accept that because it happened to us and we lived through it.  They are taught to compete and to value or reject themselves and others because of the demeaning systems of mis-education to which they are subjected.

We act as though children’s feelings are unimportant unless they support our agenda.   We say strange things like, “Why the long face?  Give us a smile!” or “I really don’t have time for this now” when they are sad or angry.  If we don’t share those feelings we think they shouldn’t have them.  The message they get is their feelings are not important to us and so they themselves are also not important to us.  Meanwhile the huge machinery of capitalism is bent on seducing them to buy or urge us to buy the latest toy or technological gadget for them, and to teach them their happiness lies in stuff, in material possessions, in having more and better stuff than other children.  Do they have help from us in figuring that out, in finding their joy in playing with us, in closeness to us and to each other?   No, we are busy worrying about what we can buy them for Christmas or birthday presents.

Elders and children are relegated to the sidelines of our lives, where we are doing the important work that pays for the house and the care and the clothes and the food and medicine the elders and the children need but cannot earn.  So we send the kids to day care and pre-school and kindergarten and on through college, and we send the elders to nursing homes and elder housing, so someone else can care for them while we are doing all this important work.  We have given the elders and the children to others because we are isolated and alone and they are too much for us.

How did that happen?  It happened when human societies grew too big, grew out of human scale.  When we no longer had neighbors to gather and work and play with together, we fell to devising institutions to care for everything.  Instead of building our homes together, growing our own food together, teaching our children and each other together, we made institutions to do all that for us.  So now these institutions are poisoning our air, our water and our food, and diverting all the profits to the banks and the few owners, making the rich ever richer, the poor ever poorer and larger.  We used to live in communities and helped each other with everything and stayed close, which satisfied much in our longing for social stability and closeness, in being with and helping others, and the joys of playing with children and listening to the stories of the grandmothers and the grandfathers.
The grandmothers and the grandfathers are missing their grandchildren.  All elders perk up and come alive when little children are around.  And the children are missing their grandparents.  They love their grandmothers and grandfathers of course.  The joy of a child in the lap of an elder is radiant for both of them.  The children want to hear their stories, again and again, and the elders love to tell them, again and again.  That is universal and human.

There is a wonderful new book I want to recommend to you all, it is called THEIR NAME IS TODAY – “Reclaiming Childhood in a Hostile World,” by Johann Christoff Arnold.  I came across it being given away at a conference center where I was doing a workshop – the center was helping to promote the book.  Arnold is an elder of the Bruderhof communities in New York, and his indictment of today’s culture as being hostile to children is ‘spot on’.  I had already finished my own book of practical advice about our relation to children, THE JOY OF CARING FOR CHILDREN IN THE CIRCLE WAY or “It Takes a Child to Raise a Village,” but before it went to the publisher I was able to insert it into my bibliography and tell folks to read it.  Read it and let others know.

By the way, if you haven’t heard yet, I am still offering my book free to anyone who emails me and asks for it.  Two clicks and a pdf comes back to you that you can bind or put in your e-reader.  Many are doing that and giving me very good feedback, telling me how much it has meant to them, so I am hoping they will tell their friends, write reviews on Facebook and Amazon, mention it on Twitter, and so on.  I am not so interested in making a big profit, only in getting this information disseminated, as far and fast as possible while I am still around to see and talk about it, as well as my other books.  I am open to speak, to make circles, for interviews with writers and talk shows.  I don’t organize – I write and I talk – but if you invite me I come.  Have books, will travel!

The elders from whom I learned are all gone now.  They didn’t travel, they didn’t know how to reach the world beyond their community – and even in their communities their influence was declining.  But something made me come to them.  Now I am the elder, one of the last of my generation left to carry on their instructions while I can, and I will, but at 85 only the Great Mystery knows how long I can continue.  And when I cannot continue I am glad I am able to leave my books that carry the message for coming generations.

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