One of the great values Native Americans share, but often missing in American society, is respect for elders. If there is an issue floating around, we all know it won’t be finally settled until the elders have spoken-everything else is just words and ideas. Elders always have the final say (as far as “final” goes in Indian country) and they usually have the most perspective from which to draw. Our elders are honored at gatherings; given their food first; given food and other gifts to take home; given first place in all activities; never interrupted; and shown respect by always being given the seats of honor. Our elders have lived through the things that we have not and because of their experiences, they have had many years to think about things and derive wisdom from applying the best knowledge to real life. Also, they listened to their elders, who listened to theirs, and so on…
We have often heard White folks say they were “really touched” by what an Indian elder had to say. It is true, many of our elders are able to speak with not only wisdom, but compassion and truth, all coming from the heart. This kind of real, lived experience really touches people. By that I mean, they feel life-giving words of correction or nurture through these words. Words that have been seasoned through life experience have a sacredness to them, sort of a primordial power. This is something people forget in American society and among followers of Jesus because words are used too much, often meaning too little. The words have not made it through a long journey so they end up being somewhat superficial, even when they are the correct words.
I remember when I was a young man pretty full of myself, I would attend church or conferences or class and have the thought, especially after a guest speaker talked, “I could have said all that.” How often I meet young folks today with a similar attitude. They are well educated, charismatic and brilliant, in fact, much smarter than me. Their words sound good but the power from their words soon wane. A decade or so ago, a young man even told me once after I made a presentation to a fairly large crowd, “I could have said everything that you said!” In times like these, I never seem to have a quick response, “maybe so,” I said, “maybe so.” Now that I’ve had a decade or so think about it, I think I’d like to respond to that young fellow by saying something like, “you can say the right words, but have you lived a life that makes you worthy to speak them?” Our words must travel some distance before they really have integrity and lasting power.
If you want to get to know me, or perhaps if you want get to know other people who have had to live difficult journeys because of the color of their skin, their ethnicity, their race, their gender, their stance against injustice or any number of other concerns that you may not have had to face, (or that you could easily escape) you have to come within “touching distance.” You have to get up-close and personal in one’s life to understand the depth in their words. You need to learn about their journey before their words can touch your heart.
My favorite short story author is Barry Lopez. In “The Salmon” he tells the story of a man who is so impressed at the salmon run that he decided to build a monument in the middle of the river to honor those salmon. He worked diligently at making that fish made of stone reflect all the colors and shape of a real salmon. By the next year the man was ready for the salmon to behold his tribute. They eventually came rushing in only all of a sudden to turn around, and head back downstream. It was then that the man, his “guts falling away from his heart,” realized his own irreverence. The salmon monument was perfect and as such, it was perfectly reprehensible. In its beauty was the great error. The monument did not reflect the journey of these long traveled elders. The monument was not worthy of the moment he had waited for because he neglected to really understand the fish. The image of the fish that he knew, contained the unimpaired impairment.
“When he stood beside the fish [monument] he realized for the first time how flawless it was. That the ravages of the upstream journey were nowhere revealed.” (Barry Lopez, Desert Notes… River Notes…, 1990:113).